Sunday, April 26, 2009

Hajj Vignettes #2

We left home at about 8:30 a.m. Friday morning. More than 30 sleepless hours later, we were sitting, clueless and bleary-eyed, in the Jeddah Airport, waiting for our passports to come back.

A random airport guy comes back instead. He looks as though he’s been electrocuted, hair standing up, frenzied eyes, compulsively drinking a cup of something. He talks with the men in our group who are trying to understand where our group leader is, when we can be on our way, and where our passports went. A few minutes later, the airport guy is shrieking and throwing up his hands. The group manages to stay calm as the man with our passports breaks out into a primal panic before our eyes. Egyptian, of course.

38 hours later. 50 tired people are sitting on a bus parked outside of Jeddah airport, waiting for one person to sort out an issue with his hajj fees. The bus is eerily quiet, amidst the honking of migrating buses and shouting, stressed-out, non-Saudi drivers around us. Our driver steps inside every half hour to count us… seven, eight, nine. No one is allowed in or out of the bus.

39 hours later and 3 a.m. Sunday morning. Thirty-three, thirty-four, thirty-five… My father-in-law mutters quietly, “No one left the bus. How many times are you going to count us?” The driver’s head practically shoots off his body and hits the bus ceiling. He raves like a madman for two minutes. Then he spats, “And now you made me forget where I was!” He begins counting again. Egyptian, of course.

My husband, next to me, is gasping for air, laughing uncontrollably, exhausted. I join him when I find he is still laughing hysterically, several minutes later.

40 hours later. We’re finally on the road to Makkah, normally a one-hour drive, but I have a feeling it won’t be that short. Paperwork, checkpoints, inspections, plastic bracelets, funny, little rules that you better not mess with. We stop every twenty minutes it seems. We’re stuck in traffic. My stomach growls loudly with hunger.

44 hours later. The bus stops at a “Welcome Station for Pilgrims.” I try to sleep, but can’t. I need to lie flat. I can barely smile at the awkward, sign translations: “The Ministry of Salutations is Joyful for Your Coming and Serving You.” A uniformed worker who looks like someone who works at Wendy’s steps onto the bus with boxes filled with colorful packages. FOOD! Oh yes, oh yes! I’m getting tired of our pasty power bars. We are all handed a confection-like rose, wrapped in cellophane, stuck onto a green straw. That’s all.

In the dark, I stare at the rose in my hands. I look at the other people on the bus to see what they will do. It looks like candy. Maybe a little too perfect. What are we supposed to do with it? I quell my urge to eat the rose—it’s foam; just a cheap little souvenir.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watch an exhausted gentleman sniff, take a furtive nip, then quickly lay it down before anyone saw him trying to take a bit out of a pink foam rose. A hysterical laugh rises like a lump in my throat. My eyes tear up and the corners of my mouth ache as I try not to snort.

A few seconds later, my hungry husband nibbles the rose. Exhuasted but oh-so-tickled, I break out into that uncontrollable, suffocating laughter that only happens when you have reached the limits of human endurance. Muhammad laughs along with me, if only that he doesn’t get what was so funny and is wondering why my eyes are streaming and I’m laughing so hard I can no longer breathe.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hajj Vignettes #1

I wondered several times during Hajj if I would ever write about my feelings and experience. Maybe I would write poems. Poetry would provide just enough elusiveness that a reader would realize there was so much beyond what was written. Writing about hajj fills me with sorrow and longing—sorrow that the intensity of those days has faded, and longing to be one of those people who still have a visit with Allah (swt) waiting sometime ahead in their lives.

It never crossed my mind to bring a camera to Hajj, but everyone was snapping photos right and left. We stood at the top of the jamarat before Maghrib, watching the millions of people flocking from every corner of Mina to throw stones. I wish I had a picture to show my kids and friends what a magnificent sight that was.

This hajj was the first occasion in three years that I was completely kid-free. While my mind often drifted to my children, wondering if they were safe and how they were feeling, the peace and freedom of responsibility allowed me to withdraw completely into myself. No matter what the surroundings were—the crowds, the hot tents, the rattling, steamy buses—I could be quiet, look ahead, my body relaxed, my mind and heart somewhere else. Unlike many people around me, I tried not to worry about where we were going, when we would get there, whether my bags were lost, how clean the bathrooms were, or how many people I’d be rooming with. I did worry a little about the little person inside me—I was six months pregnant and my second priority, after fulfilling the rituals of Hajj, was taking care of myself.

Here is my hajj experience in short, descriptive paragraphs now and then, whenever I am feeling reflective or want to record a memory.


A useful piece of advice someone gave my husband was: stay away from people who complain. Many times, I felt like I walked into a “Who is more miserable?” game show. Go for Hajj prepared for the worst. Then, when you meet it, smile and remember that it is part of the package whether you paid $4,000 or $9,000.

You will have endless cause to complain. You will wait at least eight hours in the airport for nothing in particular, you will have to go through senseless bureaucracy everywhere you go, you will be often haggard, lost, and confused and no one will tell you what’s going on or why you are in one bus and your husband was assigned to another, your group leader will stay in a hotel room while you and twelve other people share a bathroom in a stuffy two-room apartment, you will be counted and stamped and ordered around, it will be hot, you will sweat, your bus will break down a few miles from the hotel after a 20-hour bus ride, your bags will be misplaced and maybe your passport will be lost. Your group will turn off the AC and keep the windows shut, so you will sleep on the floor in the hallway. Plus, you might be pregnant with swollen feet.

Close your eyes, breathe, relax. Refuse to let anything bother you. Be like water, praising Allah, flowing peacefully through whatever gulley or jagged rock stands in your way. Smile, say “Alhamdulillah,” make dhikr, and when the complaining around you doesn’t stop, find the first polite excuse to walk away.


Tawaf--rhythmic, blissful worship. Circling the kabah, peacefully, whispering remembrance, in a sea of people moving like waves. Smells like musk, black sky, white clothes, fresh breeze cooling our sweat, doves circling overhead. Ears filled with voices of praise, prayers, and pleas. The words drift from every direction, “O Allah, accept …. All praise…. wronged myself … Lord of the worlds… Merciful … I’ve come to You… Creator … Only you.” Glancing to kabah on the left, tears in the eyes, heart is full, mind drifts to the sky, up, up, above our heads, where angels are glorifying in parallel, circling the kabah of the heavens.

I am here, Allah, I am here.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Four Weeks Later

For three weeks after M was born, we enjoyed the company and help of my mom. The girls were entertained and got to do exotic, creative things like play with the garden hose and sort pom poms. I sat all day in the rocking chair and nursed.

Now, we are on our own, and I sometimes imagine what it would be like to look down at this mom-of-three?

M is crying, squirming, arching her back, the beginnings of colic? Moona is waiting on the toilet, "Umee, I'm DONE! ... I'm DONE!... I'm DONE!" Buru is out to poke M in the eye or yank her out of my arms, cooing "Bebeez" behind gritted teeth. When I put M out of reach, Buru reaches for a plate on the breakfast bar and a bagel with cream cheese lands on her hair and the plate shatters on the already sticky kitchen floor. It takes every ounce of restraint not to scream at the scheming toddler.

"Umee, I'm DONE!"

I shout at Moona, "You're going to have to wait. We have a baby now." I grab a kicking and screaming Buru and toss her into her crib for a few crisis-free minutes. I sit on the couch and think about what to do next. In my arms, M continues screaming.

I really hope this baby isn't colicky.


Maryam on 3/11

There is a culture of sharing birth stories among women that I think is fascinating. I smile, because a pre-child me would have winced at the thought of talking freely—no, writing online—about mucus plugs and placentas and amniotic fluid. Now, I love hearing and reading other women’s birth stories and love telling my own—but only if you’re willing to listen to the long version (as opposed to the polite, 30-second synopsis). Sharing stories and creating a vocabulary around childbirth is a way of celebrating motherhood and recognizing our bodies’ reserves of strength and endurance—miracles that Allah swt blessed women with. Maybe I'm sounding like a hippie, or a feminist, but then again, I’m happy to be a little bit of both.

I started writing a post called “Birth”, but I hit a dead end before I even started writing. Can’t seem to find the arrangement of words that would capture the exhaustion, thrill, intense pressure, and emotional freefall. Writing out a birth story creates a sort of anticlimax for me, much as I love reading other women’s birth stories—telling it, it can always be retold, but writing it is too final. In the midst of contractions, I wished with all of my being that it was over—didn’t care about the baby, just wanted it out. And afterwards, the further back into my life the memory slips, giving birth becomes this explosive, out-of-body experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

The high of those few peaceful hours immediately after birth is indescribable. A new, baby wheezing, hiccupping, wet against my chest, eyes closed tight, fists curled. Nurses quietly bustle about the room, cleaning up, bringing pillows and warm blankets. All I have to do in the world is rest my head back on the pillow, soak up the baby in my arms, and thank Allah (swt) for His blessings and mercy.

Closest thing to heaven.