Whenever it is that time of the year when people start planning to go on Haj, I cannot help but get nostalgic about our surreal experience five years ago. With Covid-19 now making it impossible for pilgrims to congregate in the kind of numbers they normally do, I was left wondering if I should envy the handful of people who will be performing Haj this year, with social distancing and without being packed like sardines when doing the tawaaf, or if I should feel sorry for them as they were being deprived of what is an unforgettable and generally once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Rewind to five years ago and it is as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday – the fears, the excitement, the anticipation. There is no dearth of stories of people who reach Mecca and yet are not able to perform this rigorous physical and spiritual ritual; that thought alone was enough to fill me with trepidation and dread when I finally embarked on this journey along with my husband. What if I fall ill, and can't do it? What if there's an accident? But, mercifully, God was more than kind to both of us. Not only did we manage to fulfil all our obligations in complete health and with relative ease, but we also became such great friends with some Pakistani pilgrims hailing from different parts of the world that it made the entire experience an unforgettable one.
I remember, we had left in the morning for the airport. Flight was delayed a little, and we waited in the business class lounge. We met up with Sadiqa, the first member of what was to later become our motley group of ten, and for whom my husband had agreed to pose as a mehram (a Saudi requirement that a male relative must accompany a young woman on pilgrimage) as she was travelling by herself. When we reached Dubai, we said our prayers and did our niyatsas guided by the maulana accompanying us. Our connecting flight was an Airbus A 380 - a massive aircraft. When we landed in Jeddah the three of us were taken in a bus carrying pilgrims that had signed up for the executive package, to the VIP lounge where we sat in an air-conditioned environ and partook of tea, water and snacks and could use clean toilets. Hence, we never experienced the long and tiring wait in the heat at the airport that we had been warned about by all our friends.
Next, we were transported in a bus and reached the hotel only to find that we had been upgraded to Fairmont Hotel. The advantage of Fairmont was that the Wi-Fi worked there. Our bathroom had a shower as well as a tub - which I discovered most rooms didn't have and which turned out be a boon for soaking our tired feet -- and we also had a room with a view - overlooking the haram - so we could plant ourselves in front of the window and offer our prayers in direct view, something that women frequently didn't get to do even if they were in the haram, as they would mostly be relegated to an area that just overlooked a wall.
As by the time we had all checked in it was around 2.30 am our moallim decided that we should do umra the following morning since there wasn't enough time to perform all the rites before fajr prayers. So, the next day, which was also my birthday, we had an early breakfast and left for performing umrah. Just as I got a call from a friend wishing me happy birthday I came in full view of the Khana Kaaba and was left at a loss for words.
We performed umrahas in a group and though it was very hot it was not overly crowded and we performed it with relative ease. I stayed on at the haram to offer my zohar prayers but got place outside, as the women's section had got full by then. Later, exhausted, we mustered enough strength to go to the huge store, Bin Dawood, located in the Clock Tower where our hotel was also situated, to pick up a few things. After soaking our feet in the tub, we went off to have lunch at the food court, then showered and slept for a while. Although we had initially thought we would eat out to celebrate my birthday we were so tired that we decided to just go for the buffet dinner at the hotel, which was part of our package.
The next day we went for ziarat of ghaar e soar, ghaar e Hira and the graveyard where Rasool Allah's family including his uncle Hazrat Abu Talib, and his son Qasim and others close to him are buried. Although a gated cemetery where only special people were allowed to enter, the walls had openings through which we could see the desolate graves within, and offer our fatehas. We came back and went for lunch with our friends Mehrin and Sadiqa, and after lunch we went for tawaaf where two other ladies, Marzia and Shehla, both from Australia, who soon became part of our inner group, joined us. We offered asr prayers in the haram after which Sadiqa and I stayed back to say our duasas we had been lucky enough to find space in the tawaaf area, until we were shooed away. After namaz and dinner we went with our moallim for ziarat of the various historical sites in the vicinity of the haram.
No words can do justice to the next few days that lead up to Eid. They were an amalgam of constant prayers, fulfilment of rituals, thanksgiving, camaraderie and lots of beautiful memories. For each of us, it was a very personal and fulfilling journey, and in spite of the fact that 10th Zilhaj that year culminated in the worst fire and stampede breaking out in Mina, we came out of it mercifully, not only unscathed, but blissfully even unaware that such a disaster had occurred, until we started getting frantic calls from home, and heard the tragic news.
So, this year, when God is testing us all once again, this time in a very different way, one can only be grateful for the opportunities He has given us in the past to visit His house, and pray that this too shall pass and He will once again welcome all those who are impatiently waiting to pay their respects and fulfil their religious obligations.