Millions of people travel to Saudi Arabia each year for the hajj. All, myself included, suffer from varying levels of culture shock
The old man wobbles as he stands up out of his wheelchair before the reach of his son steadies him. Carefully, he helps his father adjust the ihram – the two pieces of white sheet men are obliged to wear when performing either the hajj itself or the smaller pilgrimage called umrah – which covers his torso. Having seen to his father he moved on to his mother who is also wheelchair-bound, helping her to drink some water and pinning her hijab into place. A peek into his suitcase shows it is full of adult nappies for one of his parents or perhaps both.
If ever there was a moment which encapsulated the hajj, it was this. The pilgrimage undertaken by millions of Muslims every year is one of the five pillars of Islam and something that every Muslim who can afford it and is physically able must perform once in his or her lifetime. Those who make the trip, which takes place once a year, come from ever corner of the world.
The elderly, the young, those who are frail and in poor health, those from tiny villages or huge cities, those from undeveloped nations and those from the western world, man, woman, child, of every race and colour, here they all walk side by side on their way to prayer.
We arrive first in the city of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad made his home after making the hijrah – his flight from Mecca to escape persecution. The landscape of the city itself has changed drastically since my last visit nine years ago. I recall the Masjid al-Nabawi – the Prophet’s mosque – seemed colossal and the centrepiece of the city. In one respect it has not changed, it is still the point toward which everyone gravitates, but it is now almost dwarfed by the hotels and shopping malls surrounding it.
Leaving our hotel just before daybreak to perform fajr – the early morning prayer – I expected the streets to be mostly empty, but there was a steady stream of people on their way to worship. The only way to secure a praying space for yourself at the mosque at any of the five main prayer times is to be there early. Even at 5.30 am, space is extremely limited.
No sooner do I manage to get into the mosque and place my prayer mat down than the space next to me is filled and handbags are placed all around. My own space rapidly decreases until I’m pinned in on all sides and I can only see a small portion of my mat. In the end, as prayer time approaches I decide to cut my losses, pick up my mat and go to pray outside in the grounds, leaving bewildered stares in my wake, such is the shock at the fact that I had given up a prized spot inside.
Entering the mosque at any time of day, what strikes you most is the sea of colourful clothing representing cultures from around the world. Most people undertake any pilgrimage to Mecca in organised groups, with their travel, accommodation and participation in rites arranged for them. Members of these groups often wear coloured headscarves so that if they are lost they can find each other easily.
Some wear bright green scarves, others purple. One group from Kazakhstan are easily identifiable in sky-blue pinafores, another group wear an artificial red flower pinned to the back of their headscarves. Countless women have their country’s flag printed on the back of their headscarves and I have seen lots people checking the back of scarves to satisfy their curiosity. People are also referred to by their nationality. During one particular prayer when several women were blocking a walkway, the steward pleaded with them to move: “Africa please!” she begged, “Please, Turkey” but to no avail.
Escalators always seem to cause a problem, particularly for people from small villages and have never seen such a contraption. They always hesitate, building up courage before taking the first step.
There are so many differences between the millions of people who have made their way to Saudi Arabia at this auspicious time, but the reason we’re all here is exactly the same: to perform our hajj rites for the sake of God.
This piece was published on The Guardian