Pelting the pillars, again

Our walk around the Kaaba Sunday night signals the end of our sanctified state, but not of the hajj. We perform dawn prayers Monday at the Grand Mosque in Mecca and head back to Mina for the two days of stoning the pillars representing the devil.

My sisters change into their regular clothes under their black abaya robes. I find myself clinging to the sanctity my white robes represent, but add a black and white head scarf.

Sunday's deaths at the pillars give us pause. We want to continue our rites, but spend the day at the camp, waiting for the crowds to ease.

Monday evening, my sister Reem runs into our tent waving a set of pens and exclaims: "We won. We won."

After sunset prayers, religious quiz contests are held in the men's and women's prayer rooms. Her team came second. Reem's winning answer: a quote by the Prophet about what to say after prayers.

About an hour before midnight, my cousin Allal storms into our tent's living room. "Get up, girls. Get ready. It's time."

Like soldiers preparing for battle, we put on our face masks, strap on our waist pouches, and count our pebbles - we need 21 today, seven for each of the Jamaraat pillars.

We're told that tradition dictates that we go from the smallest obelisk to the largest. They represent the devil's three appearances before Abraham. Pilgrims throw pebbles to send away Satan in the same way Abraham is said to have done.

There's a sense of excitement and adventure and danger as we move slowly behind a camp employee carrying a banner with the name of our camp, The House of Faith. "If he drops the banner, I'll pick it up and continue walking," jokes Reem. "You guys just follow me."

It's close to midnight when we arrive at the bridge, lit up with fluorescent lights where we will stone the pillars at the second open-air level. Pilgrims with small red and white Turkish flags stitched on their vests speed by us trying to stay with a group led by a man shouting through a bullhorn. By the side of the bridge eight Albanians strike a pose like soccer players for the camera.

I feel a thrill when we get close to the first pillar. I spot a narrow opening in the crowd, grab the hand of my nephew Saleh, and move in. The crowd in front of me is four meters deep. I say, "In the name of God," and jump up to free my arm so I can throw a pebble. After the third throw my pouch is empty. My pebbles must have fallen out while I was jumping. Saleh is out of ammo too, and starts picking up pebbles from the ground, and I join him.

We hurry to the second pillar, weaving through the crowd. I get so close my stomach is pressing against the wall surrounding the pillar. I can see the pilgrims on the ground level throwing their stones. Yesterday, my stones hit people in the back of the head. Today, it's my turn to be pelted. I smile. I am happy I've gotten this close.

I push my way out of the crowd and meet up with Reem and Taghreed. We're all smiling, as if our team's just won the stoning championships. "We got him," I say, referring to the devil.

We head back to our camp, pushing against the tide moving toward the pillar area. The main road is packed with vehicles. A bus stops across from the stairs that lead to the pillars, blocking a motorcycle and a police car accompanying a V.I.P. in a Mercedes with tinted windows.

Two policemen on the street start hitting the bus with their hands. "Move. Move now. " It doesn't budge.

I wait to see what happens. Such displays of defiance of authority are rare in Saudi Arabia.

"I'm discharging pilgrims," the bus driver shouts back. I'll move when they get out."

I smile at his determination and walk off to join my sisters.

We're strolling along beside people sleeping under trucks, in the baggage compartment of buses, under plastic sheeting, and in one-man pup tents. We move forward, and almost step on a man and his wife sitting on floor mats, chatting and sipping tea. About a dozen Filipinos are eating dinner - noodle soup with coconut shavings - on mats spread out on the road. A file of young men with long beards walks past chanting, Allah akbar (God is great). We're across the street from them but Taghreed joins in, chanting until they pass.

I look at her as she watches their receding backs. Though everyone here is going about their business, I sense that we are all connected by the experience.

Reem stops by a stall selling long robes and buys one for Saleh. I buy some prayer beads. Taghreed asks for cigarettes but can't find any.

She bites into her apple. "That was really fun. I feel exhilarated. I feel as if a huge load's been lifted off my shoulders."

I'm not sure if it's the disjointed sleep, or the changed eating habits, or being in the same tight space as 2 million praying pilgrims, but I, too, have started to feel lighter, with an unexpected warmth in my chest.

Next: Our last trip to Mecca

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