On hajj, battling sin and doubt

Millions of Muslims from around the world are attending the hajj (pilgrimage) in Saudi Arabia.

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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.

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.

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"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.

My nephew Saleh and I put on our badges, which get us back into our camp and help us find it if we get lost, and head off. The tiny city of Mina, a valley partly enclosed by a range of mountains, is like a huge picnic ground. There's a festive air to the city, which comes alive one week out of the year, as cars compete for space on the roads and bridges and highways with the huge crowds. Families spread colored mats on the sidewalks and other open areas as they read, relax, sleep, and eat. A man on a bicycle sells blue face masks, which a lot of the police officers and hajjis are wearing this year. A peddler hawks Hajj Mats with Inflatable Pillow Made in China to passersby. I hear Urdu, Hindi, Turkish, Arabic, and English as we stroll.

After sundown prayers, mosques around the city are broadcasting Koranic verses, sermons, and information about the hajj. The message: If you make it through the next three to five days without sinning or harming yourself or anyone, you will have accomplished a successful hajj. There's an aura of anticipation in our camp; tomorrow everyone will get a chance to have their sins forgiven and have their prayers answered, and they want to get it right. In the women's lecture room, in a tent near ours, the Islamic scholar is asked about cigarettes. Harmful, she says. And men who look at you? Try to avoid their gaze, she advises.

Back in my room, I hear a preacher talking over the loudspeakers about the meaning of the Day of Standing Together Before God, or Yawm al-Wukuf, which takes place the next day. "God will forgive us all our sins. We will be as sinless as the day we were born," are the last clear words I hear before he breaks down weeping. Soon I hear a second broadcast from another mosque.

I ask Taghreed what she's going to pray for the following day, but I can hardly hear her for the cacophony of the competing sermons blaring from the loudspeakers.

The lectures are over after the final evening prayers and Taghreed finishes her list of names of family and friends she wants to pray for. Reem, who's already done, contemplates what she's going to ask for herself. "Tomorrow I'm going to forgive everyone who has ever harmed me because I expect God to forgive me everything," she says.

An Egyptian sheikh comes over to talk to us and I ask him about the significance of the Day of Standing Together Before God. "This is God's favorite time and place. He has asked us to come to Him with our prayers at Mount Mercy in Arafat on the ninth day of this month. He has said he will forgive all our sins on this day."

"Why?" I ask. "What's so special about tomorrow?"

"When you love someone, you do as he says, and we love God and follow what he asks us to do. We don't have to understand before we do it, we will understand later. It's a matter of putting faith over curiosity and human nature."

The sheikh's answer sounds familiar. You will only know once you believe.

I am hoping that despite my doubts and curiosity, I will be considered enough of a believer to reap rewards at the plain of Arafat, though I'm not sure exactly what. As an outward sign of my good intentions, I refuse to kill the large mosquitoes that are sticking their noses through my robe and biting my calves, so that I don't break my ihram.

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