The reluctant pilgrim's grudging return home
MECCA, SAUDI ARABIA — At the goodbye circling of the Grand Mosque, the final rite of the hajj, a Jordanian woman holding hands with her husband turns around for a last look at the Kaaba. Tears fill her eyes.
I know how she feels.
"Is that it? Aren't there any more rites we can do?" I ask my cousin Allal. He laughs, but he understands.
In the middle of our final walk around the Kaaba, the geographic and spiritual center of Muslim prayers the world over, my cousin Allal succumbs too.
"God you are the Generous. God you are the Mighty. God, you who are capable of all things, help us defeat our enemies. Help us defeat our laziness. Strengthen our faith and bring us back soon to visit your house," he says before his voice breaks from emotion.
I repeat after Allal, but my mind and eye wander, distracted by the colors, smells, and languages around me. In the mass of circling pilgrims, I see two Sufis in white turbans, their eyes closed, chanting in Turkish accents, "God is Great, God is Great, God is Great."
Tradition says that the Kaaba was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and the descendants of Noah. It is known as the House of God and is the center of our circumambulations. At one point, the crowd circling the large cube slows as we make our way around four Lebanese women causing a traffic jam. They have stopped to pray, kneeling on the marble skirt that surrounds the Kaaba, and just in front of a shrine that contains the footsteps of Abraham. Their husbands are standing and holding hands, forming a human chain around them.
On my left a group of Malaysians in purple and white outfits perform their Tawaf [the circling of the Kaaba] prayers in a singsong of heavily-accented Arabic, shuffling their feet to the rhythm. I join in with them, but Allal turns around and gives me a "keep up with me" look as we finish the last of our seven turns. Am I missing the point? I wonder. Isn't being a spoke in this colorful wheel of humanity part of the point?
An hour later, squeezed in the back of the car returning to Jeddah, everyone around me is sleeping. But I am too scared to nod off. I have become very comfortable in this sanctified world of the past five days. I've been free of worries about money, how I look, jealousy, and envy. I don't want to expose my self to the real world again.
When we arrive at my parents house, there's a goat running around the garden. "You haven't slaughtered it yet?" Allal asks the driver, and I look away from the goat with a splotch of green dye on its head, knowing it will be sacrificed soon.
The sacrifice represents the lamb with which Abraham's son Ishmael was replaced at the last moment. We will dine on part of it, and the rest will go to feeding the poor.
Allal joins us for dinner and my sisters and I appear in our jeans and T-shirts. It's the first time our hair has been uncovered since last Friday.
The television in the living room is broadcasting a scene from Mina in front of the Jamaraat pillars, and Allal can't help but give a final lecture. "Do you realize the importance of stoning the devil? The 70 stones we threw at the devil mean the next 70 times he tries to whisper in our ear he's already defeated."
I smile because I've got 100 whispers from the devil to go before he reaches me; I was throwing pebbles in bunches on the third and final day.
A quarter of the sacrificial lamb is set at the dinner table but I don't have any. Though I'm not a vegetarian, I'm disturbed by the sacrifice.
"It is symbolic of following God's orders, whether or not you know what's behind them, because God's words always have wisdom behind them that we don't understand," my sister Reem says.
"In the sacrifice, it's not the meat nor the blood that reaches God, but our piety, explains Taghreed.
It feels strange to sit around with my sisters, Reem's long wavy hair still wet from washing, looking just like we did a week ago, but feeling that we're not the same.
"What did you get out of the hajj?" I ask
"It made me realize that we are only here on this earth temporarily. Our real destination is the hereafter," says Reem. "If you have fun going out with men, or to New Year's parties, you want to have more parties and you forget God. But the hajj made very clear to me that we're in transit. I want to prepare, from now, for the hereafter. Some people use drugs, or relationships in their search for God, but there's a more direct way. Praying and continuously remembering Him."
"Is the hajj something you can take with you?" I ask.
"We can leave the hajj with the experience of it inside us. We now know that being close to God works and makes you feel at peace," says Taghreed. "We barely slept, we were up at dawn everyday praying, but the presence of God was energizing, instead of tiring."
Alone in my room I stare at the mirror. I'm still not sure why we had to go around the Kaaba seven times, or the significance of reenacting Hagar's search for water between the hills of Safa and Marwa. But I do feel different - more than the sum of my appearance, job, money, and education. I feel more centered and balanced, my backbone straighter. My inner space is larger and richer.
I want something to mark and remind me of this feeling, something I can wear or keep with me. I fumble around in my purse looking for a way to keep the hajj with me. I find only the badge which let me in and out of our camp in Mina and consider wearing it like a necklace, but discard the idea. I guess I won't be able to use props. I'm going to have to remind myself - with a little help from above.
• Last in a series. Previous entries appeared on Jan. 30, Feb. 2, 3, and 4.