Admins’s Note: Naureen Kamdar, a 23-year-old American Muslim, performed the Hajj with her family in December 2006/1427H. Below is one of her experiences from the five main days of the pilgrimage.
“Mina, Mina, Mina, Mina, Mina!” the young Arab man shouted as he partially hung out of a small, yellow, school-bus-looking vehicle. It was 11 in the evening and my family and I were frantically running through the streets of Makkah, searching for a ride back to the desert city of Mina, where we were supposed to spend three of the five nights of Hajj worshipping all night long in tents, just like the Prophet Muhammad did during Hajj nearly 1400 years ago.
It was the third day of Hajj, and after performing the traditional morning rituals in Mina, we decided to go to Makkah and spend the rest of the day praying in the holy mosque.
We completely lost track of time, though, and as we stressed about finding a cab at such a late hour, the school-bus caught our attention. We had a few seconds before the school-bus would roll past us and we were faced with a dilemma. It was really dangerous for a woman and her three children, who are from a foreign country and have a cultural and language barrier, to be traveling late at night. However, the risk was unavoidable because we had to make it back to Mina to fulfill our Hajj obligations of spending the night out in the desert worshipping.
Having no idea whom to trust and not knowing what the going rate was for cabs – we opted for the yellow school-bus, which was packed with other Hajjis on their way to Mina as well. We knew the 20-minute distance between the two cities would probably take hours, because several of the tunnels and roads closed at night, and due to the high volume of Muslims trying to get back to Mina, but we had no choice.
Three hours later, the bus had finally pushed through enough traffic to get to the outskirts of the desert plains of Mina, which during Hajj season is covered in thousands of white tents that are grouped together and referred to as “camps”. Pilgrims spend their five main days of the Hajj in these camps, with the very basics in terms of amenities and food. It’s almost like camping. The camps are categorized by country; however, there is no way to tell from the outside which camp was which, unless you could make sense of the Arabic numbers and alphabetical code outside of each camp to identify it. Basically, if you strayed far from camp, it was incredibly easy to get lost in the sea of white.
From where we were on highway, we could see the periphery of the white blanket of tents covering the desert city. It was an amazing sight and it really hit home that there were millions of Muslims from all around the world, camping in one city.
Suddenly, the bus took an exit, stopped at the edge of the tents and the driver commanded us all to get out. Chaos ensued on the bus as outraged passengers started shouting and, I believe, getting upset at being dropped off at the outskirts of the camp with no idea where to go or how to get to their individual camps. I didn’t understand any of the languages people were shouting in, so I turned to my mom and asked her if she thought we were anywhere near the American camp. The stricken look on her face was a dead giveaway that we weren’t and I began to panic. I asked her to use the one cell phone our Atlanta Hajj group leader had provided us to call others from our camp and help us figure out where we were. However, my mom’s battery was down to the last bar and the phone was going to die any minute. So she turned it off to conserve what charge was left.
Meanwhile, the driver started walking up the aisle and forcing everyone to get up, pay, and get off the bus. Wanting to avoid conflict, we quickly paid the 15 riyal fee ($5 U.S.) per person for the four of us and jumped off the bus. Having no idea which direction to even begin walking in, we decided to follow the general crowd flow from our bus and see where it lead us. I only knew two ways to identify where our camp was: the nearby King Fahad Tunnel and the fact that we were supposedly on the outer edge of all the tents. This outer edge, however, did not look familiar at all and I started getting a really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. As we got into the thick of the tents, we saw an Arab officer directing people towards places. Although I am familiar with Arabic phonetically because it is in the Quran, I don’t speak or understand the language. However, after being in Saudi Arabia for 15 days and having picked up several basic words, I decided to go ask the man for help. In broken sentences, I asked for “American camp” and “King Fahad Tunnel.” The man, overwhelmed by the number of people surrounding him, frustratedly pointed in one direction and shoo’ed me away. Confused, my mom, younger brother, younger sister and I started walking aimlessly in that direction, trying to read the Arabic signs around us to get our bearings. I was almost tempted to just give up and follow the North star or something.
We walked for about five minutes when my mom noticed a huge lit up map, kind of like the directories at the mall. We sprinted towards it with newfound hope. The man standing there spoke bits of several different languages and was directing lost pilgrims to their camps and handing out candy. My brother showed the man our identity cards, which we wore around our necks at all times because it had our name and Hajj group identification. While the man tried to deciper the identity card, my mother and I searched on the map for the King Fahad tunnel. She almost screamed with delight when she located it, phonetically sounding out the letters in Arabic, which is how many non-Arab Muslims are taught to read the Quran. Excitedly, I started scanning the huge map for the “you are here” sticker. I found it within seconds. It was a huge yellow circle with Arab writing – and it was on the opposite side of the map.
My stomach fell to my knees and I felt a wave of nausea wash over me. As my eyes darted back and forth from the King Fahad tunnel over the stretch of camps to the yellow sticker, I could feel tears burning at my eyes at the thought of having to trudge over this impossible distance. The guide looked at us and shook his head in disbelief: “80 kilometers,” he said in a thick Arabic accent.
EIGHTY KILOMETERS? That’s roughly the distance between my college in Athens, Georgia and home in Suwanee, Georgia; it’s a 45-minute drive. I was so tired at this point that I couldn’t even imagine walking even 10 more feet forward. And there was no way my 45-year-old mother, who had neck surgery six months ago, could walk that far. I’m an American for crying out loud — we don’t believe in walking places – we believe in congested highways, and one person per car in three hour commutes to work every morning!
Being on pilgrimage though, I forced myself to see it in another light: another trial that God had put before us to test our faith in Him. So, I tried to keep calm and began praying for divine help out of the mess. Before the prayer had even left my lips, the friendly guide waved down a SUV that was passing through the area and asked him where he was going. The Arab driver, complete with the turban, said he was going towards the Jamarat bridge, which is the spot where pilgrims pelt stones at pillars that are representative of Satan and the three times he tempted Abraham to disobey the commands of God. After striking a deal with the driver, the guide turned to us and asked if we could find our way to our camp from the Jamarat bridge. Eagerly my family nodded yes in unison. As a part of our Hajj rites, we had been to the Jamarat twice from our camps already and were sure we could get our bearings from there.
The man drove us for 30 minutes into the thick of the tents amongst large crowds of people sprawled on the streets. People from poor Islamic countries who had been sponsored by their governments to complete this tenet of their faith couldn’t afford the travel packages that included housing in the tents. So they happily laid out on the streets outside of the camps with sleeping bags and newspapers, comforted by the fact that they were able to complete one of the major rites of their faith and establish a closer connection with God. That was the Hajj spirit: taking whatever troubles and difficulties came your way as a reassurance that it would expiate for your sins and cause you to rely greater on the decree of the Divine. Aside from those sleeping on the streets, there was a huge mass of people walking to and from their camps, so our car was inching along.
After the kind man dropped us off at the Jamarat, we went down a series of steps and through different entries marked by Saudi officials to organize the flow of pilgrim traffic below the bridge and stood there trying to get our bearings. We finally found hope in the House of Donuts sign far to our right and my brother recollected that our camps were located directly behind the donut stall. Joyously, we started running towards the House of Donuts.
After crossing it, we had another ten-minute walk, when suddenly, we saw our camp before us and recognized a few men from our group lingering at the entrance. It was like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and we burst through the gates of the camp and ran inside with cheerful smiles. Of course by this point it was a little after 3 a.m. and almost everyone in the camp was asleep. Exhausted from our long, strenuous adventure, we tiptoed into our tents, set our alarms for the 6 a.m. morning prayer and went straight to sleep.
By: Naureen Kamdar