Monthly Archives: November 2011

Day 8 – It Could Happen Anywhere

“The reality of my situation was becoming clear to me….”

10/29/11

Yea, dinner was fine, there was actually a special buffet just for my hotel. It was decent food, no complaints. I basically went back & slept after dinner, didn’t even change out of my clothes, just passed out.

This morning, I woke up around 3:15am & got ready to go out. Took a shower, got dressed – in the same clothes I had on before – Ew..I know. I went to the masjid & prayed tahajjud, and then Fajr. Afterwards, I decided to walk around and explore the city some. It was great, weather was beautiful, saw better parts of the city, did some shopping. I found some street vendors selling stuff mad cheap. There was a lady selling thobes for 10 riyals, like $3-4 each. So, I gave her a 50, she couldn’t make change, I just bought 4 instead. I figured, I could finally blend in more, I know I stick out like crazy.

So yeah, walked around, did some shopping, came back to the hotel, tried on the thobe, fit great. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to wear underneath…it’s cheap too, so it’s a bit see-thru. I’ll figure something out, I guess. So, I’m just chillin in the room now, hangin out. Oh yea, did I mention I almost got mugged just now? That’s funny…how could I leave that out…

Right, so at around 7am, as I’m walking in the streets, my genius self decides to explore deeper into the side streets. I’m like deep inside some random neighborhood, 2 miles from the Haram when 2 guys approach me, just outside of a corner market. They were young, in their 20s, thin, dressed in pants & tshirts. One of the guys, the one who spoke, looked familiar. I recognized him because, about half an hour earlier, as I was walking around, I saw him in the street. I saw him as I was walking along in the markets, he was on his cell phone. It stuck in my mind because of the way he looked at me – he kind of stared, whereas most people glance without any care at all. But, he stared, and I remember feeling uncomfortable when I saw him. He had long hair, puffy, like Bollywood-esque. To make things easier, I’m just going to call him Jo.

About 10 minutes after I first saw Jo, I was walking in a different area altogether, and I see him walk along the sidewalk off to the right. I had stopped on the street and happened to look up and I saw Jo walk ahead, still on his phone. I immediately recognized him and thought, hmm, that’s weird, it’s like Jo’s following me. There’s no way he would also randomly be here too – there was no logical connection between this neighborhood and the last neighborhood I saw him in. I was just wandering & roaming aimlessly. So, I felt weird about him & actually went to see where he was going. When I went up to the sidewalk, he had already gone or something, I didn’t see him anywhere. So, I just kept walking, didn’t think anything further of it, thought maybe it was just a coincidence after all. Shortly afterwards, I turned a corner and crossed the main street, entering another small neighborhood. I went a good 3 or 4 blocks into the neighborhood when I was approached by Jo and his buddy.

When Jo, and the guy with him, spoke to me, it was in Arabic. I didn’t understand exactly what he wanted. He approached, gave me salaams & then said something about how he was the police, as was his friend. I looked at them, listened for a few seconds, felt really creeped out, and just turned and started walking away, not having said a word. In my head I was thinking, ok, I highly doubt Saudi has plainclothes police, seeing as how much these people love their uniforms so much. Also, I know this dude was following me! That’s shady behavior, I don’t think cops would do stuff like that. They also didn’t bother to show any IDs or any documentation that said they were police officers. So I move to walk away, but they start yelling about being the police & Jo grabs my shirt. He wasn’t trying to let me go, even though I was resisting. Now, they weren’t very big, so mentally I sized them up, but immediately thought…no way, I’m here for Hajj, I can’t be knockin dudes out. I didn’t understand what he was saying, so I pushed my way into the cornerstore, about 10 ft away, figuring the owner may help me.

I walked in. They followed, 2 more men joining their group. I gestured to them in front of the owner like, please deal with these fools. They all started talking and the owner, who looked Pakistani, looked confused. I asked him in Urdu what these people wanted. He talked to them and still didn’t quite understand what was going on. They tried threatening him and saying they were going to call the police & he was like ok, go for it. He turns to me & asks me who I am, where I’m from, what I’m doing here, he didn’t know what was happening either. May Allah bless him and increase his rizk (sustenance) and baraka (blessings) and place him in the highest of ranks in the Hereafter for the help he gave me.

Honestly, I was flustered. I could barely speak, I was kind of freaked out. The reality of my situation was becoming clear to me. I was standing in a completely unfamiliar part of town, at least 2 miles away from my hotel. I had no cell phone, neither my group nor my parents knew where I was and we had no means of contacting one another. I was also being targeted by 4 shady young men, who only spoke Arabic, so I didn’t even understand them. I had my camera, some cash and my journals on me – the only things of any real value to me. I was kind of screwed, but this store owner came through for me, Alhamdulillah. He was very patient with me too, asked me questions, nice and easy, to figure out what was going on. Eventually, I was able to tell him I was here for Hajj, from America, of Pakistani origin. I told him I was just walking around, not doing anything, when they came up to me, just outside of his shop.

One of the 4 guys actually had on a thobe and was carrying prayer beads in his hand. They kept telling him something about how they needed to call the police, to talk to me, to search me, something like that – it was all a big Arabic jumble. I heard Jo mention a camera a few times, I assumed he wanted to “take a look at it”. I wanted to make sure I would at least be able to keep the pictures on it, were things to get ugly and it got taken. I slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled the memory card out, casually, so no one would notice, moving it to a different pocket. Thobey was watching me, but I was just too slick, *brushes shoulders*. The guys would step out, talk to one another, talk on the phone, come back inside, talk to the store owner, back and forth. There was just alot going on.

Other customers started coming in, asking questions, curious about the whole situation. The guys kept telling the store owner they needed to talk to me I guess, so he asked me if I had an ID or a wristband or passport, something that says I was here for Hajj. I pulled out the ID card I was given and showed it to the guys. Jo starts reading it and goes, “Ahhh…Amreeky!” and he hands it off to another guy. He kept repeating, “Amreeky…Amreeky!” I’m like….crap…now I’m definitely going to get messed up because they know I’m American. I make sure to get my card back, snatching it out of their hands. They walk outside, again saying they need to call the police. The store owner is like ok, good, call them. So, I ask the owner, “are these guys cops?” He was unsure. The first time, he said “yeah..I think…maybe?” As time went on, he said, “I think maybe they’re some kind of local security.” Then, after they saw my ID and backed off, he was like, “yeah, they’re nobody, just some hoodlums that are trying to rob you.” Well damn. Thank you Medina.

Jo comes back inside, shakes my hand, smiles, raises his left hand and says, “Welcome!” in a thick Arab accent. I’m like yo, gtfo. He leaves. There’s 3 guys left, but they stay outside now. The owner assumes they’re gone and tells me not to worry, nothing will happen to me. He was like, “When the police come, tell them these guys are messing with you, give them their license plate numbers, & it’ll be fine. The police may search you, but you’ll be ok.” He asked what I have in the bag on my back and I told him it was just clothing. He was like yeah, don’t worry, you’re good. He actually told me I could leave & not worry. I was like…um…what if they come back? He was like nah, they won’t. I didn’t believe it. I guess it’s not what I’m used to. I imagine, if someone is American, you definitely want to go after them. I also assume that if it’s too difficult to take someone in a crowd, you would just wait until they were alone again, and then get at them. I mean…that’s what I would do. Apparently that’s not how it really works over there? Maybe me being American means my government makes sure their government doesn’t let this sort of thing slide? Maybe, they get scared of this and start peacin out, afraid of recourse, even though I have no idea what my options are?

I step outside, one of the guys gets in his car and yells for me to get back inside, not to go anywhere, and he drives off. 2 guys left, thobey & the other guy that originally approached me, wearing a blue Samsung soccer jersey. They stand near me, thobey is staring me down, hardcore. I hold eye contact with him and look away nonchalantly, then casually stroll back inside the store. By then, a few more people are inside, asking the owner what’s going on. After talking to the owner they tell me, “Yeah, they’re not police. They just want to pretend so they can search you and steal your money or whatever else you have.” They said, “When they leave, just go, don’t worry, nothing will happen to you.” An Arab customer came in and the shop owner asked him about the guys, whether they were Yemeni & if they were police. The guy didn’t know but said they looked like they were probably Yemeni, especially thobey. Jo was prolly Yemeni too.

While in the store, one of the owner’s friends asks me what part of Pakistan I’m from. I tell him, “Sialkot”. He’s like, “Oh yeah? This guy’s from Sialkot too”, referring to the owner. The owner asks which neighborhood I’m from in Sialkot. I couldn’t remember the name. I told him I was born and raised in America, only been to Pakistan a handful of times, 10 years ago was the last time I visited. He was like yeah…how would you know, you’re basically American. Word.

Thobey walks in, says it’s all good, they’re “going to let me go”, and him and the other guy leave. I step outside and there’s another Desi man, who was following the whole thing, posted up against the wall. He tells me, “It’s cool, you can go, they’re gone”. I’m so nervous cuz I’m like, “Well, what if they come back? My hotel is really far from here still and I have to walk.” He said, “Don’t worry, go, take your time, walk slowly. They’re not coming back.” He could see I was hesitant, puts up his right hand as if to pledge that I would be fine & could go on safely. Surprisingly, this put me at ease. I go back in the store and talk to the owner and his friend a little longer, pick up a nice cold mango juice…for the nerves ;). His friend kept telling me I shouldn’t have gotten so scared so fast, that I shouldn’t have even shown them my ID. He was like, “You should’ve just called the police yourself and told them to come.” I didn’t think I overreacted. Yes, I was on edge, it was a tense situation, even more tense for me because I didn’t understand what was happening, it was all in Arabic.

The shopkeeper said something interesting though. He said he couldn’t call the police, nor could he talk to them with me, otherwise they would scrutinize him too, as if he was involved. It’s funny because, when he was talking with the 4 guys earlier, I would see him pick up his cell phone, as if to call the police, but then he would just put it right back down. He said, “That’s just how Saudi’s stupid laws are.” I’m deeply thankful for the help & support they gave me. I downed my juice and left. I stuck to main, busy streets, checking behind me periodically. I walked all the way back to the hotel. I came back to the room and found it empty. I changed into the new thobe I bought earlier. I’m going to try to blend in more now iA. This is getting ridiculous.

After I had started writing, my dad came in and made me go and get breakfast. Alhamdulillah, feeling more at ease now. It’s funny, as I was walking around this morning, I was actually really enjoying the city. It was very calm and quiet, even started growing on me. The whole incident didn’t really even damper it, just a little setback.

Nevertheless, it’s been an eventful trip thus far. I should learn not to wander around alone and to try looking more inconspicuous. My bad. I’m chillin now though. These are good experiences, teaching valuable lessons. No harm’s been done either, so Alhamdulillah, it’s just a small test of patience. One week here, so much excitement. Nice ;)

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I’m totally not telling my parents. At least not until we’re back home, or on the plane out of here. They would freak out and not want me to go out anymore. That would just be no fun. My dad said we’re going shopping today, so he wants me to stay close. No problem. At least I’ll get to spend some quality time with them.

If I think hard enough, I can remember the names & faces of only my closest friends. I opened my du’a list just now & saw some names that were almost entirely foreign. My life before this week is seriously such a blur. It’s been a total immersion, entirely too efficient. Everything is different here. Salah is so much easier, the only struggle is getting to the masjid on time, to be with the jama’ (congregation). Back home, even praying at all is good enough. Here, if you don’t pray in the Haram, with the congregation, you feel like a failure. Everything stops at prayer time, everyone (pretty much) prays at the appropriate time. Priorities are in no confusion here. We live to worship. I eat & sleep to have the energy & health to keep praying. It’s that direct of a connection.
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Did you know cell phone’s go off inside the Haram too? See! We’re all the same :P. It’s literally like a “Silence is Golden” ad you would see in a movie theater. We’ll be in the middle of the prayer in the Prophet’s Mosque and you’ll hear that old, classic default ringtone go off. Are you really surprised…?

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Day 7 – This Is It?

“There’s a socio-economic filter that results in Medina looking a little more bougie, with far less poverty and people in the streets. It’s kind of sad if that’s why people think Medina is more peaceful.”

10/28/11

I’m definitely getting sick. Alhamdulillah. I’ve got a sore throat, a bit of a fever and a headache. I missed Fajr this morning because I overslept. I’m in Medina now though, trying to understand this place. Even before leaving the hotel & stepping foot outside, I honestly felt more peaceful. I don’t even know how that works, but I just feel so much safer here. I got up & walked around a bit & still had the same feeling.

Today is Jummah (Friday). I’m chillin in the Prophet’s mosque now, it’s about 9:50am. I’ve been laying down, looking up at the ceiling & relaxing for an hour now. It’s a very elegant & beautiful building. I’ve been searching & honestly, haven’t found any flaws in it.

Masjid Nabawi

I want to know who built these masjids as they are now & when. I would love if they were actually old & historic. Saudi government tends to uproot legacy though, so I’m skeptical. I’m going to get up & walk around & explore some after the prayer – people are slowly pouring in and filling up the building. I need to do some shopping too & prolly should take some medicine…

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I’m disappointed in these cities. There’s no local culture or spirit. You just have tourism, basically. Even in touristy locations in other parts of the world, there’s at least locals with their own culture, food, customs, entertainment, etc. You can typically find these people & places if you’re bold & adventurous enough to go looking for them. I usually love to go looking, I’ve tried to find stuff here & got nothing. It’s like there are no locals. Everyone is an immigrant – from Bangladesh or Pakistan. So, the “local” culture you’ll get, if any, is just a Pakistani or Bengali culture, watered down. Even when it comes to shopping, there’s just nothing interesting. I understand economies have been in decline & people care more about cost, but there’s no benefit to every single shop owner selling the EXACT SAME stuff, all made in China. It’s cheaper, I get it, but it’s also garbage.

Mecca is a little better, barely, b/c there’s just so many people, it creates more opportunity in business. Medina is completely dull. I change my mind about some of what I said about it. It’s peaceful and calm, yes, but that’s because it’s boring and there’s nothing going on. I’m pretty certain the masjid is the only attraction – which is even more annoying because you can’t even go to the Prophet’s grave! It’s always roped off and guarded by police that refuse people in. Such a letdown. It was made worse by the fact that there was a ton of people inside, where the grave was, but I couldn’t figure out how to get let in. There were lines of people around the entrances, no one was being allowed in. I imagine you have to camp out for hours to get in, so whack.

Entrance To The Original Section, Roped Off

The Rowda, As Close As I Could Get

I was taking pics of the entrances & one of the officials told me not to photograph the police, who were standing out front. At least, I think that’s what he said, it was all in Arabic, so I’m not entirely sure.

Maybe I just need to get out of the city centers in these places – take a cab out or something. No clue where to go though. Medina is totally not lush either. It’s just as much desert as Mecca, equally as mountainous. They’ve just planted more palm trees. There’s less people here too, still hundreds of thousands, but far less than Mecca. It’s a different kind of people as well. I know for a fact that there’s more Americans here, just from hearing people speak and from seeing the addresses on their bags. There are probably more wealthier folk here. It’s probably expensive to get here from Mecca, so those who travel for Hajj & have nothing probably can’t make it to Medina. There’s a socio-economic filter that results in Medina looking a little more bougie, with far less poverty and people in the streets. It’s kind of sad if that’s why people think Medina is more peaceful.

So far, I prefer Mecca, I love that realness. I can sit in my room at home, with the door closed & a picture of the mosque on the wall & get the same effect as if I’m here. Bored. The masjid is very nice though, mA. I’m not knocking that at all – well, just my inability to access the Rowda (grave of the Prophet), the main reason for its attraction.

I’m feeling much better, Alhamdulillah. I slept for a while today, so I got plenty of rest. That, along with a bunch of du’as is likely the remedy that worked. I also had a decent meal. There’s too much fast food & unhealthy stuff sold on the streets. Really, the best food I’ve been able to find has been Desi food. I’m totally not saying that cuz I’m Desi. I’m so not into eating Desi food normally, but here, it’s the only way to get a decent, cooked meal. Everything else, pretty much, is pre-packaged, processed, or fast food. There aren’t even decent Turkish spots, and Turks are everywhere! I know they own lots of property here too – and they have awesome food. Quit slackin homies.

With the amount of people here from around the world – with the diversity in cultures – the options for you to engage with other cultures (dining, shopping, learning, etc) are next to nill. That’s been the biggest letdown for me. It’s such a waste of a golden opportunity. Maybe that’s just the American preference? Wanting more options, wanting more complexity? Maybe things are the way they are because the majority of people here – from other parts of the world – prefer it this way. Maybe I just need to suck it up and keep livin off laban and skimpy, cold shawarmas – or keep digging deeper to find what I’m looking for. We’ll see how this plays out, it’s only been 5 days since I’ve been here.

I think I’ll go grab dinner across the street. There’s a hotel restaurant that has Desi food – it’s not bad. My mom told me they had breakfast there & that it was included in their meal package. I didn’t know we had a meal package. She wasn’t really clear about the details, actually. I just assumed it meant I could eat there whenever I wanted without paying. So, I had lunch there. Rice, butter chicken, spinach, naan – not bad at all. Didn’t pay either. Hopefully, it’s straight, probably wouldn’t be right if I was boosting meals while on Hajj, eh? I just acted like I was supposed to be there & no one questioned me or looked twice. They’re serving dinner now, so I’ma go holla insholla.

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Day 6 – The Road to Medina

Realistically, only Allah knows what will really happen.”

10/27/11

The culture here is so much more different than ours in America, especially in the American suburbs. Spending habits alone are so telling about the way people live. People buy, not for weeks in advance, but for the day at hand. Not large, unwieldy quantities. Sufficient portions. You buy what you need, when you need it. Why worry about getting more? You’re so close to stores that there is no inconvenience. You won’t use everything at once, so why dedicate resources towards handling excess? It’s hard to carry everything when you walk everywhere anyways. You would end up with your already low amounts of money tied up in stock you don’t have immediate need for. Who knows if you’ll even live long enough to use the 64-pack of tissues, or bon-bons, or granola bars, or whatever. If you die unexpectedly, hopefully you will have left behind something more than leftover groceries.

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So, I’m still sitting in the hotel lobby, my mom & I apart from the rest of the group of course. It’s almost 1pm, our flight is at 4pm – last flight to Medina, out of Jeddah airport, which is an hour and a half away. Still no sign of the bus. I think we’re kind of screwed if we miss this. Apparently, yesterday was the last day to travel to Medina by road & today is the last day of air travel [this later proved to be incorrect]. We also already checked out of our rooms, so we have no place to stay if we don’t make our flight. I actually think we don’t even have staying arrangements in Medina right now either. Such is the organization of this group. Alhamdulillah. Gives me plenty of time to write at least.

I think the honeymoon period is pretty much over. It didn’t happen suddenly, it’s not even like I’m “over” it. I just see things more completely now, less naivete. It started when I was sitting on the ground in front of the Ka’aba, waiting for Fajr, and dudes are yelling at sisters to get up & move back, away from the front. I’m sittin there like, yo that’s not cool. This is supposed to be the one place where none of that matters. I don’t know if they were acting out of ignorance or if I’m just incorrect. Either way, showed me things aren’t always so peachy here.

Shortly after that, I was wandering around & stumbled onto the ghetooooo. I didn’t even think Mecca had ghettos, definitely found out the truth there. It was straight up like Pakistan – dirty, smelly, trash everywhere, old metal doors on houses. It was all uphill too, that made it kind of interesting. Reminded me of Battle for Algiers.

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Nothing is easy, almost by principle of going for Hajj. We’re attempting to get to Medina, but our bus driver had no clue how to get to the airport. We missed our flight. After much arguing & conjecture, we’ve decided to risk the 4 hour drive to Medina & try to still get in by road, despite the supposed restriction on road traffic entering the city. It’s about 5:30pm now, we’re expecting to get there by 10. Realistically, only Allah knows what will really happen. It’s comical, really, this driver is almost entirely incompetent. Adventures are afoot.

I think I’m getting sick too. Sore throat has started, a little headache & fever too. InshaAllah it’ll be ok.

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Best meal I’ve had since coming here. I woke up and we had pulled into a rest area, where there happened to be a Peshawari kabob spot. Really good food, Alhamdulillah. This was the ease we needed after the hardship of our travels. Let’s enjoy it, our next hardship is sure to come soon, iA.

The Driver With Our Passports In His Lap At Dinner

I love the way Pathans speak Urdu, it has such a sweet sound. I had some chapli kabobs, naan, daal, and a little chicken karahi. It was all served so fast and was sooo good mashaAllah. The group’s Punjabi side came out instantly. Everyone was barking out orders nonstop, poor waiter kept having to run back and forth the whole time. When everyone was well fed, they finally calmed down & got quiet. I wonder if he’s used to Desi’s being this way. Knowing when they go silent, he’s done his job right. Resuming drive to Medina, no light….

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It’s 11:30pm, we’re about 30-40 km from Medina. We’re all pretty certain our driver is illiterate. He clearly can’t read signs. His bus doesn’t seem to go over 30 mph, it’s so old and raggedy. We’ve also stopped at least 3 times, in search of “shai”. He goes nuts at each stop, excited that we may find some tea, usually there’s none, everything is closed. Poor guy. Each time we pass a rest stop, he goes, “Shai! Shai? Shai? Shai! Shai!”. He has a good heart though, he means well. It’s been a stressful trip for him, I’m sure. He was responsible for driving a bus full of 18 American Hajji’s to the airport and he got there too late and they missed their flight, now he’s braving a 4-10 hour drive to try making up for it.

All the men in the group have been cursing him in Urdu/Punjabi. So wrong. How quickly we forget our role as invited guests, we forget the place we ought to be in, as humbled servants. Our Master will provide, do not despair. He do be carrying our passports around in a plastic bag whenever he gets out. That’s a bit concerning. Tawakkul ‘Alallah (place your trust in Allah).

The stop we just made has tea. InshaAllah this helps my Egyptian driver brother man. His outfit is interesting too. He’s basically got on a green jumpsuit, that’s been cut off below the waist to make a shirt, with the pockets still in tact, and then actual pants underneath.

 

Our Ride To Medina

 

Also, when we drive, I can see the stars, it’s glorious. When we stop, you can’t see anything, rest stops are too bright :(. The landscape is so interesting though. It’s basically all mountains, surrounded by desert. The weather at night is beautiful. It’s probably like 75 deg, with a cool, light breeze, no humidity. Really, really pleasant, Alhamdulillah. Much nicer than the hot blaze that was Mecca. Not that I didn’t enjoy that as well, you know sometimes I likes it hot ;)

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We crossed the checkpoint into Medina, didn’t get stopped or even looked at, Allahu Akbar. 12:45am, almost there iA. Everyone on the bus broke out into songs in praise of the Prophet & Allah. Cute. A little cheesy & over the top I think, but whatever floats your boat. One man said in Punjabi, “See? Allah helped us because of how much we love the Prophet. Because we’re such good people!”. SMH. See what I’m dealing with?

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We had a little hulabaloo upon entering the city, though we got past the checkpoint without any issue. Some of our group members left without us in the morning, going to the airport on their own to catch their flight, ditching the rest of the group. Apparently, that’s a problem because passports are transferred to locations along with the group, in bulk. They left on the down-low, so their passports were with our bundle still. We show up at the Pilgrims Reception Office in Medina and they’re like…um…22 passports, 18 people…what’s the deal? Our driver had to reassure them, frantically, that he hadn’t left anyone behind. Needless to say, it took a while to sort out.

We just got into our rooms, 2:45am. As soon as I get comfy & lay down, they’re like, “Hey! Let’s go to the mosque!” I’m like…uh…it’s late…I just wanna sleep & hit it all in the morning. I need to get rest to beat this cold too. We’ll see what happens, iA.

First impressions – just at first glance – Medina is pretty lush, for a city in Saudi. Alot of trees everywhere & even grass. I mean, it’s no Virginia, but it’s not bad for a desert :). But, I feel like, if Mecca is NYC, Medina is Chicago – just with West Coast weather for both. We’ll see how this holds up over the next few days. The distance from one to the other is basically like DC to NYC. Not too bad, but amazing to think about that trip being the Hijra (emigration) of the Prophet. Seeing where he was, where he went & where he traveled to get there has been an absolutely phenomenal experience, Alhamdulillah.

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Day 6 – Ordinary People

“You hope everyone would be enlightened or somehow, mystically, unexplainably, different. But, we’re all as we’ve been created. We share our humanity so much more than we give each other credit for.”

10/27/11

Two things about Mecca are astounding: the Ka’aba & the people. I’ve talked about the Ka’aba, it’s the people here that are just as interesting. This is the people-watching capitol of the world. I’ve been sitting in the same spot for over an hour, on a street leading away from the Haram. It’s almost 7am, I’ve been here since after Fajr. I swear, hundreds of thousands of people have walked past me. All kinds of folk. I’m sitting near some that are seemingly poor & it’s comforting to be in their company. Their way is simple & they’re kind. I want to give to them in sadaqah (charity), but I don’t want it to be insulting. While I’ve been sitting here, people have already stopped, while walking past, and given them money. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me earlier to give sadaqah, but now I’m excited at the opportunities. I think I’ve seen people that could truly use it – not just professional beggars and panhandlers, which are also out here in an abundance. I want to take advantage of the opportunities to help those in real need iA.

There’s a West African man that’s been sitting in the street for the past 45 mins, on two scraps of cardboard, just making dhikr (remembrance of Allah). People came and dropped money in his lap & I swear it didn’t phase him one bit. He continued to sit & look around as if nothing happened. The bills fell to his side and he didn’t even reach out to grab them. That image just sticks with me, it’s like there was just no desire for anything worldly, subhanAllah. If he’s still around later, I’d like to get him a rug to sit on, to maybe bring him some comfort at least.

People also gave money to the workers picking up trash. They humbly accepted & I was surprised I didn’t think of that either. The workers here are, generally, in need. It makes so much sense to help them out, considering they’ve probably come so far to find work, leaving behind their families.

Maybe my heart was being prepared in these last few days? At first, my focus was only the Haram, the building, the Ka’aba, the place. Slowly, I’m seeing & realizing the even greater significance of the ummah (nation). This is more likely the real reason behind the significance of this journey. We’re meant to connect with our fellow man – with those in need & those different from us. To feel compassion for them & recognize them as humans like ourselves. Glaringly so.

I’m utterly surprised at how entirely unspurprising people have been, on an individual level. Everyone is the same everywhere. It’s beautiful & comforting – though also somewhat of a letdown, sure. You hope everyone would be enlightened or somehow, mystically, unexplainably, different. But, we’re all as we’ve been created. We share our humanity so much more than we give each other credit for.

It’s especially inspiring when I imagine that, if everyone in the world is essentially the same, than this is the essence of humanity. People of old were just the same as us. Such is our nature, any other way would be unnatural. So, the Prophet knew his people, by proxy he knew us, we are all the same. What this message has done for them is what it can do for us. Sincerity and dedication in the hearts of those who understand is how we will prevail.

This place is beautiful because we are beautiful and this place brings us all together. I pray that I may take with me these lessons & benefit from them, finding ways to implement them. It’s been hugely influential to grasp that we have a common point of reference. Often, almost as a norm, I assume things don’t apply/refer to me. I assume that even those applicable are foreign to my understanding. This experience proves otherwise. I am as human & as common as everyone else here. I am, rightfully so, another face in the crowd. It is not an insult, but rather my God-given right & privilege to share the beauty of humanity with you all.

This place helps me to grasp that we are in fact brothers & sisters. Not in Islam, not because Adam was our shared father, not even because we’ve said it enough times that we don’t even question it anymore. We are brothers & sisters because WE.ARE.THE.SAME. Then, why do we divide ourselves? Why keep each other apart? This places such divisions in our hearts – something I feel leads to doubt & discontent. Doubt in Allah’s all-encompassing, ever generous Mercy, and discontent with our state – being lonely & disconnected.

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There is a love that emerges in the hearts when company is shared, incomparable to a love for anything else. Our hearts purify one another when we open them to our brethren. We are the cures for our own diseases. We may all carry common coughs & runny noses, but while we are together & sincere – we  will never share greed, malice, envy, deceit, or ill will. Maybe it is the magic of this place that keeps us especially kind. But, I believe we all carry that kindness & goodness, readily, from birth. May we all be restored to our fitra (natural state) and experience the swelling of the heart upon sharing it with one another.

While I was sitting there, writing, a man came and sat beside me. I could tell he was trying to see what I was doing while puffing on his cigarette. After about 15 minutes, he finally says to me, “Arapi?”. I realize he’s Turkish. I shake my head, “Pakistan.” He nods, places his hand on his chest, “Turkiye”. I smile and nod, and continue writing. After a few minutes, he pulls out his cell phone, an old flip phone. He tinkers with it for a few seconds and then some music comes on. He holds it in his hand while he looks out into the street, continuing to smoke. I’m thinking, that’s…cute. He must really love his music.

I recognize the song, it’s a Sami Yusuf track. The one off of his last album where he sings in Arabic, Turkish and Urdu. I didn’t say anything and continued writing. After the song ended, he lingered a few minutes longer, than got up and walked away. I thought, hmm, that was…odd. I realized after he left that he was trying to use music to connect. He had played a song that both of us could understand, there were lyrics in Turkish and in Urdu. SubhanAllah, what an awesome effort. I missed the opportunity though. I was so wrapped up in analyzing my environment that I took myself out of continuing to experience it. I cut myself off from the blessings. Just one of the things I regret.

———————–

My heart goes out to the Bengali people. Their eyes carry such a softness & innocence that touches the heart. Perhaps, if they live in poverty, it has made them content. May we all be so blessed.

———————-

I just ate a liver & french fry pita sandwich, thinking I had ordered a shawarma. I need to learn some basic Arabic conversation. It wasn’t bad at all though. Go figure.

If we are the same, my advice to you is, write. Write everything. It clears the mind & helps it to grow. Thoughts built up are preserved, leaving you comfortable to welcome new thoughts into the brain.

I would also say, be with people. Be with people, those you know & more whom you do not know. Be with them, watch them, empathize & understand them. Listen to them, and when appropriate, talk to them. Listen not just to their conversation, but to their silence. Be especially mindful to listen to what they don’t say & how they don’t say it. There are volumes in the unspoken. Be one who watches, listens & understands. Your heart will grow & you will experience a love like no other.

———————

I wanna learn Bangla, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, and Dari. K bye.

———————

I’ve primarily been exploring the Southern side of the city. I finally got acquainted with the “heritage souq”, the real marketplaces. It was glorious :). It was awesome to see everyone hustling their wares & people making their purchases left & right. Today is the last day we’re in Mecca. We’re heading to Medina for the next few days. When we head back, it’ll be for Hajj, iA. Looking forward to visiting the Prophet’s city, though I’m sad to leave the place of his birth. Hopefully, I’ll be able to rest on the trip & catch up on my writing.

———————

I’ve been cut off from my phone for about 4 days & it feels so liberating. No worries about being called & interrupted – things can naturally develop & be organically experienced in their entirety. There’s far less distractions now. The only time I’m not “present” is when I write, and in those moments, I am completely present within myself, which is not a distraction in the least. I’m hoping to be able to engage in further bouts of technology vaccum-living, at least somewhat periodically. I’m discovering myself anew and it’s so relieving & calming. I miss days when I was more in touch with myself, before cell phones really took over my life. I’d say freshman year of college was the last time I felt this deeply contemplative. 8 years of shallow thought, show yourself out.

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Day 5 – Contemplating Context

“There’s so much that can be gained just from standing in a landscape that is unchanged, to get an idea of the context for past generations.”

10/26/11

I have time, I’m in my hotel room, calling it early tonight, it’s about 10:30pm. I’m gonna try to start from the first day & fill in everything I’ve left out so far, iA.

So, when I got into Mecca, I performed ‘Umrah. I talked about the tawaf & events there already. After the tawaf, I drank some ZamZam, which tasted amazing. Something about it here, at the source, is so much better than how I’ve always had it. When people would bring it back with them, I never really liked drinking it all that much. This was legit though, Alhamdulillah.

It’s really such a blessing to have this well here, in the middle of this desert, right with the Haram, to sustain its people. Its interesting to imagine all the factors that come together to make this place so special, just geographically even. Sure, there’s massive appeal because of the Ka’aba, but even historically, it was a major city before Islam. I think ZamZam was a major cause. It’s this never-ending supply of clean, delicious water in the middle of the desert. It gave people a reason to settle here. Perhaps this place became sacred to preserve the well & access to it – in addition to the spiritual motivators. It’s also situated in between a series of mountains, giving it a natural defense. Tragically, it seems like the Saudi’s have blasted away much of the original mountains around the Haram, to build hotels & shopping malls. There’s so much that can be gained just from standing in a landscape that is unchanged, to get an idea of the context for past generations.

I’m going to try looking at pictures of the landscape historically. I think it’d be really interesting to see everything in its original form. That’s my only major beef with the Saudi’s so far. They’ve taken liberties with the landscape, altering it dramatically, leaving behind very little of what was originally there. That seems to be the central theme here, in the developed areas of Mecca at least: strip everything of its originality & replace it with a flashy, lifeless, contrived placeholder. The alternatives are unnatural, unsustainable. It’s so clearly evident. Take food for example. I’ve been here almost 3 days, and have yet to find a healthy meal. You have either grocery stores, full of pre-packaged & processed foods, or you have street restaurants with fried food or fast food. I know people don’t actually live eating this way. It’s horrible for you. Especially when you’re in a place so holy, trying to eat foods that will support spiritual enhancement. I’ve basically been living off ZamZam, with an actual solid meal maybe once a day. Even then, I end up regretting eating at all afterwards.

I imagine the original landscape being so heavily dominated by the mountains – especially Safa & Marwa. When you step out from the masjid at Safa, you’re faced with an enormous mountain. Isn’t that probably the original mountain? [No] Next to the Marwa side, to the East, is another large mountain, which I imagine was an early Marwa [Wrong]. Unless, of course, they’re both just very small hills & the entire Haram is just surrounded by that many mountains [Bingo!].

So, I completed my Sa’iy. That’s been the toughest part of the rituals so far. Having to walk that much, barefoot, on solid marble floors really takes a toll. You’re feet end up aching so bad. Nevertheless, I got through it, Alhamdulillah. It wasn’t as exciting as tawaf, but I still got my du’as in, so it’s all good :). After Sai’y, I went to find a barber. I wandered around what I learned to be the Northern side of the city, outside of Marwa, & found a barber area, got my haircut for 15 SR [$4].

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Day 5 – Blame It On Al-Baik

“Paranoia lingers and brings such unrest to the heart.”

10/26/11

It’s 7:50 am, I just made it back inside my room. That’s right, I’ve been out since 2:30 pm the day before, with only a 45 min power nap in the Haram. I feel fine though – apart from my feet, which currently need amputation. I just had *quite* an adventure. Some excitement, some exploration, some rude awakenings, some failures, & some successes. Yes, all that since I last wrote in the journal. So much to tell, I hope I can get all of it down…

As soon as I walk in to the room, my dad’s like, “Are you ok?? Everything alright? You should have told us you were going for so long…we have a tour in an hour, go take a shower.

Uh…ok…

More adventures I suppose. That’s fine, pack it all in. Before I forget, the search for Al-Baik is the reason I did all this in the first place. I’ll have to start from when I left the room yesterday to really paint the whole picture of my recent adventures.

——————

Ok, managed to shower and freshen up, sitting on the bus now, waiting for this tour to start. Not really looking forward to it – apart from potentially seeing historically significant sites. This group is the only thing I don’t like about this trip – I can’t stand some of these people. Loud, self-righteous Punjabis just get under my skin like no one else can.

So, about yesterday, I left the room at 2:30 pm, went to the Haram & prayed ‘Asr on the roof. After ‘Asr, I went down & sat near Mount Safa to write in my journal & wrote until Maghrib. I ended up moving around until I was on Mount Safa during Maghrib. The imam, I think Shuraim, recited a verse about Safa too. Then, I headed out to get something to eat, but by the time I made it through the crowd and got outside, it was ‘Isha time. So, I prayed ‘Isha in the courtyard outside of the masjid, in front of the ‘Abd Al-’Aziz gate. I went after ‘Isha to Burger King, had a double whopper, ate with some Algerians and felt disgusting afterwards. I went around to find some water, or a big bottle to fill with Zam Zam. I went to this Super Food Mart & got all kinds of drinks (juice, water, soda). Took it back to the hotel & found everyone but my dad in the room, so I didn’t want to stay. I bounced after a few mins & headed back towards the Haram. Picked up a bottle of water on the way to try & clean out my system, I felt so gross.

I went to the roof and chilled for a while. I eventually left & started to head to the hotel, but got curious about this restaurant I kept hearing about, Al-Baik. Everyone said I HAD to go there, so I wanted to find it. I also wanted to see the other gates to the masjid, so I started walking its perimeter. I discovered the other gates…and went all the way around, to the outskirts in the North, still couldn’t find Al-Baik.

I continued walking around, when I was approached by a random man, just outside Marwa. He looked like any other devoted follower – big beard, head covered with the red-checkered garment, loose robe, warm smile. He came up to me and gave me salaams, with a big smile on his face. He grabbed my hand, gripped it with two hands & started asking me questions. I thought nothing of it & started to answer as best I could. He spoke only in Arabic though, didn’t understand my attempts to get through to him in English or Urdu, my usual backups when my sparse Arabic runs out. I understood enough to get that he asked my name, whether I was here for Hajj and where I was from. Then he asked, “kam auwlad?”, right after I had told him I was from America. I know “auwlad” is baby/child, I didn’t know what “kam” meant. I thought he wanted to know how old I was when I went to America, or how long I had been there. I didn’t know enough Arabic to tell him I was born there…and felt apprehensive about even giving him that information.

He started to insist. While holding my hand, he repeated the same question at least 30 times, very seriously. Why I stood there that long is beyond me. I didn’t want to be rude and pull my hand away and bounce, which is what I should have done. Instead, I tried to be respectful and answer him. To try to help me understand, he would mimic cradling a baby in his arms, and even “wah-wah’ed” like a child to show that he wanted to know how many kids I have. I started to get it…but…why do you care so much about how many kids I have? I started to get creeped out. Then he asks, “wife?”. I go, “No”. He frowns, “no wife?”, followed by an unnecessarily sad, pouty face. “Parents?” He asked if my parents were alive, here for Hajj, or back in America. I’m still staring at him, thinking, ok…why does he want to know all this? Then, I catch him looking up behind me, as if there was someone back there. I look back to see who was there. This felt really shady now. He plays it off, “Ahh, parents..here? Where?”, starts pointing to random spots and looking inquisitively at me. I ask him in English, “What do you want??” He was confused. I ask him again, and he had no idea how to respond. I pull my hand away, say salaam, turn my back and walk away. It only took me 10 minutes to break him off, real smooth.

At this point, I’m super paranoid. I mean…I’ve seen Taken, I know how kidnappings work. I’m thinking to myself, maybe this guy is a spotter, picking people out that look vulnerable – such as myself, a brown dude walking around in jeans & a bright green “Prince William Lacrosse” t-shirt, clearly standing out from the robed majority, all alone at 2 in the morning. So, I’m thinking, if he’s a spotter, there’s gotta be a tracker too, someone that’s going to follow me around until the time is right to babynap me. So I stop about 50 yards down, next to one of the doors of the masjid. I turn and start scanning the crowd to look for anyone suspicious, anyone noticing me. I stood for almost 10 minutes, but couldn’t find anything, there was just too much of a crowd, I couldn’t even see the guy that talked to me amongst the mass. I kept walking, but still felt paranoid.

So there I was, walking along the outer walls of the Masjid Al-Haram on my 2nd night in Mecca at 2:15am, convinced that someone was following me with ill intentions. I decided I needed to get away from the crowd, to somewhere more secluded to draw out anyone that was behind me and see what was going on. I walk across the courtyard to the As-Safwa towers shopping mall that loom over the Haram. The shops were all closed, but the buildings were still open. I duck inside. I get in, it’s dark, completely empty. I get on the escalator, directly in front of the entrance, and go to the second level. While I’m going up, I turn to watch the glass doors to look for anyone coming in behind me. When I’m almost at the top of the escalator, I see someone run inside. If there was anyone who was following me, this was him.

I get off the escalator and walk to the wall across from it. Leaning against the wall, sipping from my water bottle, I stare down the escalator to see who was coming up. I see a young African boy, maybe 14 or 15 years old, coming upstairs. He sees me standing there, looks surprised and quickly looks away, turns and goes up the next escalator to the third floor. Doesn’t look back at me. This would’ve been the perfect opportunity for me to find another exit and leave. Too bad I didn’t do that. I went after him. I rode the escalator up to see where he went. I got to the next floor and found him standing in the corner, talking to a group of Saudi police officers that were posted in the mall. I was assuming he was playing off going upstairs by looking like he was trying to talk to them. I stood across the lobby, watching. After a minute or so, the police start looking at me suspiciously and I realize how shady I must look now – posted up on the wall, carefully watching all of them. So I just turn to leave and I see the kid go up another escalator to the top floor. I head back out, through the same front entrance I came in from.

I would say that I still didn’t feel completely settled. Paranoia lingers and brings such unrest to the heart. It was close to 3:30 am now, and I didn’t want to risk leading anyone else that was potentially still watching me back to my hotel room. So, I went back into the masjid. SubhanAllah, I was able to find a spot on the ground floor, 30-40 yards from the Ka’aba. Tawaf was still going strong. I prayed some tahajjud, and made du’a, to feel at ease if I really was clear and safe now. After I finished, I felt a complete calm overcome me. Alhamdulillah. I stayed in that spot, until Fajr, at 5am. I prayed with the Ka’aba directly in front of me, Alhamdulillah. Thank you Rabb, for protecting me & not testing me with more than I can bear.

I left, intending to go back to my hotel to rest. Instead, I went exploring again. I was just captivated by the crowd. At 5:30am there were hundreds of thousands of people pouring out into the streets, in every direction. It’s a spectacular sight. There’s literally a sea of people continuously flowing over every path leading away from the masjid. I’m standing there, looking around, thinking – where is everyone going…?? So I pick a direction, and decide to see for myself. I  just start following the crowd. I ended up heading Southwest, which I thought would lead me towards my hotel. I figured, after I was done exploring I could just turn a corner and be near my room since our hotel was also South of the Haram. Didn’t quite work out that way. I got so mixed up in the streets that I ended up wandering for another hour just trying to figure it all out. I got lost in the real city. I had finally found Mecca. This was what I wanted to see here – real outdoor markets – not air-conditioned shopping malls – massive crowds, street food, the hustle & bustle. Though I was lost, I enjoyed every minute. I was exhausted though. I eventually gave up on trying to route myself to my hotel from where I had ended up and decided to head back to the Masjid, in the center of the city, and to go back to my hotel from there.

——————–

I’m so drained. This tour showed all the places we will be going for Hajj – looks pretty serious. I’m hoping I can actually complete it iA.

I’m back in the hotel now, it’s 1:15pm. I’m going to try to finally get a little sleep. I can’t even concentrate enough to write more. Hopefully, I don’t forget what happened, so I can write everything in detail & not oversleep ‘Asr! Ok, yalla Hajji!

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Day 4 – My 2nd Home

So maybe stability is the beginning of serenity. Remove the unknowns & find ease. Provide constants, standards, absolutes…and society will be at peace.”

10/25/11

The Ka’aba just makes me so overwhelmed sometimes. It’s 11:45 pm – for the past 20 mins probably, I’ve been standing here, staring at it. After I woke up, I moved from my spot and wandered back up to the rail to look at it again. It’s just so fascinating, especially from up here [on the roof]. This is a great time to be exactly where I am, Alhamdulillah. I haven’t gotten moved yet, so maybe I’m supposed to be here & enjoy it, this time :P

When you look into the ground floor, you see two completely different phenomenons, simultaneously. The first, all the people there – walking, chanting, praying, struggling, moving – being together. The second, even greater than the first, is the stability of the Ka’aba in the center of it all – like a mountain in the middle of a turbulent sea, unmoved, unwavering, constant. I feel like this structure represents Allah’s role in this Universe. The Absolute, The Constant. Everything else is fluid, changing, fluctuating, temporal. He is the Source of Stability, and we, unstable, desperate beings, are drawn in – seeking to cling to His stability to find stability within. To find peace, tranquility, success.

This place feels like home. Not home in the sense that I’m super comfortable, I can kick back & lounge anywhere I want & help myself to anything in the fridge – though, I do feel like I can rest anywhere & I have been getting my fill of Zam Zam at every opportunity. But, the feeling you get when you’re here is the feeling you should have when you’re home. Serene & peaceful. Allah, The Most Generous, has opened His Sacred House to us all & shown us the greatest hospitality by making our hearts the concern for care. Please repair our hearts ya Rabb. Help me to leave this life with a pure, sound heart & to live in this world with such a heart so I may benefit others.

My experience here last night, compared with tonight, is so vastly different. Last night was like a riot – everything bombarding me all at once, me diving right in, head first. I pushed through, trying to go all the way, not holding back & achieving what I strove for in some cases. But, I poured out everything in my heart. I saw the Ka’aba and I dumped out all my worries, hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, fears – everything I could think of. I poured it all out & now I feel at ease – like I’m ready to receive something new. Ya Rabb, fill my heart with something better – better for me, better for this world, better for the Hereafter. That’s one of the reasons I write as well, to clear the heart & mind. In my struggle to retain my experiences, my mind gets overwhelmed & stressed. Writing captures my heart & allows me to let go so that I can have new experiences & appreciate them fully. Ya Allah, help me to write well always – to convey ideas beautifully, to capture my heart’s words perfectly, and to inspire & move others with these words of truth & expression.

LOL…ok, after I wrote that, I had nothing else to say. I’ve been staring off at random things for the past 5 mins. Maybe I can say more about last night:

After I completed tawaf, I was trying to make my way back out, to do 2 rak’ahs behind the Maqam of Ibrahim [The place Abraham stood in prayer to Allah, facing the Ka’aba]. I managed to get to it, touch it & look inside – you can see the cemented footsteps. [I later learned this was actually a stone from Heaven, brought by the angel Gabriel, for Abraham to stand on while building the Ka’aba. His feet sank 4 inches into the stone, leaving behind clear imprints] I went further back, still on the ground floor, and prayed 2 rak’ahs, directly facing the Ka’aba, not more than 30 yards away from it. That was awesome. It’s such an elegant structure – stands very tall [43 ft] & is very tastefully decorated. I’d say the same for this whole masjid actually. It’s very tastefully ornamented & adorned, very elegantly designed.

So funny. I moved a little while ago, I was getting crowded at the rail. I moved back against the wall, where there was no one around. Maybe 20 mins go by, and now there’s a group of 5 men that just came & laid down around me – making me want to move again. Nothing is constant except The Constant. We are indeed transient & ever-shifting, as is our nature. Even the nature of our very hearts, which lead us, is to constantly change & flip. It’s a beautiful contrast, again, to The One, who will always be as He always was. He is The Reason, He is The Source, He is The Absolute. This universe would not function any other way. There would be confusion & conflict – not just the internal & societal discrepancies we perceive to be universal conflict, but actual catastrophes in the cosmos. Celestial unrest. There would be no stability in this Universe. La ilaha illallah (There is no god but Allah).

So maybe stability is the beginning of serenity. Remove the unknowns & find ease. Provide constants, standards, absolutes, relatively speaking, and society will be at peace. That’s a mission I can grasp, something real I can focus on, subhanAllah. Provide everyone with basic standards of living – remove those worries from their minds & hearts, let them find peace. Let them be guided to Allah’s fields & hopefully they will settle in its gardens.

Wow, time flies when you’re at peace & you’re being inspired. It’s 12:45 am. I should go sleep, I need to be here for Fajr in 5 hours. InshaAllah khair.

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