By Huda Julie Webb-Pullman
A writer from New Zealand announced Islam in Gaza
In late September I received a phone call, offering me a trip to hajj – leaving in seven days! Initial excitement was quickly followed by a reality check – how much would it cost? $8000, I was told.
“I don’t have $8000, I don’t even have $1000” I replied“That’s okay – it will be paid for you. Do you have a current passport with at least six month’s validity?”
“Yes,” I replied, “a new one!”
“Are you fit to travel, and for performing hajj, and can you get meningitis and flu vaccinations tomorrow, and a medical certificate declaring these?”
“Yes, I’m sure I can.”
Head whirling, I called my doctor and arranged for the vaccinations and medical certificate. The next week passed in a flurry of preparations, phone calls, expeditions to get necessary items like comfortable walking shoes – and intense gratitude to the unknown person who had made it possible.
As a new Muslim, the opportunity to perform hajj was something I had thought a lot about in the year and a half since reverting to Islam. To be honest, I could not see how I would ever be able to do it – the cost represents a year’s income for me, a year’s living costs working in Gaza – how could I justify sacrificing a year’s work for Gaza, for hajj? Doing something that would benefit me at the expense of all the potential good I could do for Palestine with the same amount of money?
I knew I would have to do it one day, but that day seemed like it would have to wait a very long time.
Then suddenly, due to the incredible generosity of an unknown benefactor – here I was, on my way to hajj. Well, if the visa came through… after an initially-anxious few days, I decided to stop worrying and leave it in the hands of Allah – and the visa arrived at the check-in counter of the Auckland airport only hours before the flight departed.
My first lesson of hajj had been taught, and learnt - be patient, and trust in Allah!
It was a lesson that was to be repeated many times in the next month, one that needed repetition, and that I still have not mastered, but have improved my marks, insha’allah.
Our first stop was Madinah, home for many years and the final resting place of our Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). It was my first real confrontation with the ummah – and I use that word deliberately!
It is no accident that hajj is described as the women’s jihad!
From the moment we tried to enter Al-Masjid al-Nabawī we discovered the underlying meaning of this. To describe it as a battle is only a small exaggeration – imagine about a million women from almost every country in the world all trying to enter the same building to pray at the same time.
Naïve new Muslims such as us tried to politely weave our way through the heaving mass of female humanity surrounding us – only to be shoved here, pushed there, poked, prodded, stamped on and even thrown out of the way by what seemed like battalions of women, arms linked in battle formation, torpedoing through the crowds. Mulitply this by a hundred, and you might get a sense of what it was like trying to get to rawda – the running of the bulls in Pamplona seems a picnic by comparison!
But even in the midst of this seemingly chaotic mayhem, there were pockets of stillness, sanity, peace, consideration, friendliness and humour. My second lesson of hajj – the ummah is comprised of humans in all their shapes and shades, degrees of good and bad, generosity and self-interest, piety and laughter – it is our attitude that determines how we deal with it.
A wonderful Australian woman who helped me to rawda expressed it best, when she told her companion who was complaining about being pushed and shoved – “Toughen up!” she said. “How many bruises have you got?” “Two,” her companion replied. “Not enough to complain about!” declared her mate, launching herself back into the fray, dragging me along with her.
When we got to the green carpet, she steered me to a space, and stood by protecting me while I prayed my two rukahs and supplicated, then I did the same for her. We moved on – and amazingly another space opened, and I got to pray a second time in front of the next tomb – and again in front of the third, without the need for protection. As I left an amazing feeling came over me, tears came out of my eye, and I felt as if I was a hundred feet tall, floating in the air above the rawda, and a huge smile burst across my face, and it seemed as if my heart opened out like a flower into the universe and I ceased to be a finite being and my cells, my atoms became one with everything – words just cannot describe this incredible experience.
When I got home that night I inspected myself – and I had at least five good bruises, one of which was a BIG purple and black one. Seeing them, I felt like I had earned my rawda…! And learned my third lesson – suffering is part of life on earth, and is transcended through Allah and our Prophet (PBUH).
So many times things small or big, mundane or mind-blowing, occurred to confirm me in my faith in Allah – too many to list. It seemed every time I submitted totally, committed totally, there was an affirmation. One lovely example was at Al-Quba mosque, where we had travelled by the busload, arriving in the heat of midday to find thousands of others already there, arriving, leaving – the usual scene of masses of pilgrims all headed for the same place at the same time. On entering the women’s section it was packed tight, but I saw some stairs out of the corner of my eye and was drawn to climb them. I came out into a beautiful quiet room with arches disappearing into the distance, fans slowly twirling the cool air, and two women praying quietly. I prayed with them in the cool quiet stillness, savouring the precious moments of peace and connection with Allah, and thanking him for the gift of this time, and place. I even took some photos – I could not believe that it really existed, this island of perfect peace above the crazy mayhem below. But the photos prove it was real!
Madinah was a bit like kindergarten preparing you for the school of Makkah. Going there, you had got a little used to being amongst huge numbers of people, to being pushed and shoved, to exercising and extending your patience and tolerance, to focusing on what is important and letting the rest zone out and fall by the way. You had been taught a lot of lessons – and thought you had learned most of them, and even graduated.
Well, think again! Makkah was about to challenge any complacency!
Umrah! Tawaf! Sai! Even going to the Qaaba late at night, as we did for our Umrah, did not escape the crowds. Arriving at about midnight in a group of eight, we attempted to circumambulate in the lower inner circle, as some members of our group were determined to kiss the black stone, or at least touch it. Following the example of many others, we held onto each others’ clothing in order not to become separated – but we made the mistake of trying to walk abreast, rather than one behind the other. This immediately resulted in others bursting through our links, and desperate attempts to rejoin. As we went further and further in towards the Qaaba the crowd became denser, the temperature hotter, the crush more unbearable, especially as we approached the green light at each round, and more people joined.
I began to panic, and letting go of my companions, tried to get to the outside where it was less crowded – but no-one would let me through. I thought I was going to be crushed and could think only of escape, I couldn’t breathe and feared I would have a fatal asthma attack – eventually a man helped me out to the edge and gave me a drink of water, and I continued the tawaf on my own, on the outer edge. Although I no longer had anyone to translate the Arabic or companions to help me, I knew what I had to do and say, and managed to complete the tawaf – even though it took me two hours! I even managed to find my way by myself to Safah, and complete the Sai - all up it took me some three and a half hours, and another 40 minutes to walk back to the hotel. Despite the panic and fear, or maybe because of it, the end result of my Umrah was another transformative and transcendental experience, beyond words.
I often felt a little embarrassed trying to describe it to my fellow Muslims – I thought they probably felt this sort of thing all the time, being Muslims from birth, and would probably think I was pretty dumb! But for me it was new, and incredibly important to share with someone who understood what I was experiencing – but I am still not sure if they did!
The rest of the week before going to Mina for hajj proper was spent as much as possible in Al-Haram or in the courtyard, either praying or doing tawaf. This was usually for fajr, maghrib and isha because it was just too hot for the 30 minute walk to the mosque in the middle of the day. Sometimes it was so crowded I couldn’t get inside, sometimes so crowded I could only get a foot inside the courtyard. Many people prayed in the streets surrounding the masjid. While praying fard or just on my own, I met people from every country of the world, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, China, Tunisia, other places I had never heard of. Sometimes we communicated in English, sometimes by gestures, often they spoke in their language and I in mine, and nobody minded, we seemed to understand each other!
I was the recipient of many random acts of kindness, and hopefully gave as many, or more, than I received. Sometimes it was a drink of water, making a space so someone could pray next to you, sharing your prayer rug, taking up less space, giving up the chair you had managed to find. One woman from Malaysia gave me $500 riales (about USD $150) because I was working in Gaza – I told her I would use it to pay my translator and she said, “No, it is for YOU.” For every ten selfish acts (and there were many) there was at least one to counteract it, for every ten refusals to make space for you there was always at least one who would let you in. Just when you were about to give up, it would happen in one way or another – the lesson of patience and trust in Allah reinforced over and over again.
I was not always a good student, but that was another lesson soon to be learnt - Allah’s infinite capacity for forgiveness, and mercy.
Sardines in a can have more room than we did in our tent, I swear! There was not even a centimetre of space between our mattresses (but at least we had mattresses!) and I would often wake with my neighbour half in my bed, while I bulged out the side of the tent…. This was probably the hardest thing for me – when I am hot and/or sick, I hate people touching me, and it drove me CRAZY!!! I tried to be nice about it, I snapped about it, but I couldn’t stop it – ultimately I just had to ask Allah for forgiveness for it, and help to overcome it. Still a work in progress…..!
Going to the toilet was almost a mission impossible – you had to pre-plan and go at least 30 minutes before you needed to, to make sure you made it in time. Showers were above the toilets, and women often also did their laundry in there, so you could have very long waits…. I kept designing better facilities while I waited, such as a row of portaloos for toilets only, and some taps for washing laundry so wudu and shower/toilets weren’t held up unnecessarily by this task.
But the bottom line for me was, we had tents, with air-conditioning no less, and we had thick mattresses, and we had toilets and showers, even if not enough of them – unlike the pilgrims of previous centuries, whose hajj probably not even ONE of us would have survived. For all the whingeing about conditions at Mina, we had it better than 90% of pilgrims throughout history have had it – for which I, for one, wasvery grateful!
Yes, it was tough, yes it was uncomfortable, yes, we were forced into very close proximity with all the snorts, burps, farts and other bodily functions of people we may ordinarily never have given more than the time of day let alone shared such intimate space with – but it helped us all learn our fourth lesson – our fundamental sameness despite our superficial differences, and hopefully a bit moretolerance.
If Madinah was kindergarten, and Makkah was school, then hajj was most definitely the institute of higher learning. All our lessons of the previous two weeks in patience, trust in Allah, our common humanity, transcending suffering through prayer and faith, tolerance towards our fellow man and woman, would be put to the test, and into practice. Not only these, but also our own interpersonal behaviours such as gossip and backbiting – the hardest thing NOT to do living in such close quarters with a million other women. Talk about jihad! It was to be a jihad with ourselves….
But the reality was actually a million times easier than I imagined – or feared. From the intensely personal and deeply spiritual experience of praising, praying and supplicating for an entire day on Arafat, barely noticing the scorching heat, to passing the night at Muzdalifah with more praising and supplications without noticing the discomfort of lying on the ground on thin squabs, then collecting stones and leaving at dawn for the rejoicing in Allah’s favours and stoning the pillar at Jamarat, where as at rawda, a gap opened miraculously as I approached, my focus, like that of everyone around me, on the symbolic rejection of evil and turning to Allah in thanks for his favours, and supplication for his mercy, forgiveness, and acceptance of our haj.
Another series of such highly-charged spiritually transcendental experiences that I could only look at my companions, and smile in shared understanding, words being both ineffectual and inadequate to express what we were experiencing. Nothing could spoil it – even when we took the wrong turn, and had to either walk several more km in the by-then blazing sun or climb over 20 flights of concrete steps to get back to our original path. We chose the symbolic mountain.
The next two days passed in daily trips to Jamarat, each one seemingly shorter and quicker than the day before despite being over 4km each way, much of it under the midday sun. Each day with calmness and serenity, and a stronger sense of conviction of the ‘rightness’ of it all, and feeling closer to Allah.
All of the tensions and fears and worries and doubts of the previous weeks, of the months since my reversion, had disappeared and been replaced with a strong sense of surety, and an even more powerful connection from my very centre to Allah. Every prayer was more like becoming part of space, rather than traversing it to Allah – like an expansion from the heart outwards into the universe. It sounds corny, but that is how it felt.
Arriving back in Makkah, I was dreading the tawaf al-ifadhahbecause of my memories of my Umrahtawaf and the knowledge that there would be even more people there now. I joined one of our group and his elderly mother and we went to the first floor of the mosque, and walked a long, slow and relaxed tawaf on the outer edge. On top of the final stoning at Jamarat and the trip back to Makkah, thisleft us utterly exhausted, but we couldn’t even find a taxi. The walk – or stagger – back to the hotel 1.4 km away was like being in a state of suspended animation, just putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that eventually we would get there…… we passed an ice-cream shop still open and I got a mixed fruit soft-serve….
Four of the last five days were spent nursing the resulting tummy bug, in the bathroom, in hospital on a drip being rehydrated, in my room. As I slowly recovered, my co-revert room-mate succumbed, and I tended to her. It seemed not only were we having a total spiritual cleansing but also a physical one…
On the day before we were due to leave I ventured out to the shopping mall beneath our hotel to buy water for my room-mate, and presents to take back home for friends and family. Scurrying from shop to toilets to hotel room and back to shops, I managed to buy something for everyone – except the beautiful dress I had promised myself.
Ever since first going to the Middle East I had loved the ‘bling dresses’ covered in sparkles, and secretly harboured a lust for one. Although I had seen many women wearing beautiful examples, I had never seen one that felt right for me. As I wended my way down a small alley between shops, having spent all my money, I spied a dress on display – the most beautiful and perfect dress of my imagination, and in my size. I stopped to admire it, and the shopkeeper came over.
“Do you like it?”he asked.
“I love it,” I replied, “it’s beautiful.”
“It’s 250 but you can have it for 180,” he said.
“I don’t have any money left,” I said. “But if I did I would buy it – it is so lovely.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“New Zealand,” I said.
“I can make it 170,” he said. “It’s your size.”
“I’m sorry, I would love to buy it but I just don’t have the money,” I said again.
He took it off the hanger and began putting it in a bag.
“I will have to return with the money,” I said.
“No need to return, no need to pay,” he said, thrusting the bag into my hands. “You will bring me luck!”
I couldn’t believe it – he had just given me the most beautiful dress as a gift – a complete stranger, a shopkeeper!
It was the perfect end to hajj, like an affirmation that my hajj had been accepted, that I had done something - or many things - to please Allah, and he was rewarding me with the most beautiful thingI had desired.
I did my farewell tawaf that evening, walking on air. I went right into the middle, I touched three walls of the Qaaba as spaces opened up in front of me, and gave thanks, thanks, and more thanks for the amazing gifts I have been given - by my Islam teacher Dr Attallah who gently led me to my shahada, by the kind sponsor who made it possible for me to perform hajj, and most of all by Allah who has rewarded me with so many blessings.
And as if that was not enough, when we went to check in for our flight back, I had been upgraded to business class!