Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Hajj Intimidating for Secular Reporter

Muslims perform noon prayers around the holy Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)
Muslims perform noon prayers around the holy Kaaba inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2007.
(AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

The Associated Press
Monday, December 17, 2007; 6:13 PM

MECCA, Saudi Arabia -- Performing the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage more ancient than Islam itself, is complicated and confusing even for those well-versed in Islam _ so it's particularly intimidating for someone who's hardly religious.

As a secular journalist covering this central pillar of Islam, which began Monday, I am determined to go through the rites with an open mind.

A major hurdle is learning what to do. Before leaving my hotel in Jiddah for the holy city of Mecca, I took the first required steps. I bathed and put on the special clothes of a woman performing hajj: a long white head scarf, a long shirt, a pair of loose pants and a white robe to my ankles.

My colleague, AP Television News cameraman Imad Saeid, coached me through the next step: announcing my intention to perform the pilgrimage. I repeated after him the formula proclaiming the start of my journey, "Labeik, Allahuma, labeik" _ "I am here at Your service, Lord, I am here."

During the drive Sunday through the desert to Mecca _ the birthplace of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, about 50 miles east of Jiddah _ the rest of The Associated Press team gave me a crash course on the rituals, starting with the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped stone shrine that pilgrims circle seven times at the start and end of the hajj.

APTN's Mokhtar Shehada, an Egyptian, wondered if he had to make amends for being aggressive the previous day to a pilgrim who pushed him as he was circling the Kaaba. Hajj rules warn against arguing or fighting during the five-day pilgrimage. Shehada stressed that he had already apologized to the pilgrim.

Our guide from the Saudi Information Ministry, Mansour al-Sibiyani, told Shehada he should check with a cleric about whether he should pay for a goat to be slaughtered and given to the poor, a common penance for mistakes during the rites.

In Mecca, we hit crowds: Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims massed around the Grand Mosque housing the Kaaba. Saudi officials said Monday some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world are attending this year's hajj, along with a half-million Saudis.

The mass of humanity is awe-inspiring _ and that is part of the point. The hajj is a deeply personal rite for the faithful, a chance to get closer to God, walk in the footsteps of Muhammad and Abraham and receive the forgiveness of sins. But it is also a communal experience, a symbol of the unity of the Islamic world.

"It is amazing to see Muslims united, No other activity in the world could bring so many people together for the same purpose, not even a rock band group," said Eulalle Benichou, a Canadian pilgrim walking with her husband near the Grand Mosque.

Many pilgrims talk of the physical arduousness of hajj as a test of faith. But, as I found, it also makes keeping your mind on faith difficult.

I stopped to perform the noon prayers at the gate of the Grand Mosque, standing shoulder to shoulder with other women and with men in the "ihram" _ the required garb for male pilgrims, white pieces of terrycloth, one around the waist, another slung over the shoulder.

But it's hard to concentrate _ not only because I don't really know how to pray, but also because of the shoving of other pilgrims trying to get to the front of the line.

The layers of white fabric around my head and neck were suffocating and distracting _ I don't normally wear a head scarf _ and I looked with envy at the men praying next to me with their bare arms and necks.

Glancing at other worshippers, I tried to follow the prayer movements: standing straight, bowing with hands on the knees, placing the forehead on the floor as in yoga.

As I prostrated, the rear end of a man in front of me hit me in the face; later his heels were almost in my mouth.

The close mingling of men and women here is remarkable, when in all other areas of life _ particularly in Saudi Arabia _ the genders are strictly segregated. In much of the Arab world, men and women are separated when they pray in mosques, and many conservative men consider it a sin to shake hands with women.

But here in the most sacred place in the Muslim world, men and women pray side by side and touch without the slightest inhibition. A major theme of the hajj is the equality of all mankind before God _ man and woman, rich and poor, young and old.

But it's not without friction. In the lineup for prayers, a man chastised two women sitting comfortably in front of him for "not giving room to men" to pray.

"It's not right," he barked, pointing his finger at the women, who ignored him.

After prayers, we entered the Grand Mosque _ stepping with the right foot first as required _ to perform the "tawaf," the circling of the Kaaba. Inside the giant, multilevel mosque is the mesmerizing sight of a river of people moving around the shrine, as if ice skating in slow motion.

The roots of the hajj go back to Abraham, known to Muslims by his Arabic name Ibrahim and considered part of a line of prophets completed by Muhammad in the 7th century. Abraham and his son Ishmael are believed to have built the Kaaba, the focal point of Muslims around the world when they pray every day.

But it was difficult to get into the state of spirituality that many secular friends promised I would reach, despite my skepticism and doubts. I was distracted by the pilgrims pushing and shoving, and by the view out of the open-air mosque _ heavy construction cranes and colorful towers of five-star hotels.

I tried to pay attention to the rules, laid out in a booklet provided by pilgrims, but kept forgetting things like raising my hands to the sacred black stone at one corner of the Kaaba at each circuit as all pilgrims do.

In the mosque's halls surrounding the Kaaba, many pilgrims rested, napped, ate or chatted with each other or on cell phones plugged into sockets on the marble columns above shelves bearing copies of the Quran, the Muslim holy book.

The next station was the "saii," where pilgrims move back and forth seven times _ at a slight run _ between the hills of Safa and Marwa, now enclosed within the Grand Mosque complex. The rite re-enacts the search by Abraham's wife Hagar for water for her infant son Ishmael in the desert. After her seventh run, the spring known as Zamzam sprang miraculously under Ishmael's feet.

Over the next days, the mass of pilgrims will move outside Mecca to sites in the desert. On Tuesday, they gather on the Plain of Arafat to perform the "woqouf," standing in the presence of God in a daylong vigil that marks the zenith of the hajj. Afterwards, they migrate to nearby Mina to perform a ritual stoning of the devil.

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