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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.

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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.

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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 – Rooftop Bliss

“I had only one desire – to get lost…amongst the mass. To become nameless & faceless…let me be lost to them in hopes of being present with Him.”

10/25/11

That burger was not good. Too expensive too (28 riyals, normal sandwiches are 5 riyals). Totally don’t see myself eating fast food again, I feel disgusting. I bought a big bottle, I plan to drink all the water & then keep it full of ZamZam daily, iA.

BK

I’m on the top floor again, with an awesome view of the Ka’aba & everyone making tawaf. It’s night, almost 10pm, so the weather is nicer – warm, but easy to bear.

I love how we’re all enamored by the crowd. I’m currently watching a man from Kyrgyzstan look completely blown as he’s looking at everyone making tawaf. The crowd itself is so profound. It’s a mass of people – you look at it and you don’t see faces or ethnicities or skin color – it’s just bodies. But when you actually look into it, you see individuals, you see faces, you hear languages – you realize they’re all real people. People are always real, as you know them – never a faceless mass. In reality, there never was such a thing. Everyone carries their customs & their baggage with them – I feel it’s important to stay mindful of that when interacting with them.

When I stepped out of the hotel, not too long ago, I had only one desire – to get lost. Not lost in a directional sense, but lost amongst the mass. To become nameless & faceless– in a place under the Supreme Care of Allah SWT. Let me be lost to them in hopes of being present with Him. I know Allah throws these little tests my way to keep me on my toes. For example, every time I sit down, I’m asked to move, or forced to move, just when I start to get comfortable. Almost without fail. Earlier, I had to move at least 3 times. Just now, I had to move again, someone pulled a wheelchair in front of me & just parked it. Don’t get comfortable? Keep it moving? Interesting.

Mmm…I’m getting tired…I wanna lay down on this top floor & rest, while I look out into the night sky & feel this cool breeze, with this hum of voices chattering in the background.

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That was even better than I’d imagined it would be. It was so comfortable & pleasant, I slept for like 45 mins. The squeegee train (workers with…squeegees, that wipe down the marble floors of the Masjid) is rolling through, so I couldn’t stay in my spot anymore. It’s quite a sight, really. I’m so impressed with how they keep this place so clean. The efficiency of it all is actually astounding – compared to how conditions are everywhere else I’ve seen. Well, no, by any standard, it’s impressive. They got that very right, mA.

[I recorded this from my spot on the roof, but I didn’t realize until watching it now that the workers were wiping their hands on the Yemeni corner. The Prophet said that wiping hands in this spot removes sins. Employee benefits, subhanAllah]

I felt so totally serene in my nap. Being on the roof at night is just so blissful, subhanAllah. Of my favoritest of places in the world, the roof of the haram is one of my favoritest spots at night – napping here is on the top of that list :)

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Day 4 – At Second Glance

That’s what I’d like to see, for Mecca to become a marketplace of ideas & stories as much as it is a marketplace for jewels & cheap, Chinese prayer beads.”

10/25/11

I just prayed Maghrib on mount Safa. I think Shuraim led the prayer & he recited the verse about As-Safa in the 2nd rak’ah :). That was cool. During prayer time, it’s completely silent. Hundreds of thousands of people – everywhere you look – in the same position, reciting the same words, facing the same qibla. It’s awe-inspiring. It’s so much easier to cry in salah here. I teared up in the first rak’ah when he recited “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un” (Surely, we belong to Him and surely, to Him is our return), but maybe that’s cuz that verse always gets me. Here, at least you just feel it so much more. When he says we all belong to Him, I believe it so much easier – how else would we have all gotten here? How else would we be altogether in this place, in this way, if we were not His slaves & property? So, if we are His property and we are to return to Him, then may our return to Him be as joyous & peaceful as our current union in this wonderful city. Ameen.

Mecca, specifically Masjid Al-Haram, just became my favorite place in this planet. Apparently Medina is even more tranquil than this?? That’s something I have to see. This place is special because it is So busy, just like NYC – but in a 3rd world country, & unified around a single theme – worship of The One. So much more than in NYC can you see every part of the world here, and completely, utterly unfiltered, in its most raw & true form. People make no attempts to hide who they are or be anything else – they are purely themselves, from wherever they’re from. And this place accepts them all, however they are. So beautiful. There’s also tons of Desi’s here – I don’t even need to speak Arabic, so many people, especially workers & shop keepers, speak Urdu. Even the Arabs speak Urdu, probably since so many of their workers do – like Spanish in America.

Speaking of which, for some reason my dad keeps speaking Spanish with the locals. He either speaks in English, or in Spanish. I have to keep reminding him that no one knows what the heck “gracias” means here. It’s kind of funny. He’ll be haggling with a cab driver and randomly bust out with an “Ok! Si, si, si!” and just get a blank stare. Of the many languages spoken here, Spanish, surprisingly, is not one of them – at least not as far as I can tell. I miss Latinos.

Another thing about prayer is, when the imam isn’t reciting, it’s silent. All you hear is birds chirping & people coughing – and ALOT of people be coughing. Everyone seems sick, it’s kind of gross b/c alot of them don’t cover their nose or mouth when they cough or sneeze. Makes me imagine that the Haram would be a great place to do educational outreach – it would reach samples of the entire world’s population.

Mecca could be so much more of a Mecca, to be honest. It’s surprisingly underwhelming. The masjid is the only part of the city that really seems to have it together. There should be institutions here that help to capitalize on the opportunity here – not just from a business perspective, but a Humanitarian perspective. That’s something to seriously consider. I don’t know if it’s something that isn’t being allowed, or is too expensive to manage here, but there’s great work that can come out of such an establishment. So many people come here, but they don’t really connect with each other. We connect with the Ka’aba, with Allah & with each other merely as bodies occupying spaces adjacent to us, not as brothers & sisters from regions throughout the world, facing struggles, hardships, pain, suffering – or even joys & successes – that can all be shared & leveraged.

That’s what I’d like to see, for Mecca to become a marketplace of ideas & stories as much as it is a marketplace for jewels & cheap, Chinese prayer beads.

Before I forget – I wanted to make mention of the look on the face of the Saudi guard watching over Hajr Al-Aswad. He looked overwhelmed, like he was holding back tears, while guarding the corner. Then, I imagined how powerful it must be, to stand where he stands, to look out at the magnitude of the place he’s in. To look into the fervent faces of pilgrims & zealous worshippers, to see them struggling so hard to get closer, to even simply brush their fingertips across the corner he is posted at. And it’s continuous. Never-ending. Perpetual. Until the end of this place. SubhanAllah.

I should eat right? It’s almost 7pm, I’ve been here for 4 hours – just writing & reflecting. All I’ve had today is ZamZam – and I haven’t really felt hungry. I had some KFC this morning before heading back to the hotel after Fajr – it wasn’t all that. Halal Popeye’s back home is better actually. I’m gonna go peep that Burger King tho, been fienin for it. More later iA, still need to talk about after tawaf & the rest of this morning iA.

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Reflecting on salah. I actually took so long to get out after maghrib that it came time for Isha. So, I prayed before leaving. I imagine the city full of people, stopping at the adhan, turning to the Ka’aba & devoting themselves in salah. The imam recites the revealed words of Allah out over loudspeakers, which resound through the streets, fill the air and are snatched down by the open, devoted hearts of the worshippers. No word goes un-seized.

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