While the world outside was running its business as usual, there was an unmistakable feeling of excitement within me. The taxi smoothly cruised along the wide Sheikh Zayed Road towards Abu Dhabi airport, and I gazed outside the window wondering if I would be a completely different person when I returned in a few days.
The departure hall of the airport was quiet, the boarding areas unattended. We had arrived three hours before our flight, as per the strict instruction of our travel agent. “If you arrive late and miss your flight, we won’t be responsible. And we don’t do refunds,” he warned. In this particular case, however, it appeared like it did not really matter for most of our group members arrived much later.
On the other end of the massive and impressively clean hall, not too long after we arrived, a couple of young men in white kanduras were serving free qahwah, a type of coffee prepared by the Arabs that contains cardamom, to a large group of passengers—men of almost the same age, all wearing white, flowing kanduras. We had no idea who our group members were, so we walked towards this group to find out. It turned out that these men were indeed going for Hajj, but they were members of the local armed forces and were going on a different flight.
Unlike my father and sister’s experience who traveled from Karachi, we would later learn that there were to be no formal introductions involved as far as our group was concerned. In Karachi, the group members got acquainted with each other at the airport, prior to their flight.
Arriving quite early had its advantages; we were the first to check in our luggage and the first to clear immigration formalities. We had a couple of hours before boarding so we took advantage of one of the airport lounges (complimentary for Emirates NBD clients). Here, we had breakfast and later, Masood changed into his ihram clothing effortlessly in one of their shower rooms. It’s easy for the ladies because we can wear anything as long as it conforms with the requisites of being in hijab, so mom and I wore our abayas when we left home. Masood, however, had to wear two pieces of white towel-like cloth so it is important that men have a clean place to change into their ihram clothing.
My families and I traveled in three separate groups. My father and sister flew from Karachi, my in-laws from Dubai, while Masood, my mom, and I departed from Abu Dhabi. My group was the last to travel. I took out my little supplication book and tried to read during the flight. Occasionally, I would glance around and observe the other passengers. The flight was full. Most of the people were either reading Hajj related books or the Qur’an. In the row in front of us sat a lady, her face completely veiled. She was looking at pictures in her cellphone, but what caught my attention was how the screen of her phone had this huge crack in the center. Right across the aisle from us sat a kind-looking gentleman with two ladies. I remember one of the ladies giving me a sweet smile when she caught me looking at her. Except for us and two other couples, the entire plane was occupied by Emaratis.
The location of Mìqat was punctually announced by the pilot. We could hear his voice informing us that we were flying over the boundary, so I made the intention of traveling for Hajj with Umrah and made a silent prayer. These actions made me formally enter into the state of Ihram, which is the best state to be in as a Muslim. As with my previous Umrah experiences, once I enter the state of Ihram I become acutely conscious of all my thoughts and actions. This is quite difficult in practice because I need to be constantly aware about my mind harboring only pure thoughts (definitely no gossiping or thinking ill of anyone), exercise patience in all circumstances, always conjuring up ways on how to help others, remain watchful of my speech …
It is also at the mìqat when everyone should start reciting the talbiya until they enter the city of Makkah. I was quite disappointed to note that in our cabin, I could only hear Masood and a couple other men recite the talbiya; rest of the passengers were quiet. I was expecting the brothers to recite with zeal and enthusiasm.
Our plane landed at Jeddah’s terminal that is used exclusively during Hajj. Rows of dusty, tan-coloured tent-like structures stood out against the desert. We walked down the steps from the aircraft into an air-conditioned bus waiting nearby. The men quietly made space for the ladies. Some of them began taking group selfies. The bus then drove within the airport for almost an hour. There were so many flights flying in from all over the world and it made me wonder how the officials handled all the traffic and crowd.
An hour later, with everyone restless (but not really showing it out of respect for being in Ihram), the bus finally deposited us all near an entrance that looked more like a back door for airport employees. There were no elevators or escalators, so we all grabbed our hand trolleys and climbed up four flight of stairs.
We found ourselves entering another door that opened into a huge hall. One wall was made entirely of glass and offered a sweeping view of the runway. Looking down, I noticed a few armed military officers driving pass in their jeep. To my left, near the door through which we just entered, stood a wooden desk. A gentleman in uniform standing behind the desk offered absolutely no help whatsoever. When asked about where we were supposed to go next, he muttered something in Arabic which confused our Emirati companions even more. I took their befuddled facial expressions to mean that the airport staff did not have a clue on what to do with us.
The center of the room was filled with several rows of silver chairs joined together by a beam, quite similar to those you would find in clinics or hospital waiting areas. People of different nationalities occupied these chairs, some of them busy chatting, while others sat looking exhausted. A group of men congregated nearby to perform the As’r prayers. They dismantled cardboard boxes and used these as prayers mats. We saw no other staff and no written directions anywhere. There was a tiny room that served as a medical clinic. We moved further into the room and walked towards the only other door at the other end. People have crowded this glass door. On the other side of the door stood two men trying to hold the crowd in. “What’s going on?” we asked. “Oh, they’re asking for the pilgrims who flew in from Dubai,” explained a middle-aged man, trying to balance his backpack on one shoulder, a toddler on another, all the while making sure his ihram stayed in place.
Slowly inching our way through the crowd, making sure not to hurt anyone, we finally reached the glass door only to be told to go back in and wait to be called. They would call the pilgrims by country. Nobody knew how long this process took, so decided to find a place to sit and wait. By this time, thousands of tiny cotton fibers from the men’s ihram were floating in the air. My nose and throat began to itch and my eyes started to water in reaction.
Waiting to be called was a funny experience. In order not to get lost or left behind, we’d kept track of the passengers who travelled with us from Abu Dhabi, making certain we kept an eye on where they were. Turned out, they were doing the same with us! Every few minutes, we’d hear a commotion from the glass door and Masood would immediately spring and run towards it only to return saying it was for a different country. A gentleman from Switzerland began speaking with us. This was also his first Hajj and he was pretty excited. I found a wireless internet connection and promptly logged in to WhatsApp in order to update my whereabouts. The complimentary wi-fi connection was free for one hour so I was very careful about using it.
After what seemed like an entire day, we were finally called and permitted to leave the room. We walked down a slope that led us to the lower level of the building where the passport control booths were located. This room was as crowded as the one we just left. We were instructed to form four queues, one for the ladies and three for the men. We formed the queues neatly for 30 minutes, after which everyone just stood wherever there was space thereby ending any concept of a straight line.
If a staff needed to ask or say something to another staff, they simply raised their voices and literally shouted the question out. “HEY ABDULLAH!,” a staff from counter number 1 would, for example, shout at a staff at counter number 12 that is located across the huge room,”DO YOU HAVE ANY MORE OF THESE FORMS?” Counter number 12 would shout back,”WHAT? OH, THOSE FORMS! YES, I HAVE A FEW MORE OF THOSE.”
Women had it easy at the passport control section. While men had to answer a few questions, had to be photographed and their fingerprints taken, women simply had to stand quietly for a couple of minutes, waiting for the nice officer to stamp their passports.
The next dilemma after clearing immigration was finding our luggage from a huge pile of bags and suitcases. It took around 30 minutes to find our three suitcases. By this time it was already 7 pm, four hours after we had landed in Jeddah. Since it took this long for the passengers to clear passport control, the airport staff had to remove our bags from the belt to make way for the next incoming flight.
At this point, right after taking the above picture of the suitcases, I accidentally dropped my beloved phone. I took this as a Divine warning to focus on the moment and stop taking photographs for the blog.
After collecting our suitcases we had to go pass them through scanning. We then walked towards another set of booths where they asked for our passports and pasted Hajj stickers on them. Masood was pretty worried by this time because there was no sign of our travel agent’s representative.
Immediately outside the airport terminal building were two huge air-conditioned tents blocking the entire front area, thereby preventing anyone from leaving the airport without going through them first. But there were no signs to tell us what these tents were for. A gentleman who looked tired and sweaty approached us, asked Masood a couple of rapid questions in Arabic, mostly about where we flew in from and what the name of our travel agent was, and then proceeded to hurl our suitcases onto a truck parked nearby. He then instructed us to proceed into the tent.
Confounded over what just transpired, we reluctantly left our suitcases with the man in red jumpsuit and walked into the tent. Inside, the entire floor was covered with a worn-out carpet. Four huge air-conditioning units were blowing cold air from different corners. Two long tables lined each side of the tent and several men sat behind the tables. They first asked which country we flew in from and then directed us to another man sitting at the end of the table. That gentleman took our passports, removed the cheque that was stapled inside (payment for the hotel that was attached by our travel agent in Abu Dhabi), and then attached more stickers in the passport.
Masood bought a local sim card and I immediately called my father to inform him of our arrival. He and my sister were with their group members in Masjid-al-Haram for the Ish’a prayers. I was too distracted to notice where Masood found our travel agent’s representative (or where he found Masood), but the next thing I knew I was running behind them. My mom was pulling my hand, indicating to walk faster in order not to lose the men in the crowd.
The man brought us to an open area with orange-colored benches and asked us to wait for the other members of the group to arrive. They offered us bottles of Zam Zam water and packets of juice to drink. There were also fresh dates and cupcakes. There were huge electric fans but we were still perspiring. There were people everywhere we looked, travelers who were already exhausted and hungry. I was extremely grateful for the Zam Zam water bottles.
We were finally gathered together as a group and led towards the huge parking lot of the airport where hundred of buses stood. These were air-conditioned buses with a bathroom, soft seats that recline comfortably, and adjustable footrests. All the conversations took place in Arabic; our group leader did not speak or understand English or any other language.
I ate the marble cake that I had saved from the flight. I’d been on a no-sugar and low-carb diet for a month now and was saving the cake for someone else, perhaps a stranger who was hungry and did not have anything to eat. However, I got so hungry that the cake tasted like one of the best I’d ever had in a while. The driver was still nowhere to be found. The older gentleman sitting two seats from us struggled to insert a straw in a packet of juice. As he forced the straw into the tetra pack, the juice spilled all over his white shirt. He muttered something in Arabic before throwing the juice packet outside the bus door.
The group leader took our passports from us. The idea of not having our passports with us and giving them over to those strange men— who neither spoke English nor gave us any written proof of having our passports with them—made Masood very nervous.
However, this was how it worked during Hajj: the moment a pilgrim lands in Saudi Arabia, he or she needs to hand over the passport to the group leader who, in turn, keeps the passport safe and takes the responsibility to show passport to authorities who ask for it. The pilgrim will now see his or her passport again only after Hajj, upon departing the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
We’d been sitting for an hour in the bus and the driver seat was still vacant. We learned, through communicating in broken Arabic and exaggerated sign languages, that someone did not give their passport so that they were trying to trace who this person was.
Finally, six hours after our flight landed in Jeddah, we finally began our road trip to Makkah.
The steady speed of the bus, the gentle rocking motion of the drive, and the dimmed lights lulled me into a sleep. I’m not sure how long I slept but I suddenly awoke to find the bus parked and the driver missing from behind the wheel. I looked around to find most of the passengers asleep. I parted the curtains to peek outside the window. It was dark outside but I could see a huge concrete bridge to my left and more buses to my right. White and blue lights from a nearby police car flashed in a tempo that is common with police cars and ambulances. I suspect that we had arrived at the border of Makkah, where passports are carefully checked. Non-Muslims are not permitted beyond this border.
The two gentleman sitting behind me were immersed in some discussion. In my sleep-induced state of drowsiness, I found it weird that I was able to comprehend what they were talking about. “Have I mastered Arabic in six hours?” I wondered. I decided to close my eyes and eavesdrop. Turned out, the men were talking in English. They were debating whether or not stitches in footwear were allowed for men whilst in ihram. I fell asleep listening to their conversation.
We awoke to find ourselves in the city of Makkah and our bus stuck in traffic. It’s thirty past midnight. This meant that it had been 17 hours since we left home, 9 hours since we landed in Saudi Arabia, and 3 hours since we left Jeddah Airport. I’d been told over and over again, by friends and families who had already performed Hajj, that once a person embarks on this Holy journey they should pay no heed to their watches. Time doesn’t really matter except for when one hears the call to prayers. This meant that when pilgrims travel from point A to point B, it could either take 30 minutes or 3 hours, depending on several factors. Patience was the key to get through these delays.
Coming up next:
The hotel quandary. The total chaos when traffic and language barriers merge. Lost suitcases. Helpful people. Hotel room dilemma. A stark contrast between hotel accommodations. And how the authorities sheltered those who needed a place to rest.
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 crave 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.