The great pilgrimage reaches a climax as people flock to Arafat, despite the stifling heat and cramped conditions
Our journey to perform hajj begins like every one of our journeys here in Saudi Arabia, with a long wait for our government-scheduled coach to turn up. Just after the dawn prayer on Saturday morning, we are told the coach will arrive in 15 minutes. Three hours later it finally shows and we hurry onto it dressed in our ihram, eager to get started.
We first arrive in Mina, just outside the city of Mecca, which is filled with tents and will be our base for the next few days. The tents are not your average camping tents, they are more like marquees, and the objective is to fit as many people as possible into each one. Hurrying off the coach there is confusion and as we are not told which tent has been allocated to which person, so everyone rushes in to claim a spot.
Suddenly the tent is filled to bursting point with people, sleeping bags are being placed on every available inch of floor and arguments break out between almost everyone. Not exactly the best way to begin our pilgrimage. Eventually we are told some of us should move to another tent.
Arguments continue and as I pick up my bags to move next door. I stop dead in my tracks and watch as the government appointed official, who helped arrange our accommodation and transport, is accosted by several angry men. “Where is our tent?” they shout at him.
The tents should have been reserved early in the morning by group leaders, who are supposed stand their ground and ensure no one takes a tent that does not belong to them. The official, who I remember as being impeccably dressed in a crisp white outfit with perfectly coiffed hair at the beginning of our trip, now looks at the end of his tether with hair ruffled dripping with sweat. “You should have been here!” he bellowed. “You should have been looking after your pilgrims but instead you were at the hotel sleeping!” came the reply.
Eventually calm is restored. We remain in Mina for the rest of the day simply praying and resting, in order to be prepared for the next couple of days which are going to provbe the real test.
The following morning we travel to Arafat, a short distance from Mina, and again spend the day sitting in tents, though these are smaller and more basic. The heat is unbearable and it is a struggle to stay awake. I visit the bathroom continuously to perform wudu in order to wake myself up, but it is no use as by the time I return to the tent the water is dry and I am sleepy yet again.
Zuhr, the midday prayer, and Asr, the afternoon prayer, are read combined in order to allow the rest of the day for pilgrims to glorify God, supplicate and ask for forgiveness. The supplications made at Arafat are said to be very important. This is deemed the most important day of the hajj and if you do not come to Arafat your hajj is invalid.
Supplications begin and though the only requirement is that you must be within the borders of the plain of Arafat, most pilgrims prefer to stand on Mount Arafat itself, where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad gave his farewell sermon. Unfortunately, from our tent we could not see it but we soon ventured out to find it. Hitching up my abaya ever so slightly I climb over a wall, cross over a main road and walk up a dusty hill and as I come round a corner to the top of the hill, there it is.
Standing directly opposite the “Mount of Mercy” as Arafat is also called, I have a perfect view. The entire area is brimming with masses of white-robed pilgrims standing in supplication in the unforgiving desert sun, praying that their sins might be washed clean while a gentle mist of water, sprayed overhead by the Saudi authorities to provide some respite from the heat, blows over them on an unexpected breeze.
Here we sit on rocks or stand and I witness many a grown man weep as we pray until the sun begins to dip. At sunset everyone rushes to coaches, cars and pickup trucks to make their way to Muzdalifah for the next leg of our journey where we will sleep under the stars. Here we put down our sleeping bags, perform maghrib, the sunset prayer, and begin to gather pebbles that will be used the following day for the stoning ritual.
As everyone prepares for bed my cousin and I buy a cup of tea and climb some way up the nearest mountain, undeterred by a man who insists we will fall and spill tea all over our ihram. Thankfully, we don’t and we sit and reflect on the masses, all gathered here between the mountains and under the night sky to undertake a pilgrimage that has been performed for over 1400 years.
The following morning we walk back to Mina and cross back over the border by sunrise. From there we proceed to the Jamarat where seven stones are thrown at the largest of three walls, in a ritual symbolising the stoning of the devil. Symbolic or not, this ritual gets many people riled and someone even takes off their flip flop and hurls it in fury. We continue walking through tunnels carved through mountains until we reach Mecca and proceed to the Grand Mosque where we perform the same rites as we did on umrah a week earlier.
A quick phone call to our group leader confirms the sacrifice of an animal has been made on our behalf and our hajj rites for that day at least are complete. After a few hours sleep at our hotel we return to Mina and the following day, visiting the Jamarat again to stone all three walls this time. On the final day, we again perform the stoning ritual and the race is on to leave Mina before sunset as failure to do so means you are obliged to stay another night and perform the stoning ritual again the following day. Upon return to Mecca the only thing left to do is perform a final tawaf as a farewell to the Grand Mosque.
In the final days the city is overrun with pilgrims trying to make the most of their last few hours in the holy city by performing as many prayers as possible, not knowing whether they will ever return in their lifetime. Some don the ihram once again to perform one or more additional umrah whilst others simply want to spend time in the mosque performing prayers and supplicating.
The hajj leaves lasting impressions on all who make it. For Hamzah Islam, a 27-year-old, it was quite simple: “It’s just amazing to think it all started here. I love just being in the haram, admiring the Ka’bah, pictures just aren’t the same.”
And though it requires a lot of sacrifice, a great deal of patience and physically it is tough, with practically everyone falling ill at some point, I have yet to meet anyone who regrets it. “How long have you been here?” I asked a very elderly Pakistani woman sitting in the mosque. “40 days” she replied. “Has it been difficult?” I enquired. “We have come to God’s house, nothing here is difficult.”
This piece was published on The Guardian