On hajj, battling sin and doubt
Millions of Muslims from around the world are attending the hajj (pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia.
FRIDAY, JAN. 29, MINA, SAUDI ARABIA
For the next five days I'm asked to concentrate only on God. "We're not going to talk about guys, or gossip or anything," Reem warns me. "I'm going to take advantage of the next five days and I don't want the two of you to distract me," she says, but I think she means mainly me.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Consider hajj a short board meeting, says my cousin Allal. "Concentrate on prayers and God and trying to be a better person during the next five days and forget everything else."
As we head to our rooms to get ready for ihram (state of hajj-related sacredness; also the pilgrims' garb), she looks closely at my hands. "Is that nail polish? And on your feet too?" She shakes her head in consternation and fetches cotton and nail polish remover.
"Hurry up, we don't have much time."
As I pass the cotton over my nails, I try to get into the right frame of mind. Alone in my room, I pack my purse, removing my lipstick, perfume, and blush. Then I cut my nails, bathe, and wash my hair. As I go through my ihram preparations I try purposefully to shed the worldly and concentrate on the Godly.
I look in the mirror as I put on my white head scarf, T-shirt, pantaloons, and white robe and talk myself into a spiritual immersion to accompany the physical transformation.
Suddenly the smile of a man I recently had dinner with comes to mind. I shoo the image away but continue to trip over my thoughts as I try to clear my mind of everything but God.
"It's all right," says Reem. "Just do your best and try to get your thoughts back on track." Soon it's time for the hajj intention prayer before we set off. "You remember how, don't you?" she asks.
I don't answer and she lays out a prayer rug in front of us. "Repeat to yourself what I say out loud."
The Koranic verses are as familiar to me as the voice of my mother and father. But the prostrations are not. With a sideways glance, I follow Reem's choreography closely, checking to see whether she will go down halfway, her hands on her knees, or if it's time for us to prostrate fully with our forehead on the floor.
I make it without major mistakes.
The sun is gentle as we set off for Mina, where we will spend the night. On the way, I see cars and buses and pickup trucks loaded with men in the ihram. I feel close to those strangers, and it reminds me of the feeling of belonging when I was a child and we would go to the beach with my uncles in a caravan of five cars. We reach Mina several hours later and are led to our first-class accommodation; luxurious prefabricated structures with open tent-like awnings for ceilings and portable bathrooms with sink, shower, and toilet. With my cousin and his wife's family there are 10 of us sharing four rooms and a living room with a computer, television, telephones, and Internet access. But these lodgings are atypical.
A dozen pilgrims often share one room and many sleep outdoors on mats if the weather permits. After a nap, I decide to go out exploring with my nephew. Taghreed, a heavy smoker who left her cigarettes behind on purpose, gives me money when I head out. "Marlboro Lights please," she says, then gives me a 'Don't cross me' look.