The pilgrimage to Mecca: one woman's journey

A Saudi journalist prepares to participate in a 1,300-year-old Muslim ritual

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Tomorrow, I leave to perform a central pillar of Islam, the five-day hajj. But I must confess that as Saudis go, I'm not particularly religious.

Spending a week with two million Muslims from more than 120 countries, performing rituals more ancient than Islam itself, in the largest single gathering at one place for one purpose in the world, appeals more to the journalist than the Muslim in me.

I am wary of, but no less excited by, the idea of an appointment in the desert with God. Pilgrims performing the hajj, which starts Jan. 30 (the eighth day of the last month of the Muslim lunar year), seem to be answering a call, keeping a promise. "Here I am lord, at your service, here I am," is the chant that announces the start of the pilgrimage.

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As a Muslim with more questions than certainties, I wonder at the meaning of the daily rituals that make up the pilgrimage: the

seven circuits around the Kaaba (the cube-shaped stone structure in the middle of the Grand Mosque) in Mecca, the reenactment of the search

for water by Ishmael's mother Hagar, the march to and from the desert, and the vigil on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat, where the last verses of the Koran were revealed.

My sisters Reem and Taghreed, devout and practicing Muslims for years, don't share my uncertainties. "We don't know the exact reasons for everything. But we don't have to. God told us to perform those specific rituals so we do them," Reem tells me. They both ask me to keep an open mind and perform the hajj with sincere intentions, which should erase all my sins and leave me as pure as the day I was born.

Taghreed - a perennial student living in Paris - is very devout, but wants to get closer to God and is hoping that the strenuous and physically demanding hajj will boost her faith. "God said following my orders will bring us closer. And he's asked us to perform the hajj if we're able to."

Reem, a divorcée with her own business in Dubai, has a more checkered past and wants to consolidate a new, more devout persona.

She looks critically in the mirror as she tries on the white head scarf and long white robe she will wear, checking to ensure that the contours of her body are not showing.

"I want a fresh start. Performing the hajj properly will erase all my sins and give me a clean slate." She smiles and puts out her cigarette. "It's like going through a detoxification program, and going to the hajj will motivate me to stay clean."

Before we set off, we will bathe, wear our special ihram clothes, state our intention to perform the hajj at one of the five entry points into the sanctified area where the rituals are performed, and enter a sanctified state called ihram. During the ritual, which reenacts the pilgrimage made by Muhammad in 632, sexual abstinence is imposed, and killing or even harming anyone or anything, including insects and plants, is forbidden.

As an outward sign of this state of consecration, women usually wear white scarves and long robes and are banned from beautifying themselves or trying to attract male attention. Men wear white towels, one around the waist and one slung over the left shoulder, leaving the right shoulder exposed. They must also be bareheaded and unshod, but slippers and sandals are acceptable. The reason, says my cousin Allal - a businessman who has studied with Islamic scholars - is that all men will be equal before God physically as well as spiritually. Over dinner he give us a lecture about the meaning of hajj. This is also a dress rehearsal for the day of judgment, he warns. "Like a quiz before the test, to prepare us. Those who are not there will not be prepared."

In preparation for this journey, which every able-bodied Muslim is supposed to perform at least once in his or her lifetime, I am reading "One Thousand Roads to Mecca" an anthology of 10 centuries of travelers writing about the hajj, edited by Michael Wolfe.

The appearance of the hajj has changed dramatically, with jets flying people in, buses and cars replacing camels, and Internet access and surveillance cameras set up all over the four cities in which the hajj is performed. Yet the actual ritual has remained unchanged in more than 1,300 years.

The past few nights, I've drifted to sleep with the tales of various accounts by converts, Arab Muslims, spies, and fake- Muslim adventurers in my head. I'm starting to realize that though hajj is a community ritual, it is also a very personal journey, and like almost everything else in life, you get out of it only as much as you put in.

For that reason, I will try to perform these rituals with an open mind and an open heart. I might not share my sisters' devotion, but I will at least try to grasp and convey it.

Next: My first day on the hajj

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