FEB. 1, MINA, SAUDI ARABIA — I haven't listened to music, watched television, or read a novel since last Thursday. My hajj so far has been three days of sermons, lectures, and rites; a bit like religion camp.
After dawn prayers Saturday in Mina, the 10 of us squeeze into the four-wheel drive heading for Arafat, where we will spend the day in prayer until sunset. We're seated in the back and I ask my sisters Reem and Taghreed if, like me, they find our guide attractive. Reem's answer is a smile. She intones the Talbiya (the oft-repeated hajj prayer): "Here I am God. Here I am. Answering your call. Here I am, God, at your service...."
"What? You mean I shouldn't even think that?" I ask.
"You can think it, but then take it out of your mind," Taghreed says. "And not share it," adds Reem.
I look out the window. The three-lane road from Mina to Arafat is covered with men and women in white walking, riding doubledecker buses, or sitting on top of buses where the baggage is supposed to go. Cops in fluorescent vests and face masks keep traffic circulating and huge police tow trucks are parked at intervals.
The line of people moving toward Arafat stretches as far as I can see and the five-mile journey takes us a little over an hour and a half.
The Plain of Arafat is where Adam and Eve were reunited after leaving Eden. This is meant to be the apogee of the hajj. We are to spend the day supplicating God and begging for His forgiveness. By the end of the day, all our sins will be forgiven.
At the camp in Arafat, our tents are the real thing - cloth, pitched in sand, with rugs on the floor and low cushions lining the walls. In keeping with the spirit of things, minarets are printed on the inside of the tent.
My nephew Saleh and I go exploring. Men in the back of a large truck are tossing off boxes of free water and free meals. A couple of adolescents are calling out "Sabeel " (charity), and offering apples and tangerines. A Pakistani pilgrim makes a beeline for a handicapped African man on crutches and slips money into his hand.
An old woman sits on a collapsed cardboard box begging in the middle of the road.
I walk behind a group of women with small Iraqi flags sewn on the back of their white head scarves. Hajjis From Iraq is stitched underneath it in black.
We head for the Namira Mosque, where the prophet gave his last sermon. It's so crowded with people that the two- or three-block walk takes us half an hour.
The Day of Arafat is officially over at sunset, and so shortly before the last rays paint the sky everything comes to a halt. People lay their mats on the road and start praying, their hands in the air. The rows of petitioners spread out on the asphalt road are so tightly packed that even walking past them is difficult.
Saleh and I navigate our way back with the help of the three huge balloons flying several hundred yards in the sky marking the three largest camps.
I go with my sisters to the prayer tent where a Saudi scholar is giving that day's sermon and prayer session.
"Today is the day to ask God for everything you want, in detail, nothing is too small or too insignificant. He hears everything you say. He will answer all your prayers. He has promised. He loves you. He wants to make your every wish come true but He wants you to ask."
A chorus of "amens" goes up as many of the women raise their hands in supplication. Some are crying.
"There are three conditions," she continues. "You must be patient. Your hajj should not be made with money gained unlawfully or sinfully. And you must believe in His good intentions. You must have faith in Him."
She tells the story of a woman who tried to conceive through artificial insemination 19 times. On the Day of Arafat, she spread her prayer rug and insisted. "God, I want a child. I want to be a mother. You are going to give me a baby because I'm asking you here in Arafat, on the day of Arafat."
The lecturer starts weeping when she gets to the part about the woman becoming pregnant several months later. I, too, am crying, touched by the idea of a God who loves us. So is my sister Taghreed and all the other women in the tent.
I'm still weeping when the sermon ends. I want so much to believe everything this woman is saying but something stubborn inside me gets in the way. Maybe it's the devil whispering in my ear. But I'm getting ahead of myself, that's the next stage of the journey.
After sunset prayers the whole procession moves to Muzdalifah. We spend some time under the stars, eating, praying, and picking up stones the size of chick peas for the stoning of the pillars. This ritual commemorates Abraham's stoning of Satan when the latter tried to tempt him to disobey God.
By two in the morning, we've reached Mina and the area with the three pillars, which are under a bridge. It's getting crowded. A group of Egyptian pilgrims is chanting the Talbiya, their voices echoing under the steel beams. A group of about 50 follows a pilgrim guide carrying a large blue banner, a smaller group follows an old man carrying a stick with an orange scarf tied at the end. I see a woman coming in the opposite direction separated from her group. "China's Pilgrims" is written on her colored skirt.
Hundreds of pilgrims have died in stampedes here - in 2001, 1998, and 1994 - and as we get closer to the large pillar we will stone, the crowds get tighter, and tenser. I know this is the most dangerous part of the hajj. The sound of a distant ambulance echoing under the bridge scares a group of Malaysians, and they start running towards the pillar.
Reem and I do some of our own pushing and get as close to the pillar as we can.
"In the name of God. God is great," we say and fling our first pebble. I cringe as my stone lands on the back of the head of a pilgrim in front of me. There's no room to move my arm to throw. So do the next two. I jump up to free my arm for the next tosses and the last four fall in the general area of the pillar.
We push back through the throng, and return to our tent in Mina to sleep for a few hours. Sunday morning I'm awakened by my cellphone - my mother is calling to see if we are OK. It's the first of many urgent calls. Family and friends tell us the news: 244 people were crushed to death in a stampede near the pillars six hours after we left. Fifty-four Indonesians and 36 Pakistanis are among the dead, we hear later in the news reports.
I feel a deep sadness and find myself asking God to be kind to them. But I feel it's so unfair that they should die this way.
To control the size of the crowds, in recent years the Saudi government has set quotas for the number of pilgrims from each country. There were 10,000 security forces on duty in the area. But it wasn't enough.
"God chose for them to die during hajj. Their time had come. They will go straight to heaven," Reem tells me.
After sunset prayers Sunday a former Egyptian movie star turned preacher gives that day's religious sermon in the women's prayer room.
"You are all newborns today. All your sins have been erased. You have been given a miraculous chance and should try to maintain this pure state. From now on you should live according to God's orders. Not your husband's, not your children's, not your workplace. On the day of judgement, nothing will count except your relationship with God."
Later, alone in my room, I get a call on my cell phone from a male friend. He starts to flirt. I find myself going cold and changing the subject. I've never been in a sanctified state before and I find, to my surprise, that I don't want to lose it. There's something very pleasant about it. Something more attractive than even my friend. I feel a lightness, a sense of security, a warm feeling. Maybe this is what if feels like to start a relationship with God. And if everybody here is to be believed, it lasts longer than marriages, kids, work, beauty, youth, and money.
• Tomorrow: We circle the Kaaba.