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.
There were several points during the Hajj where I was afraid I was taking my final breaths. This day was one of them.
It was the third day of Hajj and our group of 18 who had traveled together from Atlanta was heading towards the Jamarat Bridge to re-enact Abraham’s ritual of stoning the devil.
The Bridge was built to enable more pilgrims at one time to cast pebbles upon three stone walls (called jamarat) from either underneath or on top of the bridge. The first wall represents the devil tempting Abraham against sacrificing Ishmael. The second represents the devil tempting Abraham’s wife Hagar to stop him from the sacrifice and the third represents the temptation of Ishmael to avoid being sacrificed. Abraham resisted each time by pelting Satan with seven stones, according to the Islamic tradition, so pilgrims re-enact resistance to temptation in the same manner.
In the past the bridge has collapsed, killing thousands, because of the magnitude of pilgrims gathering there at the same time. There have also been fatal incidents where people have fallen down from the pushing and shoving of the crowds and been run over by hordes of pilgrims. Despite the recognition of risk, pilgrims still eagerly go forward every year to complete the rituals related to this part of the Hajj – and last year, we were among those pilgrims.
The men in our group decided to join hands and form a huge circle around all the women, to shield them from the rough crowds as we entered underneath the bridge. We all uttered quick prayers as we slowly marched forward, each with our seven pebbles in a pouch around our necks. As we began entering the dense, roaring crowd, we were hit with dust, heat, the roar of stones hitting concrete and millions of pilgrims running in every direction. Some were going to passionately hurl pebbles at the jamarat (stone walls) and recite loudly the accompanying prayers of repentance in Arabic; others having finished the ritual, were shoving and elbowing their way through the crowd to reach the outer edges and return to their camps. As we tried to battle the different flows, our circle started becoming weaker and the men were pulled in opposite directions.
In the chaos, someone stepped on my brother’s foot, and his flip flop flew off. Thinking back, it probably wasn’t the smartest idea to wear flip flops in a place like that, but my brother had wanted to wear his most “comfortable shoes.” At the time, the others yelled at him to keep moving because if he had bent over to pick it up, he would’ve been crushed by the stampede. In other words, if you drop something – you say goodbye. Unless, you’re willing to put your life on the line to get it back.
As we continued shoving our way through the outer edge of the crowd, we were stumbling over several lost shoes, tote bags and shawls – representative of other foreigners, like us, who had no idea how to dress for this experience.
When we reached the thick of the roaring crowd, our circle suddenly got yanked apart and all of the men were carried away in different directions. Now it was about 10 of us women being engulfed by the crowd, hanging onto each other for dear life, with no visibility beyond the shoulders of tall, burly, bearded men.
All I can remember is my left arm firmly around my 15 year old sister’s waist and someone else’s arm looped through my other arm as we inhaled dust, heat, sweat and body odors. At this point, I think we had completely forgotten about making our way over to the stone wall, about casting the bad influences out of our life and cleansing ourselves of the temptations that draw us away from our true priorities. Before we could even think of what to do next, all the women got pulled apart too.
Hajj is all about patience. However, I definitely panicked as I watched my sister be carried off with the crowd, clad in a bright-pink Abercrombie hoodie, which we made her wear so she would stand out in crowds of black and white robes. I started screaming her name at the top of my lungs, which must have sounded like a whisper in the core of the deafening crowd. I felt I was smart enough to maneuver through the masses, but I knew my sister was too delicate and timid to handle the pressure and I feared she would fall down and be run over by the horde, as I’ve heard several pilgrims often are each year.
The dust in the air was stinging my dry throat and causing me to cough uncontrollably as I kept yelling her name and looking around. I already had a severe cold and was all stuffed up, so that didn’t help matters any. Add a dense crowd, and my short 5′1 height and it equals difficulty breathing. But I didn’t have time to think about my short breaths or the fact that I could hardly keep my balance as I was jostled this way and that. I kept trying to move forward, shoving my way through people with my elbows sticking out on both sides of me – completely oblivious to whom I was hitting or hurting with that position. My eyes were constantly peeking between people’s arms and shoulders trying to catch sight of the bright pink hoodie.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, my brother and a new friend he had made on the trip popped out of nowhere and formed a circle with their arms around me. They started yelling to each other – I couldn’t understand them, either from the noise or because my mind was still on my sister – and before I knew it, they had pulled my mom into the circle too. Their arms were barely reaching across both of us, but they were determined not to let go. They started moving us towards the outer edge of the throng, when my mom and I started resisting and began screaming my sister’s name again. The friend tried to calm us down, but there was no way we were walking out of that mess without my sister.
As elbows continued hitting us and people kept getting shoved into us, between two black-robed women I saw a flash of bright pink. I started pointing in that direction and screaming my sister’s name. We slowly scooted in that direction and that’s when my brother caught sight of her too. He reached out over some short people’s heads and with one swift movement, yanked her into the circle.
As he reeled her in, I noticed her hand was firmly clinging to another hand in the crowd. I started pulling on the hand and it turned out that another one of the ladies in the group had hung onto her the whole time. The boys then ushered us to the outskirts of the chaos and then we stood there as we waited to catch sight of the others. And that was when I took my first clear breath.
Eventually, nearly 30 minutes later, the entire group had reconvened at that spot. I was so happy to see my sister and all our new friends safe and sound. It was at this moment I realized how much danger we had willingly put ourselves in for the sake of completing our obligations to God. I was surprised at the strength of my faith and of others around me, as we adamantly insisted on trying again to complete the religious ritual. Since we knew what to expect, this time around we were going to be smart.
With over four million Muslims in the city, even though there was all day to do the stoning ritual, there would never be a time where the rush would lessen. So, we formulated a new plan to penetrate the crowd: each man was to escort the women of his family, one at a time, to the stone wall, allow her to perform the stoning and then bring her back. We then decided to split up and meet back at the camp when done. To be on the safe side, we determined that if everyone was not back at the camp by a certain time – that the male group members would come back to search for them and make sure they were okay.
After that, the whole process went pretty smoothly. And when we had to do it again the next two days, we were completely prepared. But that initial time had scared the life out of me, or almost taken the life out of me, I guess. Consequently, we emerged from the Jamarat experience with not only a spiritual clarity and completion of the rituals of our ancestors, but with newfound appreciation for bright pink hoodies, new friends and a resolve to search for a new pair of male sandals.
By: Naureen Kamdar