Part 1 in the series Notes from a Pilgrim.
I remember when my grandmother returned from performing Hajj. It was 1995 and I was eight years old. One of the gifts she brought back for us was a red plastic contraption that you held up to your eyes, and then clicked through a set of images on a round slide. (Google tells me it was called a '3D View-Master'; I can corroborate that ours looked exactly like the one in this photo).
In an age long before the advent of camera phones or even digital cameras I was mesmerised by the images I saw. Here was the green dome of Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophet's mosque in Medina, and the imposing black cube of the Ka'bah resplendent with gold edging, the icon of Makkah. Until now, I'd only seen these images embroidered onto the prayer rugs my parents knelt on five times a day, or the wall hangings that were displayed in the homes of family friends. I clicked further and saw a sea of people clad in white sheets, the uniform of the pilgrim, filling up the entirety of the Masjid al Haram. Another click brought me to the black stone set in a metal oval, the holy relic that brought so many Muslims from all over the world to this one place.
When I was growing up, going on holiday wasn't part of our reality. Family members made international journeys for one of two reasons: family or faith. More common were the trips 'back home' to visit relatives in Bangladesh, usually to address some sort of land dispute between extended family members, or to attend a wedding, or to source a suitable spouse for their children of marriageable age. Going to perform Hajj or Umrah was a different thing entirely. (There are two forms of pilgrimage in Islam – visiting the holy site of Makkah during a specific time of year is known as Hajj, and is compulsory on every healthy and fit adult who has the means to travel. Umrah is the ‘lesser’ pilgrimage which is optional and can be undertaken at any time of year.)
That distant land, Saudi Arabia, was at once mysterious and exotic, but also a place we had grown up to believe was the heart of the faith we all adhered to. It was the place we yearned for, the setting of the tales we had learnt as children – the revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, the visitation by the Angel Gabriel, the settling of the Prophet’s city – Medina – by Muslim refugees. The fascination with those holy cities, Makkah and Medina, runs many generations deep; my father speaks of people who would visit his village in East Pakistan, travel agents of the time, sourcing faithful pilgrims and taking them on the long and arduous journey to complete one fifth of their Islamic duties, in performing Hajj. Those who returned from Hajj were so revered for their experience, having travelled so far and been touched by somewhere so holy, that they were awarded the title Hajji or Hajja to denote their status.
When my grandfather went on Hajj, he travelled from Britain with a group of other pilgrims from all over the country. It was 1979 and the concept of ‘luxury pilgrimage’ had not yet been introduced. Nana Bhai stayed in a tent, sharing sleeping, eating, and washing quarters with tens of other pilgrims. He encountered people who hailed from all over the world, and communicated with them despite having no common tongue. I never had the chance to ask him about it – he died when I was eleven – but I have pieced together fragments from what my grandmother and mother have told me. I wonder if his visit to Hajj changed him in some way; whether the person I knew - the gentle man who loved to sing songs and watch snooker, admired Tony Benn and but detested Margaret Thatcher so much that he would turn over the channel whenever she came on the television – had been different before his visit to Hajj. Whether something in him mellowed as a result of his experience. I don’t know.
The signs of his pilgrimage surrounded me as I grew up. Nana Bhai was always holding a string of sandalwood prayer beads, his fingers counting each wooden sphere as his lips whispered prayers, glorifications of God. Nana Bhai survived numerous heart attacks, his first being the year before I was born, so my assumption was always that he was praying for his health. As an adult, I don’t know if that’s true. I imagine that by that point in his life, there were many things that my grandfather was praying for. But I know that he prayed fervently, and often, in the way that many people in their later years do. He also kept a jug of water on top of the fireplace in his bedroom. Around the handle was wrapped a green silk cloth. I asked once why he had that, and was told that the cloth came from his visit to Makkah – it had been part of the covering of the Ka’bah and on one of the days of Hajj, the cloth is taken apart and distributed to pilgrims – this was the piece given to Nana Bhai. It was tied around the handle of the water jug as some kind of amulet, blessing the water that would be poured from this jug.
After Nana Bhai’s visit in 1979, Nanu followed in 1995 accompanied by my aunt and uncle. In later years, other members of my family went to perform Umrah or Hajj – aunts, uncles, even cousins, and finally my parents performed their Hajj in 2004. The increase in the number of people making pilgrimage in the late 1990s and 2000s, undoubtedly tied in with the increasing affordability of pilgrimage, and the creeping commoditisation of the ritual. I always assumed that one day I would go too – but as with many things that as a child I assumed would ‘just happen one day’ – like getting married, or pursuing a career, or even deciding to have children - I am now learning as an adult, require agency and action, as well as fortune and favour. After several months of thinking about it idly, and a few intense weeks of considering it more deeply, I decided to go.
This weekend I will be flying to Jeddah, and then making the ongoing journey to Makkah and Medina to perform Umrah with my family. The pilgrimage I will be making will be unrecognisable in some ways to that made by my grandfather almost forty years ago. He prostrated in the open space around the mosque, rather than under the shadow of clock tower of a 7* luxury hotel. Where there was earth then, there are expanses of white marble now. Where he slept in tents and travelled on foot, pilgrims now can stay in accommodation with built in helipads. I wonder how much of the sense of place and wonder that he felt will have been lost by the time I come to see it, outstripped by the bright lights of capitalism and shameless excess. But my apprehension is rooted in more than just the commercialisation of a holy site – after all, that in itself is hardly a new phenomenon, with pilgrim sites and routes across all faiths having always been magnets for trade and commerce. My conflict is how I understand my position on visiting a country and thereby implicitly supporting a regime, at least economically, that I fundamentally disagree with. A regime based upon an interpretation of my religion that excludes those who do not conform to it; a regime that executes children; a regime that counts the 45th President of the United States of America as an ally; a regime that buys weapons from my own government to decimate Yemen. A regime that will not allow me to make pilgrimage unless I am accompanied by a male relative. A regime that, sadly, holds the exclusive guardianship over the holiest sites in Islam.
I remind myself that Islam predates the Saudi regime, and that the history of my faith – fraught with conflict and conquest – also contains examples of human kindness, love, an appreciation and wonderment of the world around us, justice and equality. It is these things that I wish to connect with and reassert my claim over my own faith through going on umrah. Many people go on pilgrimage because they have something to ask of the Divine power they have gone to seek. Some wish for deliverance from ill health, others may ask for children, or to find a partner, or to pray on behalf of ailing relatives. I feel blessed that my umrah is not to ask for anything, but to give thanks. Utmost and unequivocal thanks for what has been such a formative, significant chapter of my life. It seems a fitting way to mark the conclusion to an eventful couple of years and a hopeful dawn of a new chapter.
As I pack my suitcase with the long cotton dresses and scarves that I will wear on pilgrimage, a soft rolled up prayer rug, and a notebook to write down my reflections, I feel as though I am also preparing my mind and my heart. I think about how unbearable the world can feel sometimes, how we live in societies that elevate voices of division and hatred, and scorn those calling for unity and commonality. How our governments enact policies that persecute those who have the least, and take pride in turning away those fleeing wars, mistaking their lack of humanitarianism for electorally valuable pragmatism. How somehow, we have ended up in a place where we expect nothing more. I know that my umrah will do little, if anything to fix any of that. But I go in the footsteps of those who have gone before me and have drawn strength and comfort from their pilgrimage, in the belief that it will renew my own resolve to get to something better than what we have. #religion #faith #islam #muslim #mecca #makkah #saudi #travel #pilgrimage #notesfromapilgrim #umrah #hajj