The bus crawled its way slowly through the massive traffic of Makkah. We were passing through a tunnel and everyone was wide-awake by now. Right above us were the towering five-star hotels that stood right across Masjid al Haram. Due to the lack of space for traffic and parking at the ground level surrounding the masjid’s area, authorities had created a huge tunnel and underground road network that connected these hotels. Buses transporting tired and sleepy pilgrims, police cars, private vehicles, taxis, catering vans, and hotel linen trucks all competed for a space in these narrow lanes.
Our hotel was situated right behind the Grand Mosque so I wondered what we were doing down here. Horror stories about hotels being mixed-up promptly made their way into my head, not that I’d mind it very much being accommodated in one of these fancy hotels. It was just that my in-laws were already waiting for us in our designated hotel and we had paid a hefty sum just so we’d all be together on this trip. I later understood that since most of the people in our bus were to stay at the Swissôtel Makkah, the driver decided to drop them off first.
It felt like forever that our bus was parked in front of the Swissôtel Makkah. Through the bus’ tinted window, I watched hotel staff frantically removing suitcases from the luggage compartment under the bus and piling them in front of the hotel’s entrance. Masood decided to go down and check.
A few minutes later I saw Masood running up to the bus, worry etched on his face. “Our suitcases are missing! I think they offloaded them all,” he said. “Wait here while I go find our luggage. Don’t let the bus go.”
It took almost an hour to search for and retrieve the suitcases. It was totally chaotic. Our bus was partly blocking the traffic. The driver was under pressure to offload passengers and luggages as swiftly as possible to make way for other vehicles. The group leader, all red and sweaty in his ihram clothes, helped Masood. The ladies in our bus became restless so I explained to them what was going on. Finally, all the suitcases were found and safely tucked into the luggage compartment of the bus. We then made our way to Anjum Hotel. Before we reached our hotel, the group leader gave us our room’s access card.
Anjum Hotel is an impressive structure that opened its doors this year to receive its first batch of pilgrims. I watched the tiny fountains artfully sprouting across the hotel’s piazza as Masood took care of our suitcases. It was almost two in the morning and the breeze was pleasant. Golden lights from the pretty lamp posts bathed the areas surrounding the hotel. A huge banner welcoming the pilgrims hung in front of the building. Once all our luggage were retrieved from the bus, we walked into the hotel dragging our suitcases behind us.
My mother and sister-in-law were waiting in the lobby when we walked in. Their weary faces immediately lit up with joy. They had just arrived from Madina and were excited to finally reunite with us. I almost ran towards them and we all hugged each other. My mother-in-law quickly made space for me on the sofa which she had been sitting on, but I had to politely refuse—after having spent the entire day traveling, sitting was the last thing on my mind. I quickly scanned the hotel’s lobby. There were other pilgrims occupying the other sofas. There were suitcases and bags everywhere.
While our room was already sorted out and our access key handed over to us in the bus itself, things did not look so well with my in-laws. Whilst in Madina, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law were placed in a room with another pilgrim, a lovely lady from Afghanistan. My brother-in-law shared a different room with other men, one of them that Afghani lady’s husband. It turned out that their group has arranged for the same sleeping arrangement in Makkah as well. I was sharing the room with Masood and my mom. We wanted the same for my in-laws: Masood’s brother, his wife, and their mother all in the same room. After an hour of politely requesting the hotel management for another room followed by another hour of arguing with their group leader (there were five men in my brother-in-law’s room when it should not have been more than three!), my in-laws finally gave up and accepted the situation. Besides, the hotel management told us that the hotel was fully booked and it was impossible to arrange another room. My brother-in-law would tell us the next day how when he got up a few hours later, he almost stepped on someone sleeping on the floor!
We took the elevator to the fourth floor. The hallway was sparsely yet tastefully decorated, the floor dressed in a thick carpet. Everything looked so new. The wooden doors to the rooms had intricate designs on them.
Our room appeared to be ideal for one queen-sized bed but there were three single beds positioned in the middle of the room so that headboard affixed on the wall looked completely out of place. With the massive number of pilgrims pouring in from all over the world at the same time to perform Hajj, hotels had to make arrangements to make sure there’s room for everyone.
All the amenities, furniture, and complimentary essentials were at par with any five-star hotel. While mom went in the bathroom to freshen up and Masood putting away our suitcases, I began rearranging the furnitures. I moved the coffee table and the two huge lamps against the wall to make space for a prayer rug (in case one of us had to pray in the hotel for some reason). In front of me was a huge, dusty glass window that appeared to be permanently locked.
I pulled aside the heavy curtains—noting that its olive green color looked pretty—allowing the white light from outside play with the soft, orange glow from our lamps in the room. The huge construction work immediately caught my attention. In the distance, I could see the white marbled wall of Masjid-al-Haram, its minarets proudly reaching up for the skies. People were already making their way towards the masjid. I looked at the time: three more hours before the call for Faj’r prayers will be heard and yet there were already so many pilgrims outside.
We were too exhausted to perform Umrah and it would be cruel of us to drag our parents out there so soon after traveling so it was decided that we would sleep a couple of hours, have breakfast and then go to perform Umrah. This turned out to be a very good decision.
While we slept in our air-conditioned room with the soft mattress cradling our tired bodies, hundreds of pilgrims slept on hard surfaces. Several men laid out mats or blankets on the concrete floor outside the masjid creating long rows and slept there. Others slept more comfortably within the new building of the masjid, still closed for pilgrims due to construction work.
I’ve heard so many stories about these pilgrims, most of them firsthand. There were those whose hotels were located so far away that the logistics became an issue for them to offer all five prayers in the masjid. Traffic was horrible and then there was also the fact that traveling costs precious money and time. It was each pilgrim’s objective to offer the day’s five prayers in the Holy Mosque, where each prayer is equivalent to a hundred thousand prayers. All the nearby hotels were five or four-stars, making it difficult for thousands of pilgrims to afford them. Then there were those who were cheated by their travel agents. These pilgrims arrived in Makkah only to find out that there wasn’t any room booked for them. It broke my heart to see one family with three small children huddled in a nook of the compound against one of the walls of the masjid, sleeping soundly as their parents put a protective arm around them.
Fortunately, the facilities of haram made things somewhat easier for these pilgrims. First of all, the masjid and its surrounding plaza were extremely clean. Drinking stations and water coolers filled with Zamzam could be found everywhere. There were bathrooms and toilets, all of them underground. While we always returned to the hotel to use the bathroom, I made use of the public toilet once mainly because I wanted to show the facility to my mom, who was in Makkah for the first time. Escalators would take the pilgrims below where row upon row of taps and marble blocks (that serve as a seat for those performing the ablutions) welcomed them. We went a couple of hours after the last prayer of the day was offered. Most people were either busy having dinner or resting so that the bathrooms were empty and clean. I had heard and read about how the bathrooms were almost always dirty and wet due to the number of people continuously using them, but it was quite clean and dry when I visited. For those who’d want to use the facility to shower, this looked like the best time to do so.
However, whether one was staying in a five-star hotel or camped out in the compound outside the masjid, one thing was impressively apparent: each pilgrim looked grateful for being here, on this Holy journey, to earn blessings and have the sins forgiven.
Coming up next:
Umrah and coming out of Ihram. We have had been blessed with the opportunities to perform Umrah several times before, but how will it be during Hajj? How did we manage with one person in a wheelchair? What happened when that wheelchair broke?