About 8 kilometers east from the Holy city of Makkah, cradled in a low-lying valley, lies the incredible city of tents called Mina. What’s even more incredible is that this city only comes to life for 4-5 days during Hajj and then lays deserted for the rest of the year.
It was in this city that Prophet Ibrahim (known also Abraham, peace be upon him) spent the night before he was set to carry out an order by God to slaughter his son. As Prophet Ibrahim prepared to slaughter Ismaeel, God instructed him to sacrifice a sheep instead. Muslims around the world slaughter sheep, cows and camels to feed the poor marking Prophet Ibrahim’s supreme sacrifice.
Preparing for Mina? Leave Everything Behind.
We were all back in the state of Ihram by 8 AM. Looking out of my 4th floor hotel window earlier after the Fajr prayers, I watched the streets as they fill up with pilgrims, all leaving for Mina. Every male pilgrim wore only two pieces of white, unstitched cloth. More like towels, really. It looked as if the entire city of Makkah was in Ihram. Such an incredible site it was!
Leaving the our room to meet the group in the hotel lobby, our group leader took one look at the small suitcases that we were dragging behind us and said, “There’s no space for that; bring a small bag containing bare necessities.”
“But these are bare necessities!” I protested. I mean, we’re going to stay in Mina for three whole days. Plus, I’m the sort of traveler that would pack my kitchen sink if I could. How could I possibly fit all my important stuff in one small bag?
“No, that’s too big. No space.” His final word.
We marched back in the room, opened our suitcases (each of us had one small suitcase), and reevaluated what our bare necessities were. This is the time when you are reminded that nobody really cares about your possessions, that you have no choice but to leave almost everything behind. It was a tough decision, specially for ladies because there are so many things that we need on a daily basis.
So What Do I Bring?
When we reemerged from our room, each one of us had only a bag pack. The following list is mainly for the ladies. My bag contained:
- 1 change of clothes
- 1 extra abaya and scarf
- toiletries (unscented soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, comb, hair clip, safety pins, unscented/0 alcohol-containing deodorant, unscented/non-alchoholic wipes, small tissue packets, hand sanitizer)
- Two hooks with suction at the back
- 1 small towel
- 1 box of Smint
- pills (most women need to take pills in order to delay the period so as not to miss any Hajj ritual and prayer), paracetamol, vitamin C tablets, and analgesic cream.
- my diary and pen
- dua list/book, Hajj ritual printouts, a small Qur’an
- phone charger
- a folding hand fan (came out VERY handy)
- a small umbrella that folds and fits easily in the bag (this also came out VERY handy)
- flip-flops for the loo (however, since I chose to wear washable, slingback crocs shoes for hajj, I was able to leave the flip-flops behind. This turned out to be a very wise decision)
- phone and mp3 (yes, I bought one in which I downloaded several Hajj related lectures)
I had two lightweight, cotton abayas made: one in beige while another in light grey. Since I’ve read that it could get pretty hot in Mina and that there could also be a lot of walking to be done under the sun, it’s best to avoid the traditional black colored abaya. And it turned out to be a good decision. I also bought ready-made scarves that I can easily pull over my head instead of the long, pashmina types that I usually wear.
Underneath my abaya, I wore the lightest cotton shirt I could find and loose cotton pants. These kept me comfortable during my stay. Despite of all these light clothes and abaya choices that I made, I still ended up having prickly heat rashes all over my body.
Rewinding to the hotel earlier today, our bus was late, and it turned out that our group was one of the last ones to leave Makkah. While we were ready at 8 AM, it wasn’t until 2 PM that we reached Mina. Did I mention Mina is only 8 kilometers away from Makkah? It took us about two hours to reach the tent because of the traffic.
So What Was Mina Like?
It’s like a huge maze. An extremely crowded and complicated maze. There were tents as far as my eyes could see. There were people everywhere I looked. It was overwhelming.
Our bus stopped in front of maktab number 116. Tents are divided into large groups, called maktabs, each representing the country its pilgrims flew in from. Ever since we got our hajj documents and visas back, we had been told that ours will be maktab number 2, which is a stone-throw away from the Jamarat pillars (another place that we need to visit as part of the hajj ritual). I looked around; no Jamarat in sight. I looked up and saw a big UAE flag perched up high on one of the tents. It appeared like two group of tents were allocated for UAE. Across the road from us was India’s maktab number 45. It appeared like a dozen groups of tents were allocated for Indian pilgrims, that’s how many they are in number, masha’Allah!
The UAE maktab’s gate was manned by a uniformed guard. He would keep the gates closed and check each pilgrim’s ID before allowing him or her through. This wasn’t the case for India, as I’d been observing. Pilgrims seemed to freely come and go as they please in the Indian tents.
As soon as I entered the gate, there was a fridge on the right side that contained water bottles and juice packs. There was a coffee and iced-tea dispenser on a table. The cold coffee was not only very good, it was probably what gave my body the energy I needed to stay sane and calm in Mina.
To my left was a small stall manned by a young man selling Mobily sim cards. We purchased phone credits from him.
Past the sim cards and cold coffee, there were several rows of tents separated by tiny alleys. Green carpet, that looked and felt like soft grass, lined all pathways. Stickers were posted on the walls at the beginning of each alley. These stickers told us the tent numbers as well as the hajj agent’s name. A few steps ahead were the men and ladies’ bathrooms and ablution areas.
Our group’s tent turned out to be located on the second row to the left. There was a fridge containing water and juice every few feet. I spotted my tent. To my relief, Masood’s was right across from mine.
How Does a Tent Look From Inside?
While this is how it looks for the majority of pilgrims…
this was what it looked for us:
Alhumdulillah. Compared to the majority of pilgrims, the Emarati tents seemed like luxury rooms. There were twenty pilgrims in each tent, and notice how the walls were solidly built (not the usual teflon ones), and comfortable sofa beds were provided for us. And we had free wi-fi connection.
Since we were last to arrive in Mina, all the sofa beds were taken. Mom and I settled for the last two remaining ones that were near the door, away from the air conditioner vent. Each of us were provided with a blanket, a pillow, and a thin white sheet to spread on the sofa bed.
Our group leader was right; there absolutely was no space for an extra bag, let alone a suitcase.
It was hot inside the tent and I started perspiring almost immediately. The air-conditioner vents (there were two) were both facing away from me. I looked around and timidly smiled at the Emirati ladies around me. They were also speaking Arabic, making mom and I feel like new kids in the school where everyone already knew each other.
Lunch was served shortly after we arrived: huge, round plates of warm chicken biryani. Five of us shared from one plate. It’s customary for several pilgrims to eat from one plate or tray, emulating what Prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon him) and his companions had done. The reason behind this is to encourage closeness and humbleness, and obliterate any feelings of superiority. Truth be told, however, I felt awkward at first. Here I was, sharing a meal so intimately with these strangers. I was careful with eating the rice that was immediately in front of me, and when the chicken piece closest to me was finished, I felt shy to reach to the middle and get some more.
Two ladies were serving our tent. They brought the food, fruits, and drinks. They cleaned up for us. They waited for us to tell them if we needed anything, like more water or tea. They were a mother and daughter team. I was like, “Subhan’Allah, I had no idea one could get help during Hajj!”
I went out to explore more after lunch and also to find out where my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were. Their tent was about fifty feet from mine, and they had been provided with two electric fans as well. You see, the fact that women needed to keep the doors closed at all times (hijab purposes) made the room very suffocating.
I asked Masood to request for an electric fan for my tent. He was told that they will do their best to procure one for me. In the meantime, I managed with my foldable, handheld fan.
Do not expect clean bathrooms unless you’ve taken the VIP package.
Friends and relatives who’d been to hajj tell me to leave all my bathroom-related qualms (aka nakhrey, in Urdu) behind for this journey. “Do not expect clean bathrooms fragrant with pine or lavender,” they warned me. “Be glad you have a bathroom to use.” One aunt told me, “Bring hooks with you to hang your scarf or towel. I had no place to hang my scarf so I gave it to the lady waiting next in line to hold and she left with my scarf while I was still inside the bathroom.”
All their warnings were true. I’d seen the common bathrooms outside our maktab and I could smell them three kilometers away. Two hours prior to each prayer, there’d be a serpentine queue, and you only get 10 seconds before someone will start to violently bang on the door for you to hurry up.
Fortunately for us in the Emarati tents, there were enough number of bathrooms. There was still a queue but mostly an hour or so before prayer times, but my turn would usually come within 15 minutes. The worst time was before Fajr. The prayer was at 4:30 AM or so but I was already in the queue at 3 AM. My turn came at 5 AM because some of the sisters decided to take a morning shower. Luckily, this was a one-time issue.
Also, our bathrooms had a dedicated cleaning lady, abundant rolls of toilet paper, hand wash, dust bins, and hooks behind the door to hang our clothes on. The bathrooms were always clean. And this, ladies and gentleman, made us feel as if we were staying in a luxury resort.
There is nothing much to do the entire day, which is a test on how one chooses to spend his or her time.
The prayers were shortened and there were no specific hajj rituals, so we basically just had to spend the entire day in the tent. I noticed that the only time women ever left the tent was when they had to go to the bathroom. And they almost always went as a group.
Men, on the other hand, were walking about the area, drinking coffee, chit-chatting and making new friends, going out the main gate and inspecting the surrounding tents. I was also envious of the fact that they did not need to keep their doors closed so that fresh air circulated in their tents.
Initially, my mom and I assumed that nobody spoke Urdu/Hindi or English. Turned out, when they started to talk with me, that majority of the women in my tent were professional women who held high positions in their respective jobs, masha’Allah. I was genuinely impressed! The sister sitting next to me is currently doing her PhD in Abu Dhabi and works in the Department of Public Health. She’s the one I had the most fun and interesting conversations with. She and her husband were such down-to-earth and lovely people, masha’Allah. Another sister, the one sitting across me, is the head of HR department.
I spent most of my time reading my dua book and going through my extensive dua list. I had printed a 50-page dua book, because trust me, you’ll forget so many duas that you had intended to make prior to the journey. I spent a large amount of time reading the Qur’an – like reading really slowly and paying attention to the words.
The hour after meals was spent socializing with the women in my tent, getting to know them better. Two elder women were from Hyderabad, India. They got married to Emiratis at a very young age, thereby permanently moving to the UAE.
It’s extremely crucial to avoid idle gossiping whilst in Mina. It was extremely tempting to just sit and chat with these lovely ladies and you wouldn’t even notice the time pass by! I took it as a blessing that I couldn’t understand their language otherwise how is it possible to be spending an entire day in a room with 19 other women and not participate in the conversation? So while they chatted, I read.
Unlike the ladies in my tent, I went out frequently to get some fresh air. I would give Masood a call and we’d meet outside our tents and then go for a quick stroll to the coffee machine.
The toughest part for me was spending the night. The women had removed their abayas but it was still quite suffocating inside the tent. I had absolutely no idea how the women slept so soundly because I kept tossing and turning, the sofa bed feeling hot against my back. I looked at their sleeping forms and prayed that I would be blessed with a good night’s sleep. I’d put in my earphones and listened to the lectures I’d downloaded. Sometime in the middle of the night, I quietly crept out to take a cold shower. This helped me sleep for 2 hours and then it was time for Fajr prayers.
Coming Up Next …
The next two nights in Mina, sitting on the roadside with my father and sister in the middle of the night, difficult times for some of my companions, and about how the last day was the most special one.
Hajj is as much a personal journey as it is spiritual. No two pilgrims share the exact experiences. The Hajj Journal series on this blog reflects my journey from Abu Dhabi to Makkah in October 2014. These stories depict the pilgrimage trip as how it really transpired: day-to-day accounts of the rituals, the hardships, and lessons learned. By sharing the hardships we faced, I intend not to complain but to show you the real picture of Hajj as it happened. It is my experience that when preparing for this Holy journey, I spent hours looking for and reading personal accounts online and learn from these pilgrims. I craved for real information on what goes through a person’s mind during the rituals of Hajj. I hope, insha’Allah, that those of you planning to go on Hajj will find these posts beneficial.