Hajj Recap Part 1 - Madinah


This is the Part 1 of #Hajj2015 Recap series. You can check out the other installments here:

Getting to Madinah, Dua Lists, and No iPhone

My journey started early in the morning before fajr, with a friend dropping me off at the airport and giving me last minute advice about making Hajj. This was it. The ultimate journey. There are five pillars, this was to fulfill one of them in its entirety.

This trip was significant not just because it was my first time to make Hajj, but it was my first time to visit the holy sites period. No prior umrah, no prior visit of any kind. The moments, days, and weeks leading up to this trip were full of reflection. Was I really deserving of (as almost everyone phrased it) an "invitation from Allah"? What changes did I want to make after? What if I don't make it back?

Then there are the dua lists. What major things did I need to make dua for myself the most? And then my family, friends, and other requests. One thing I struggled with was whether or not to make a formal request if anyone wanted to send a dua list. Friends of mine have done this, and I have submitted dua requests myself. Plus, Arafat is a long day (more on that later) and you need 6 hours of dua to fill it up. One thing that struck me is many people had essentially the same dua requests - finances/debt, and marriage/family. In fact, before leaving, my grandmother specifically told me to make sure I prayed that all the Muslims in the world trying to get married are able to get married (ameen). When someone requests you to make dua for something, it is really a window into the difficulties that are front and center with their lives.

But before getting to the spiritual reawakening, there were some technical difficulties to sort out. I was traveling without my iPhone.

The journey started with a direct flight from LAX -> Madinah.

Saudi Arabian Airlines

I was hoping the flight would be a sign of things to come.

The in-flight internet was definitely a rip off. Especially because it stopped working completely just a few hours into the flight.

Saudi Arabian Airlines WiFi

After the long flight (albeit with a full row to myself to lie down in and sleep), we finally landed in the blessed city of our beloved Rasool (saw).


Small Miracles

Once we landed, I was anxious to just get to the masjid and pray. But first, there was the mini-journey of getting from the airport to the hotel. It was at this time that I learned everything on this trip happens purely by the qadr of Allah (swt). If I was to explain how our bags didn't go to the baggage claim, but instead ended up outside, and then were loaded onto a 1970's model bus, transported to a storage area in our hotel, and then into our rooms - there would be no logical explanation for how it worked without any problems. It just worked. And that is one of the miracles of hajj.

The miracles of hajj are really in the little things. It is when something should go wrong, and something shouldn't work out - but it does. As one of our group leaders reminded us constantly - "Everything that's supposed to happen, will happen, when it is supposed to happen." You just can't plan for it, or explain how it happens once it happens.

Upon exiting the airport, there were a group of porters waiting to help load our luggage and trying to make tips. This was my first time leaving North America in over 15 years, and I forgot about how much cultures and customs may differ.

Old school buses, bags that were magically waiting for us outside, and the porters hustling for tips.

As I was waiting to get the bags loaded onto the bus, two of the porters started fighting with one another. They got up in each other's faces and I was afraid it was about to get physical. There was a tall brother standing off to the side who started filming them with his cell phone camera. He then started giving them naseehah to stop, but they kept at it. Then he just started yelling "WhatsApp! WhatsApp!" i.e. that he was going to post this video to WhatsApp for everyone to see.

Cultural Realization #1: WhatsApp is the WorldStar Hip Hop of the Arab world.

As we loaded into the bus, I was overcome with a severe sense of disappointment. I had been expecting to see cars driving on the left side of the road and the drivers seat on the right side of the car, but no such luck.

While I had obsessed about what it would be like to see the Kabah for the first time, I hadn't put that much thought into seeing Masjid Nabawi. I was excited to pray there and all those things, but I didn't have a striking visual in my head. So it took me off guard during our bus ride when someone said to look up because you could see the minarets of the masjid. The whole time during this trip, I had been expecting something to go wrong. I kept thinking something would happen at the last minute and I wouldn't be able to go (in fact, I got seriously sick less than a week before the trip and had to go to the ER). I thought I might end up being one of those people who gets all the way there and then gets turned back at the airport and sent home. Seeing the minarets for the first time was confirmation that alhamdulillah I had actually made it, and it is a feeling I will never forget.

Shot of the minarets from the roof of the masjid. One of the "small miracles" was finding some quiet moments on the roof in relative solitude.

The first thing I noticed in my time in Madinah is that time stops. You truly do not know what it is like to plan your day around salah until you are here. There is no schedule to anything except as it pertains to salah timings. Everything orients around coming for fajr and staying for ishraq, or blocking out time to sit in the masjid from maghrib to isha, and so on. Everything else like socializing, eating, and shopping fits in around the prayers. We tend to pat ourselves on the back because we delay going to the mall so we can quickly pray dhuhr right when it comes in and head out - this is a whole different level of organizing life around salah.

Since coming back, it has really hit me how much of a true blessing (alhamdulillah) it has been to be able to visit the holy sites while still relatively young. Many times I would find myself sitting in the masjid after prayer and just observing everything around me. It was easy to spot the elderly who made their first trip. You could see it in their eyes. For example, I remember one man simply lying down after fajr, staring into the sky with his prayer beads and just smiling and not moving. It was the definition of contentment.

Hanging out after prayer.

Hajj Uniform

Everyone comments on the amazing diversity you see on this trip. People from every country are represented. I saw hajj groups from Korea, Turkmenistan, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, China, and more. Each country had their own look, flag, or some kind of unique dress indicating where they were from. Americans? We have no hajj uniform. In fact, we stick out like a sore thumb. In the US, I am commonly taken for desi (which I am), Arab, Hispanic, and so on. But in Saudi, it seems everyone had me pegged as an American from the get go.

Cultural Realization #2: Americans need a hajj uniform.

We look like a hodgepodge of people thrown together. It's my proposition that we use the best of America to represent future hajj groups. We can do this by creating a uniform that has the Texas LoneStar with تكساس written across it.

Getting Duas in Paradise

Praying in the Rawdah was one of the things I was looking forward to most. The Rawdah refers to the area between the Prophet's home and his (saw) pulpit - it is a garden from the gardens of Paradise. Naturally, the rush was huge. We waiting in line after fajr, and the crowd was so large that they began using tape to section off the crowd into chunks (darjan, darjan). As we got to the final section, they opened the entrance and everyone rushed in. The force of the crowd trying to get in through one small opening was so strong that at one point I found myself pinned between a mass of people and one of the marble pillars.

Once we made it in, everyone claimed a spot and began praying. I was standing in a place where there was no room. One brother right in front of me was praying. As soon as he finished he started making dua, but I tapped him on the shoulder and motioned if I could pray. I wasn't expecting him to get up, this is Paradise after all and for many of us it may be our only chance to ever visit. He immediately got up and gave me his spot. It was one of those actions that stuck with me and made me remember him in my duas throughout the hajj journey - including in the Rawdah itself.

[pullquote type="right"]One of the amazing characteristics of the Prophet (s) is that he was able to take people who were rough, and make them soft. [/pullquote]His one act of kindness overshadowed all the difficulty associated with the pushing and shoving to get in. I struggled a lot during this trip with why so many people acted with seemingly bad adab. They simply saw themselves and the Rawdah - anyone in between was an obstacle on their path to Jannah.

One of our group leaders mentioned that many people are simply rough and don't know better. Even during the time of the Prophet (saw) we would see the rough nature of the bedouins who would come and ask questions. One of the amazing characteristics of the Prophet (s) is that he was able to take people who were rough, and make them soft.

Why The Elevators Don't Work

The elevators in our hotel regularly had a long wait. Our room was on the 5th floor so we found it easier to take the stairs. Except that the 5th floor really meant the 7th floor when you factored in the random floors before "Floor 1".

At the haram in Makkah, we had a scary incident when a lady who had never seen an escalator tried to get on. She stepped on, but the movement scared her and she almost went tumbling down. I like to think most people in Madinah have never seen an elevator. They would simply get on the elevator and hit the button regardless of if it was going up or down. The added quirk was once the elevator reached the top or bottom floor, all the buttons would reset and you would have to select your floor again. Once someone got on the elevator and hit the ground floor even though it was going up with 5 more stops. We told him that this was going up and to wait for one going down, but he insisted on getting on. It's almost like - I don't really care where the elevator is going, I'm going to just get on and enjoy the journey for the next 8 minutes.

This kind of attitude was an underlying theme in a number of events that happened to me or people in my group. There was a brother who went to Baskin Robbins and ordered a milkshake. The worker there told him he simply didn't feel like making it and to order ice cream instead. There was the time I bought something for 20 or 30 Riyals and handed the guy a 100 Riyal note. He shook his head and told me to give him a 50 instead because he didn't want to break it.

And then there was the lady who bought me water. I walked into a convenience store and grabbed a cold bottle of water. The lady behind me was in a rush and quite upset that I beat her to the register. The water was something like 2 Riyals. Like a tourist, I carefully started unzipping the pouch in my neck wallet and trying to get out a small bill without taking out all my cash. This was apparently too much, so she put her groceries on the counter, grabbed my water and just started saying "Yallah! Yallah!" and had the cashier ring it up and let me go on my way.

Around Madinah

I tried a camel burger for the first time. Camel burgers seem to prompt 2 questions, and in this order:

  1. Does it break your wudu? Ask your local imam.
  2. How did it taste? Like a really gamey version of beef.

Our hotel's take on Chicken 65

Dear Saudi Government, if you have any job openings for a guy to proofread your English signage, I'd be more than happy to help.

It's like the sign is written in a desi accent.

It goes without saying but the Masjid itself is stunning.

The one picture I was most proud of taking on this trip.

Retractable domes inside the masjid.

Retractable dome. It was incredible watching this happen live.


Tourist Vs. Hajji

Myself and another brother were walking through the masjid after fajr and saw a number of small Qur'an circles. These are classes set up for visitors to attend. The teacher recites an ayah, and then goes around listening to everyone recite it while correcting them. In the time we sat there, they went over Surah Fatihah and Surah Ikhlas. When we saw the circle our reaction was wow this is really cool, and wanted to take part. I noticed a number of other people walking by and trying to record the class on their phone, only to have the teacher motion them to stop.

Social media has made it difficult to determine the line between documenting something and experiencing it. There is definitely no easy answer - it is a lot like the Fiqh of Foodstagramming and ultimately boils down to intention. We go there for ibadah, but there is such a strong attachment to where you are that you feel compelled to take photos and document your experience. The struggle going forward will always lie in finding the proper balance.

There is one crazy thing I saw that I should mention though. While in line to pass by the grave of Rasoolullah (saw) and give salams, I saw a number of people taking photos, videos, selfies, etc. Then there was one guy who had his selfie camera on FaceTime with himself situated between the phone and the grave. As he neared the grave he started saying loudly into the phone, "Give salam! Give salam!" so the person on FaceTime could give their salam. I don't know the official fiqh ruling on it, but it just seemed quite distasteful and even dare I say disrespectful.

Final Reflections

The true beauty of the haramain requires reflection that cannot be captured. You can photograph the ceiling (as I did), but a photograph cannot provide the depth and reflection that comes from lying on the floor of the masjid staring off into that same ceiling. A video cannot reproduce the imprint left on the soul.

There is beauty in seeing people from all corners of the globe. It is even more beautiful when you realize every single one of these people is here with a need from their Lord. Everyone is there to fulfill some kind of need, to alleviate some kind of hardship, and to ultimately be showered with forgiveness and mercy. And then you realize, that Allah (swt) is the One who responds to all the prayers, fulfills all the needs, and it does not decrease His dominion by even an atom's weight.

Continue on to Part 2 - Madinah