Each year, hundreds (if not thousands) of Muslims communicate in a raspy, croaking voice punctuated with wracking coughs. Before any of you easily frightened start to think about bioterrorism, fear not. This illness, affectionately dubbed the “Hajj Cough,” usually strikes those who are lucky enough to go on Hajj, the yearly Islamic pilgrimage situated in Saudi Arabia. It is estimated that two million people each year congregate in the holy cities of Medina and Mecca and complete certain Islamic rituals that comprise the pilgrimage.

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As is the case with most of my family vacations, my dad decided just a few weeks before departure to fulfill our obligation to complete Hajj in December 2006. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar-based, the month to complete Hajj, Dhul Hijjah, varies. In 2006, it fell in December—the perfect vacation time for any student. So after a few weeks of visa issues, rescheduling final exams, and other preparations, I found myself, along with the other people in my mosque-organized Hajj group, on an Emirates plane bound to Jeddah. No travel vaccinations, Hajj manuals, or careful packing could truly prepare me for this faith affirming journey.

Once it has been confirmed that a person is going on Hajj, certain things need to be done before embarking. Any lingering debts must be paid, you must ask for forgiveness from anyone you may have wronged, and write a will. It is basically getting all your affairs in order in case of death. Luckily, I have not wronged too many people (or so I hope), and emailing your whole address list to ask for forgiveness is the way to go. Oh, the benefits of technology. Also, given how most of us choose not to dwell on the ever-present threat of possible death, it is an interesting exercise to write a will. While I sadly have no real assets to my name, I trusted my older sister would look after my treasured books. Besides the forced contemplation of possible death, there is also a lighter side to this process. It is customary for friends and family to visit you before you leave.

Oftentimes, they give you gifts, and they ask for special prayers to be recited on their behalf. It is said that those who are fortunate enough to be able to come to Hajj are specifically called by Allah—it is a true honor.

From the very beginning, this trip demanded patience. Patience in the airports, both in the United States and abroad (I have vowed never to travel through Heathrow ever again). Patience with airport officials—if one does not speak the language, talking louder in said language will not make one understand you any better. Patience with other people in our group—while I understand your child’s desire to only have a specific type of chicken sandwich from a specific restaurant (which, of course, is out of the way), it is not necessarily the parent’s prerogative to fulfill their child’s wish at the expense of everyone else.

However, once the plane from Jeddah landed in Medina, the city where the Prophet Muhammad spent the last years of his life, all the petty annoyances from the journey were quickly forgotten. There is a certain peace in Medina that belies the crowds and busyness of the city. Our hotel was right across the street from the women’s entrance of Masjid al-Nabawi, the Prophet’s mosque. Originally built after the Prophet emigrated from Mecca to Medina, it has been extensively expanded into a beautiful marble edifice, which also houses the tomb of the Prophet, signified with a green dome over that area. It is common belief that upon first sight of the green dome, the first three wishes that one wishes for will be granted. Being cautious about covering all my bases, one of my wishes was for all my prayers during Hajj to be answered.

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The first sight of the green dome in the moonlight is breathtaking, and even the most jaded cannot affect indifference. We remained in Medina for five days. Every night we would go to the mosque in the middle of the night and spend our nights in different prayers; everyone would do their dawn prayers together. Regardless of how jetlagged, sick, or tired you were, you felt thoroughly rejuvenated upon entering the mosque. As the sun rose, parts of the roof would open, allowing sunlight inside, and chirping birds would flit around. After dawn prayers, we would sleep until breakfast was served. Luckily, our hotel focused on serving a large array of tasty food—I still remember the dessert table fondly. During the day, we visited other historically significant mosques in the city, and battle sites significant in early Islamic history. While it has always been hard for me to feel connected to early American history (after all, my Indian parents came to the U.S. on British Airways, not on the Mayflower), I felt connected to these mosques and the city itself. Medina will always be waiting for me whenever I return.

From Medina, we took a bus to Mecca, which houses the Kaa’ba and is the direction in which all Muslims pray. Even in pre-Islamic times, this was a place of pilgrimage. Covering the Kaa’ba is intricately woven black cloth containing Quranic verses. It is a breathtaking sight. Thousands of people are doing tawaaf, a circumambulation around the Kaa’ba while reciting specific supplications. While the surrounding mosque has been expanded over the centuries, it is hard to fathom how many people are able to fit in this space and how many countless others have been here before, and will be in the future.

The actual core rituals of Hajj span over four to five days. All the men are required to wear ihram, two sheets of unstitched white cloth. While one sheet is secured with a belt over the waist, the other sheet is draped over the torso. Women also tend to wear similarly plain white clothes, though the color does not matter. As our group joined the multitude of white, I could not help but feel a part of something bigger. Even while performing tawaaf days later after Hajj is over, this feeling remained. I vividly remember how once a father in front of me was holding his infant, and everyone behind him, myself included, was trying to make the baby smile and laugh.

After performing the initial tawaaf for Hajj, everyone hurries between Al-Safah and Al-Marwah seven times, reenacting the time when Prophet Ibrahim’s wife, Hajar, similarly ran between these two mountains while searching for water for her son, Ismail. Today, the path is paved with marble, and there is even a metal railway making a pathway for those in wheelchairs to be able to complete this step. It is humbling to see the number of people in wheelchairs or are otherwise disabled who undertake the difficulties of Hajj.

After this component of Hajj is completed, a day is spent on the hills of nearby Arafah, the place where Adam and Eve are said to have descended from Heaven. Tents line the hills, and the Saudi government has organized the tents by country and Hajj groups. The fact that our group’s tent was downwind of the bathroom fortunately did not interfere too much with our prayers. We spent a day in quiet prayer and reflection of each of our relationships with Allah. It is recommended that, for the few minutes before the sun sets, one stands beneath the open sky and prays. Standing outside the tent for those few minutes, I was struck by the widespread silence and peacefulness of the moment as everyone reflected on their desires. Any anxieties about the future, past regrets, and present worries were forgotten—there was peace beyond any understanding of it. Later, I wryly thought that this is what Oprah must mean by “living in the moment.” While the other components of Hajj, like stoning the walls representing Satan or sacrificing an animal to give to the poor, are important, too, I know Arafah will be truly unforgettable.

After our actual Hajj was complete, we stayed in Mecca for another two weeks, so we had a chance to visit the Kaa’ba multiple times. Sitting in front of the Kaa’ba, the hours pass quickly, even when you’re just staring at the Kaa’ba, the surrounding marble walls, and adorned minarets.

Time also passes quickly in avid people-watching. There are people from all over the world, places only really seen on maps. Yes, Kazakhstan is an actual country, not a fictitious place of Borat’s origin. Many Muslim countries have a separate government department that helps people with their Hajj preparations and visas. Many also have their own housing and other facilities in Saudi Arabia available for its citizens. They also give people distinct clothing, oftentimes depicting the country name or flag symbol. From afar, one quickly recognizes the light blue clothing of Indonesians, and the multi-patterned dresses from Sierra Leone. It is also amazing to hear so many languages spoken, and to witness how Islam encompasses so many varied nationalities, cultures, and languages.

However, I did find that with my limited Arabic and the pervasiveness of English, I was able to communicate with a variety of people. I remember an Iraqi woman from Germany telling a few women from my Hajj group about how the males in her family had been killed under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. While it was difficult to say anything meaningful with limited language, our empathy transcended any common language. Also, while there are so many different sects and divisions with the practice of Islam, I was struck by the solidarity of Muslims during Hajj. Though everyone is concerned with ensuring that they fulfill their rituals and prayers, for the most part, people still share their prayer rugs with you and squeeze together to make room for you. People sitting next to you in mosques would freely share with you their food and water—the meaning of simple hand gestures and smiles are universal.

While I treasured the level of spirituality achieved during the pilgrimage, seeing so many different people and cultures convened in one area reaffirms one’s faith in humankind. All the negative media attention that Islam and Muslims have received for the past seven years is almost laughable in the light of what I’ve seen and experienced. It is a comfort to know that these places will always be there for this reaffirmation. And I know that I will always leave with that signifier of shared experience, the Hajj Cough.

 

Huma Attari only suffered from the Hajj Cough for two months, and hopes that her father will plan another family vacation soon. A recent graduate of U.C. Berkeley, she is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.
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