By Nasim Hassan

Delaware, USA

Every pilgrim who embarks on the journey for Hajj has a unique experience. People come from all over the world with hopes, dreams and wishes to talk to the Almighty directly. Most of of them are silent in prayers while others openly communicate with clear voices. I had this opportunity in 2012 and would like to share my experiences.

People going for Hajj can select the arrival destination in Saudi Arabia as either Makka or Medina. I start my journey on October 15, 2012 with a direct flight to Medina from Washington DC Dulles airport.

After about twelve hours, the aircraft is approaching Medina. I look out at the landscape. It is dotted with small hills without any trees or grass. These hills look vulnerable due to their clay and stone make up. Continuing on to the center of the city I see date palm trees along the road.

The customs and immigrations in Medina is a smooth operation as the travel agency collected our passports. The authorities checked the inoculation for meningitis. Without a certificate people are not allowed in Saudi Arabia. The travel agent Dar El Salam (DST) did good work and we were on the buses in an hour. Each person was given an identity tag with bus number and passport information.

October 16,’12 is a bright sunny day and the temperature is over 80 degrees Fahrenheit. After settling in the hotel, I see Masjid Nabawi right in front of me. Even the windows are facing toward Khana Kaaba. I can see people walking around in the shade provided by huge canopies. These canopies open as soon as the sun rises and close down after sunset. Masjid Nabawi now occupies a huge area. Hotels are lined up on three sides while one side has an educational institution.

I come out of the hotel and see a lineup of small and big shops. Business is in full swing. There are four major types of shops. Shops that sell gift items like prayer rugs, tasbeeh, perfume, dates/sweets and of course jewelry of all kinds.

Each entrance to Masjid Nabawi is named, such as, Bab Baqee and Bab Jabreel. Wash stations in the outer corridors are numbered. All one has to do is to remember the wash station number close to the point of entrance.

I walk around in the afternoon in the bazaars of Medina. People are very cheerful. Everyone is ready to help. At the same time one must be very careful in keeping limited amount of money in pocket. Even more important is a large presence of professionals who narrate stories of misery or having lost money and want fare from Medina to Makka. These people are well dressed with beard and a tasbeeh in hand. Several people approach me in a very polite manner and ask for help. Many of these people will tell you that they are from Kashmir or Pakistan and invariably trap people inside Masjid Nabawi where people are full of religious sentiments.

I place my shoes in a backpack wrapped in a plastic bag and head for the Masjid. This is a huge place with arches and pillars. People are busy in the recitation of Qur’an or are praying. After Iqama the people start to move forward. However, after the prayer starts there are many unfilled spaces inside the Masjid.

As soon as the prayer starts I hear the people coughing all around me. Perhaps this is the major cause of transmission of various viruses. About 10% of the people wear surgical masks for protection while others bring their own prayer mats. It is a good idea to safeguard against infection. The Masjid is kept thoroughly clean at all times but the carpets cannot be sterilized after each prayer. Zamzam water is available to all people at all times in Masjid Nabawi.

The stay in Medina has been very pleasant. I took a guided tour on October 18, 2012 to visit Masjid Quba, Masjid Qiblatain and the battlefield of Uhad. This battle in Uhad was a life-and-death struggle for the newly formed Muslim community. Large number of people visit the site. The people and the government of Saudi Arabia are oblivious of the erosion of the small hill where the Prophet had posted a contingent to offset any attack from behind. At the same time, the Saudi Government is very concerned about the contamination of Islamic faith with false objects of worship. So they have not preserved any home or monument of historical value. The place where the battle of Khandaq took place there is a freeway running without any historical markers. The knowledgeable people do point out various areas but visitors simply do not get any guidance.

People may object when I say the Prophet making great efforts and sacrifices for everything he achieved. This is in contrast with millions of people praying for everything while they never made any effort for them. It amazes me to see the people in prayer asking for fruits while they never planted or nurtured any tree.

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After four days of stay in Medina, I took a Saudi Airline flight at 5 PM to Jeddah on October 20, ’12. The group leader advised us to put on Ihram and declare the intention for Umrah before the flight.

Our bus took about three hours to reach the hotel in Makka. It passed through crowded bazaar with large number of people in South Asian dresses. It seems like a Lahore bazaar in Pakistan instead of Saudi Arabia with small shops and throngs of people walking in all directions.

As the sun went down our group leader told us to relax and gather in the hotel lobby for Umrah at 1:30 AM in the morning. His observation was right. The number of people after the Isha prayers gradually decline and we complete Umrah before the Fajar prayer.

Tawaf and Saee between Safa and Marva is very easy these days due to four levels. The people in the main area of Khana Kaaba were not pushing and shoving as during the day. The Tawaf took us about fifty minutes in the inner courtyard. By the time we finished Umrah it was already 4 AM. We went to the top level of Safa/Marva platform in the open sky. The weather had cooled down and after a brief passage of time the Azan was called. After completing Umrah we headed back to the hotel that was marked by the clock tower.

After my first visit to Khana Kaaba it was difficult to get lost. However ,I saw many Pakistani and Indian people asking for directions. Luckily, the people are very helpful during the Hajj season. While thousands get lost there are many who are ready to help. I am amazed at the zeal of old people running between Safa and Marva while I feel tired and need rest.

It seems like everything is within a human being. If there is nothing inside then everything outside becomes a meaningless exercise. Many people from Third World countries come with their lifetime savings and they are the ones who benefit the most from this pilgrimage.

The Hajj marathon starts with arrival in Mena camp. It is a bright sunny morning on October 24, 2012. Our group leader has already asked us to get ready with Ihram for the Hajj. We take the bus at 11 AM and start towards Mena camp. Makka has rolling hills with hotels all over in the vicinity of Khana Kaaba. The bus moves out slowly toward Mena. There are about four tunnels and dry stone hills in the distance. Even in early morning the weather is warm and touching 80 degrees F. We pass through the Azizia suburb where there are many apartment buildings This area is surrounded by the hills and there are many date palm trees. The buses pass over a bridge where there are flags of Turkey, Pakistan, India and many other countries.

Mena is a large tent city spread over miles. This is the area where people get lost because all tents look the same. We reach our Mena camp site in about two hours. Here the travel agent (DST) assigned the tents to a group of about twenty people. Chair beds are lined along the sides of the room. After rolling out the beds there is hardly any space left. These tents are air-conditioned but the air moves out only in one direction. While one side is feeling cold the other side is sweating it out.

Perhaps the stay in Mena is the hardest part of Hajj rituals. Walking outside the camp you can see a sea of people with many occupying the sidewalks without any protection from the sun or rain. Right in front of our camp we can see the building where the escalators take you to Jamaraats area. Even in the presence of clear signs people get lost and spend hours looking in all directions. The patience of Saudi police and volunteers is commendable. Although they never provide any guidance they are not angry with the people going in all directions. This is the day to get orientation as the Hajj is going to start on October 25, ’12. The main problem here seems to be inadequate washroom facilities. People have to stand in line.

On October 25 we start our journey towards Arafat. From our camp in Mena, the train station is about one mile away. After a good walk, we arrive at the train station. This train is called Al- Mashaer. The train waiting period is one hour while it is only a 15-minute ride to Arafat. The passengers are packed like sardines but thankfully the uncomfortable travel period is short.

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We arrive at Arafat around noon on October 25, 2012. The place is huge. You can see distant hills in the background of the vast valley of Arafat. Very few people dare to go to these hills because it is very easy to get lost. The presence of people within the area of Arafat between noon and sunset is the main requirement for Hajj. Hajj cannot be performed without this presence.

I stay around the camp and listen to a lecture by a scholar arranged by the travel agent (DST). Lunch is provided, however it is a good idea to eat less and drink more water. I cannot listen to the sermon from a distant masjid. We have our own arrangement for the prayers inside the tent.

As the sun is about to go down behind the distant hills of Arafat we head for the train station to take us to Muzdalifa. In Muzdalifa there is a carpeted area for our group while a huge crowd is spreading out on the open ground. Here people have to collect small pebbles and stones. There are no pebbles to be found. There are big stones that can easily hurt people but no small stones. I walk around the ground and stop at a fenced area. I see small fragments of stones in a fenced area with a police man. I use sign language to request the policeman to give a handful of the small stones. He is very kind to give a good supply and I return back to my area. Here again we have our own Imam for the prayers. A lady is trying to separate women from men of their family. Some people move but majority just ignores her heartfelt pleas. Here we talk with fellow pilgrims till midnight.

In October the weather is pleasant in Muzdalifa. There is no need for a blanket. I use my backpack as a pillow and lie down to get few hours of rest. Early morning at 4 AM Azan is called for Tahhajad. Some people pray all night while others are in deep sleep. Many people are coughing due to some virus that affects the vocal chords and causes shivering fever.

Some people leave at midnight while I decide to stay because my wife Raheela has changed her mind. After Fajar prayer we start back towards Mena camp. Here on our way we have our first encounter with Jamaraats. Early morning on October 26,’12 we go to Jamaraats.

In the evening we head towards Makka to perform Tawaf Al- Efada. The DST has arranged buses to drop us at a hotel. We reach the hotel in the evening and head towards Khana Kaaba. This place is very crowded. The first level around Kaaba is jam-packed. We start our Tawaf El Efada around midnight. Even at night it is warm without any breeze. It takes us more than one hour to finish the Tawaf and we move towards Safa and Marva. There is a top level open to the sky approachable with escalators and stairs.

I lie down in the open to rest for a while. There are many people performing Saee between Safa and Marva. I see old people running with religious fervor while I feel very tired. On October 27 morning we head back to the buses parked at Al Shuhda Hotel. We reach Mena camp and have the second go at Jamaraats. This time we hit at all three Jamaraats. After this encounter the Hajj ritual is essentially over and people are lining up for a haircut. There is a long line even with five barbers.

People are thankful and praying for successful pilgrimage. Since our return flight is on 29th October we have to head back to Makka to perform Tawaf Al Wada on October 28, ’12. Early morning we go for third round of Jamaraats and board the bus to Makka.

Now we are experienced travelers and know our way around. On October 28, ’12 we reach the same hotel and freshen up with breakfast and head towards Khana e Kaaba. Around 10 AM the place is packed with a bright sun hitting the pilgrims with full force. I decide to perform Tawaf in the covered corridor where the distance becomes about three times. This Tawaf takes about 1 ½ hours.

The pilgrimage is over and we head towards Jeddah. There is nothing eventful except the the news that super storm Sandy is hitting the east coast of the USA. Washington DC Dulles and New York area airports are shut down. We stay in Jeddah for two more nights. .

There are a few lessons learned from my observations and direct experience. I hope future pilgrims to Saudi Arabia can benefit from them. Here are the lessons:

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Selection of Travel Agency

Perhaps this is the most important decision you make. An honest and experienced travel agency will impact everything in Saudi Arabia. You are at the mercy of these people for visa, airline flights, ground transportation and location of your camp in Mena, Arafat, Muzdalifa and Jamarrats.

My friend Mr. Fasihud Din Toor selected the wrong travel agency and everything was messed up. He walked for miles from Mena camp to Makka for Tawaf. The agent did not provide the hotels, food or ground transportation promised in the correspondence. Many times he had to pay for taxi and buses. His location in Mena camp also required hours of walk to Jamaraats area.

So the best thing is to talk to at least three people with experience. Ask questions about the distance from Masjid Nabawi and Khana Kaaba. The distance of Mena camp from Jamaraats is also important. Some people have to walk for more than one hour to reach Jamaraats.

Review the Health Requirements

Discuss with the doctor about the medication and inoculation. Take supply of antibiotic, stomach upset medication in addition to all other regular medicines depending on your health.

Take the flue and meningitis shots and any other shots recommended by the doctor. Cough and sore throat problems are very common during the Hajj season. There are people from all continents bringing their own special viral and other diseases.

Wearing of Mask and other precautions

Consider wearing a surgical mask to avoid getting sick. I saw about 10% of the people wearing masks. This certainly helps. Masjid Nabawi in particular requires more protection. Every time the salat is performed you hear people coughing. Most of the area inside the masjid is carpeted. So during salat it is very easy to catch a virus left by a person from the previous salat. Another way to avoid the virus attack is to carry a small prayer mat in a backpack. Now you can pray anywhere and roll out your prayer mat. This certainly protects people.

Avoid getting lost in Mena & Jamaraats Area

The area of Khana Kaaba and Masjid Nabawi is very well planned. Masjid Nabawi has gates with names and wash stations with numbers. Khana Kaaba has named gates with numbers and a clock tower. So it is very easy to plan and meet at clock tower or wash station area if anyone gets lost.

Mena is a huge tent city and all tents look alike. People who dare to visit other sections can get lost and spend hours even with phones and ID cards.

Jamaraats area now has four levels. However, all levels go to different places. My good friend Khurshid Raschid lagged behind the group to take care of another fellow traveler. After the train journey they took the second level of Jamaraats. After the stoning ritual they continued walking and saw the Makka Towers. They had to go back walking for hours and had to take the fourth level to reach the Mena area.

Here I am talking of seasoned travelers with phones and ID cards. Even they had to spend hours in finding their way back to the Mena camp.

Plan ahead for available amenities

Some people need a chair to perform salat while others may require a wheel chair to perform Tawaf, Saee and other rituals. Small carry-on chairs are very convenient and it is advisable to take one in the backpack. For wheel chair, bus or taxi arrangement inform the group leader in advance. Follow the group leader for guidance. Everything can be arranged if planned in advance.

Taking Care of Money and Valuables

You must not carry money, driver license or credit cards or any other valuables while performing rituals such as Tawaf, Saee, stoning Jamaraats or walking around in bazaars of Makka, Medina or Jeddah. You can leave these items in a locker available in the hotel room or with the group leader who has other facilities available. I always left the valuables in a safe provide by the hotel. Just carry enough money for shopping and keep the phone handy. Most people carry a money belt. This money belt should also be secured within Ihram otherwise it could cut loose and get lost.

In the end I wish all future travelers the best of a blessed journey free of all concerns and issues. Consider yourself as a guest of Allah and ignore any difficulties. Keep a positive attitude and smile at minor discomforts. People are very helpful if one walks for miles with patience and tolerance. This journey despite all difficulties will provide spiritual fulfillment.