Hajj Journal – Part 3 – Umrah and Coming Out of Ihram
Umrah was being discussed over freshly-baked bread, chicken sausages, spicy omelets, and green tea. All the meals at Anjum Hotel were elaborate with good selections from various cuisines. Our group leader had given each of us a set of meal vouchers with specific dates stamped on them. We had to show the vouchers when entering the restaurant.
It was being decided that we’d perform Umrah right after breakfast, around ten in the morning. Everyone would go, except my mother-in-law. Due to her knee problems, Ammi could neither walk faster nor climb up and down the stairs, so we borrowed a wheelchair for her from the hotel. After we’d finish our Umrah, we would return to the hotel to rest and then help Ammi with her Umrah after Ish’a, the last prayers of the day which was offered around eight in the evening.
Ammi was initially reluctant about the idea of us going without her. By the time we returned to our rooms to freshen up and convince her, it was already 11 am. Dhuh’r or the midday prayers were to be offered at 30 minutes past noon. When we reached Masjid-al-Haram, the guards had already obstructed most of the entrances by putting up heavy plastic barriers because the space inside was already packed with worshippers. We walked from one gate to the next until we found one that still allowed us in. Gates were manned by armed military men and nobody dared mess with them.
Inside Masjid-al-Haram, most of the pilgrims have settled themselves on the cool, impressively clean marble floor. Men formed one large group and women formed another, either next to the men or behind them, wherever there was space. Long, narrow gaps in between allowed for us to pass through. We walked briskly from one floor to the next, trying to find a way to get closer to the tawaf area so that we could begin circumambulating the Ka’aba and begin our Umrah.
“Do you know which way would lead us to the tawaf area?” Masood asked a gentleman walking in front of him. There were people in Ihram wherever we looked, and every floor and corner of the masjid looked similar. “Just follow me,” he replied, “I was just going there myself.” So follow him we did. I occasionally looked up to admire the huge crystal chandeliers that hung gracefully from the high ceilings. A few pigeons made their way in and were flying above the seated pilgrims.
The brother leading the way walked faster as the time for the midday prayer got closer. We turned around a corner to take the escalator but it was switched off. I noticed that as the time for salah drew near, they would turn off the escalators and cordon off sections of the masjid that were already full. This made moving around and getting to another section very difficult and confusing. We were glad to not have a wheelchair with us at the moment. We walked in a single line, holding each other’s hand tightly lest someone gets lost in the massive crowd.
We eventually found ourselves on the rooftop. It was noon and the sun shone proudly with all its might, the brightness of its rays magnified by the white floor and surroundings. We began perspiring almost immediately. We opened our umbrellas and promptly dashed over to a nearby Zam Zam drinking station. We could feel the ice-cold water course through our body as we drank our fill and the words alhumdulillah came straight from our hearts. The ladies did not even have to fill the bottles themselves; the brothers standing nearest the tap would look over their shoulders, ask for our empty bottles, and kindly fill it up themselves for us.
Looking around, I saw a few pilgrims sitting on the rooftop floor under the shade of their umbrellas. When I say “a few pilgrims”, I meant a hundred or so. Several pilgrims were in the midst of performing the tawaf, some of them older men and women, and I wondered how they were managing the heat. It was so bright it was hurting my eyes and I began to feel a headache develop. “Could we please go somewhere else?” I asked Masood. My request meant walking all the way back in from where we came from and losing precious time finding another way to get to the lower floor tawaf area. But I did not think I could focus and concentrate on my tawaf and duas in all this heat. I did not believe that one needed to purposely impose hardship upon one’s self just because one was doing Umrah or Hajj.
We went back in and made our way through the thousands of pilgrims all rushing for the prayers that were about to start in a few minutes. We just held hands and walked, not exactly knowing where we were heading towards. Masood led the way, I held his hand, my mother held my hand, my sister-in-law held my mother’s hand, and my brother-in-law held her hand. We were in the Safa and Marwa area when the Imam stood for the prayers. We immediately stopped walking and I took out the dupatta from my small backpack to spread on the floor. I brought along a big yet lightweight cotton dupatta, a long piece of cloth worn over traditional Pakistani clothes. One never knew where one could end up during the prayer time so it’s best to bring something lightweight to spread on the floor. When we first stopped, there was hardly any space for us to offer the prayers, but the brothers and sisters quickly made some space for us.
Right after the Dhuh’r salah, we made our way again to find the tawaf area. At this point heat, exhaustion and the overwhelming number of pilgrims made me wonder whether we’d be able to perform Umrah at all. Another gentleman showed us the way to the tawaf area on the ground floor. My eyes saw the magnificent Ka’aba and I quickly made dua. The slow movement of thousands of people in white circumambulating the Ka’aba at the same time was so hypnotic. Masood and Mushtaq bared their right shoulder by pulling down one corner of the Ihram they were wearing. We inched our way carefully to the spot where the green tube light was positioned up on the wall. This light is a guide to help the pilgrims determine where to start their tawaf from.
A few steps into our tawaf and I could feel people pushing and shoving me from all directions. I tried so hard to ignore and worked on focusing on my duas, but when a big, strong brother roughly pushed me forward with his hand below my shoulders, I stopped my tawaf. I told Masood I couldn’t do it from here. I felt angry, frustrated, hot, and tired. I started feeling disappointed and ashamed at myself for not having enough patience. Besides, my very petite 60-year-old mother was with us and I was trying my best to keep her safe from the crowd. I admired Ammi’s strength and patience; she never uttered a single complaint all this time.
Looking up and figuring out where to go next, we noticed that the middle floor looked considerably less crowded. There was only one way to get there and none of the cleaning staff seemed to know how. Or perhaps they were just too busy and tired to be bothered. Wherever we went, the entrance seemed blocked.
Finally, after almost thirty minutes of walking and asking around, we found the way to the tawaf area. There was actually a ramp that started near the Fahad gate. Once on this middle platform, we were able to perform Umrah without being pushed and shoved around. There were certain spots where some pilgrims had stopped to take photographs and selfies, thereby blocking the otherwise smooth circumambulation of the Ka’aba, but overall it turned out to be the best place to do tawaf.
In comparison to tawaf, sa’ee turned out to be an extremely peaceful and pleasant experience. We finished the ritual quickly and effortlessly, all our previous problems forgotten as we focused on our duas. We returned to our hotel afterwards to trim our hair, the men went straight to the barber’s. Every one had a nice, long shower afterward and we all went to have a sumptuous lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. We were no longer in the state of Ihram and felt very relaxed. I was extremely glad to see salmon and prawns in the buffet.
My youngest sister, Sonia, and father came to see us in our hotel later that evening. They stayed at the Swissotel Makkah for a week—their room offered impressive views of the tawaf going on around the Ka’aba—and were later moved to another hotel that came under the Mina area. We hugged each other and had a mini family reunion of sorts. Abbu’s feet were swollen so we insisted he remained in the room and rest. My sister-in-law was having a bad headache so she went back to her room. The rest of us returned to the masjid for the Isha’a prayers.
Midway between our hotel and the masjid’s gates, one of the larger wheels of the wheelchair on which my mother-in-law was sitting in came out. Fortunately, no one was hurt as Masood held on the chair’s handle firmly. While figuring out what to do next, a cleaning staff with white beard was working nearby and saw what happened. He came up to where we were and inspected the damage. “That can’t be fixed,” he said,”but you can return that and get a replacement. You can find the wheelchairs just across gate 1.” When Masood tried to explain that this was the hotel’s property, the man promptly pointed at a little red paint on the side of the wheelchair. “See that? That mark means it belongs to the masjid. Just go and have it replaced.”
Masood left us—both mothers and myself—just outside the ladies’ room situated not too far from the masjid’s gate. We could only see a walled structure from the ground level, one side was open to serve as entrance and exit. Instead of a door, a curtain gently blowed with the cool evening breeze. Beyond the curtain, there’s an escalator that took the pilgrims down to where the toilets and ablutions areas were located. Each such bathroom was clearly numbered so that it served as an ideal place to wait for someone.
It was a struggle bringing the wheelchair from one end of the masjid to the other. We were at the back of the masjid and Masood had to walk all the way to the front gate. The task became a challenge because pilgrims had started to sit and group on the massive courtyard so that there was hardly enough space for Masood to push the chair. He had to fold and carry the wheelchair on his shoulder on several occasions. Masood was able to return the damaged wheelchair and get a replacement. By the time he came back to us, it was time for the prayers so that we prayed outside that evening. Beautiful sisters from Nigeria were praying in front of me, while older yet strong-looking women from Turkey were behind me.
One of the floors near the Ka’aba was dedicated to pilgrims on wheelchair or those with disability. Usually, the guards would only allow one companion to go with the pilgrim in wheelchair but when that companion has other women in his group, they’d allow all the women to go along with him. This was our case. So even though only Masood was technically allowed in as his mother’s companion, my mother and I were also allowed in.
We performed another tawaf with my mother-in-law. And since we were no longer in ihram, have already showered and rested, this tawaf was done in a very relaxed state. I was actually enjoying myself, and the inner peace that I was feeling was so powerful. Next, we helped mom do her sa’ee. I was impressed at how my youngest sister memorized every corner of the masjid and she navigated the way so confidently and correctly as if she’d been visiting this place all her life. This was, in fact, her first trip to Makkah!
Coming Up Next …
Getting back into the state of Ihram and traveling to Mina, where we stayed the next three nights. How would our tents be like? We will be finally meeting with our group members. How will the arrangements be like? How was our first night in the tent?