Saturday, September 24, 2016

Doffing The Ihram

We've just completed our final umrah of this visit, which means I donned my ihram for the final time, for this visit at least. I remember moaning about my inability to wear with any kind of grace at all the two unstitched pieces of cloth which comprise the dress code for the hajj and umrah the last time we were here in December 2014. Well nothing has changed since then, despite my increased familiarity with the garb. In fact, on this visit I surpassed myself in terms of embarrassment when wearing my ihram attending the zuhor prayer immediately after finishing our first post-Hajj umrah. The top piece of cloth just kept falling off, in the middle of the prayer, and I had to be saved by a incredibly helpful French gentleman fortunately behind me who somehow helped me fix it before a complete catastrophe ensued. I suspect I will have nightmares about this for years to come.

The funny thing is that I'm entirely sympathetic to the powerful symbolism inherent in wearing ihram. It's just that I'm no good at all in putting it on and keeping it on.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Faces Of Islam

It's impossible to be bored here. Just viewing the sheer range of humanity on display is fascinating. This must be the most cosmopolitan place in the world - paradoxically, of course, since everyone is Muslim. That in itself is a reminder of the variations within Islam, despite its essential Oneness.

I reckon the average Taliban would get fairly depressed here. From my understanding they make something of a fetish of the notion that a male Muslim must be bearded in a luxuriant untrimmed fashion. But I reckon that despite the wealth of beards on display around fifteen per cent of the guys here remain resolutely unbearded or simply stubbled. And the variety of styles of facial hair matches the variety of physiognomies available. My favourite is a version associated, I think, with Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. The beard (for the old guys) is long and white, but has been dipped (I assume) in henna, often around the halfway mark. This results in a curious transition from the elderly white into a sort of youthfully flaming orange. The fact that no one tries to hide the complete artificiality of the colouring adds to its charm.

It's interesting to try and guess what part of the world folk hale from. Of course, eavesdropping on the language they're using sometimes gives a clue - and can occasionally completely contradict their appearance. A young pilgrim who looked for all the world as if he came from India heard me chatting to a guy from Thailand the other night, asked me if I were English, and told me he came from Leicester. (And, yes, he did support the EPL champions, as it turned out.)

But the great thing is just how many of the faces one sees here, especially those of the elderly, are so full of what used to be known as 'character'. They look as if they have really splendidly lived life. So many could easily grace a cover of National Geographic, and I mean grace.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

It's A Scorcher

Just back from the zuhor prayer in the mosque. The temperature outside at noon was 45 degrees centigrade, which, I think, is the hottest I've ever encountered anywhere. How fortunate I am to be sitting in air-conditioned comfort to record this fact.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tough Going

As I mentioned yesterday, every second person in Makkah has a cold and is coughing and spluttering and I'm agreeably surprised to have remained reasonably healthy so far. Of our own little group I think I'm the only one who hasn't yet been ill. Noi has had a bad cough and sore throat for several days now. In fact, we went to see the doctor in the medical centre adjacent to the hotel. We get free health care as pilgrims under some kind of agreement with the Saudi authorities and took advantage of it by getting hold of several kinds of medicine. Unfortunately these have not done her that much good. Since antibiotics weren't prescribed she decided to get these herself from a nearby pharmacy. According to the instructions (in French) on the box these should only be prescribed by a doctor - understandably. It seems the usual sensible rules don't necessarily apply here.

Anyway, despite the aches of pains of my companions we've been getting on with doing a series of umrahs, completing our second one since we came to stay next to the big masjid today. I didn't realise just how physically taxing they can be until we did one in the heat on Monday morning - and I'm talking 42 degrees centigrade here. It pretty much knocked me out for the afternoon. It also made me further appreciate the simple guts and staying power exhibited by so many of the older or more frail pilgrims. This is definitely not an experience for the wimps.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Not So Quiet

Given that al Masjid al Haram is the holiest location in the Islamic world you might expect a reverential, contemplative silence to prevail within its precincts. Happily you'd be wrong. I say happily since Islam is a religion that above all deals with the world as it is and how we need to act within it. There is nothing of the monastic about it, and its holiest mosque echoes the sounds of a relentlessly busy world. Except, I suppose, during prayers, but even then the coughing and sputtering of the worshippers dealing with the onslaught of the common cold - and there's nothing more common here, believe me - has its own fractured music. You are not granted any kind of comfortable, meditative silence here, so you need to create your own inner version.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Wisdom Of Crowds

I'm told there are 1.8 million Muslims attending the Hajj this year. That makes for some big crowds, though not quite as bad as I was expecting. A little worse then we were here in December 2014 for our Umrah, but it still feels safer here than at Old Trafford when I was a kid. It's true that there are moments when you become aware of just how unreasonably packed people have become in certain locations, but the vast majority behave well with a sense of the vulnerability of many of those around.

A couple of things that have happened to me over the last two days nicely illustrate that vulnerability. Reaching the top of escalator in the hotel the other day I was faintly irritated to find someone grasping my shoulder and then my arm. The fact that we weren't even in a real crowd made the behaviour seem even more irritating, as was the fact that the grasper was a man, Then I realised that the poor guy doing the grasping was actually terrified. He was panicking as we approached the end of the escalator, presumably because he had no idea of how to get off. Then something similar happened to me going up some crowded steps into the mosque yesterday for one of the prayers. I felt my shirt being tugged, football style, as I ascended and turned around annoyed to confront whoever was responsible. An old fellow grinned at me both ruefully and goofily and I ended up smiling back at him. I think he'd decided to hitch a ride.

I'm having to relearn the lesson I grasped on my first visit here. Being in the crowd is an  excellent way of maintaining one's sense of the varied needs of one's fellow man, and woman, and an excellent way of developing patience, of which a surplus is required here,

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Changing Times

Last time I was here in Makkah, in December 2014, it wasn't at all unusual to see cameras being wielded by almost everybody pretty much everywhere. This time around I've hardly seen a single one, such that when I use my own I feel distinctly out of place. The lack of cameras, by the way, isn't due to any particular fatwa by the authorities - plenty of folks are happily snapping away in every conceivable place. Selfies with the Kaaba in the background are the order of the day. I get the feeling that the majority of people's hajjs are being scrupulously documented on Facebook. I know that our own is on the Azza Travel page. But cameras seem to have been replaced by the ubiquitous smart phone.

Is this a bad thing? I'm certain the general behaviour of pilgrims has altered significantly over the last two decades particularly, but I wouldn't rush to condemn this. The Hajj as an event in history has, no doubt, changed dramatically in terms of its surface over the centuries. But much of what I see suggests that in its fundamentals it transcends time - though not place, of course.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Finished, Sort Of

Things are changing here. Last night we moved from our apartment at Shisha to the Al Marwa Rayhaan hotel, just opposite al Masjid al Haram. We can see the monster clock from our room. Then in the early hours of the morning, around 3.00, we completed the umrah needed to finish the Haj rites for us. Lots of shaking of hands with our companions followed, but not wild celebrations. We were too tired for that, and almost everyone was feeling under the weather, so quiet contentment was the order of the day night. Noi and I stayed on for the dawn prayer which we performed directly facing the Kaaba, in the tawaf area - a first for us.

Now adjusting to a new routine, but sort of missing the communal atmosphere of Shisha, despite enjoying the privacy of our own room. Not so easy to get on the Internet here though. I'm typing rapidly in the hotel lobby where you can get a slow connection for free, because I'm too cheap to pay for the premium connection you can get in the room. Some things don't change, I'm afraid. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

An Extraordinary Life

Bringing along Tariq Ramadan's The Messenger: The Meanings of the Life of Muhammad was one of the most fruitful choices I've ever made in a long career as a reader of what to read and when to read it. In a quite unexpected synchronicity it dovetailed beautifully with Ustad Haron's various post-prayer talks on all things Islamic as these often made incidents from the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) their centre. The Ustad tells the stories in a lovely personalised style, as if the various characters are coming alive for him like figures from endlessly recapitulated legend, in contrast to Prof Ramadan's urbanely academic recounting, but both derive movingly resonant ideas from that astonishing life.

I remember first reading about the Prophet (peace be upon him) in a detailed way in Karen Armstrong's sympathetic and insightful biography and realising just how remarkable the events surrounding him were. It struck me then as one of the sadder aspects of the way the world works that the story in many parts of that world had been deliberately neglected or distorted. So much has been lost that is precious as a result - but the great thing is that the story is available to those who want to benefit from it and is in good hands, considering the value and understanding brought to it by the likes of Ms Armstrong, Tariq Ramadan and our beloved ustad.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Both Sides Now

Seemed to see something akin to the best of Islam and the worst of Muslims within moments of each other yesterday. The location for this striking juxtaposition was at the Jamarat. We were there to complete our final stoning of the pillars in the early afternoon and, boy, was it crowded. Distinctly challenging, especially in the intense heat at that time of day. Approaching the final pillar I happened to walk next to one of the policemen marshalling the crowd, ensuring a steady forward movement. As I passed he reached out his arm to place his hand affectionately on my shoulder. I'm not exactly sure what provoked the welcome gesture, but I'm guessing it may have been related to my race - though, as a matter of interest, it's been very rare indeed for anyone at all to pay any attention to that aspect of this pilgrim. Anyway, it felt good in the simple, uncomplicated way of such moments of fellowship.

Then immediately after that came the almost dangerous foolishness of some pilgrims' behaviour during the stoning. It's one thing to be enthusiastic, but consider this: if a reasonably healthy and fairly tough bloke like myself who is generally used to crowds felt vaguely threatened, what must the surging have felt like to the very old, the ill, the infirm? And there was absolutely no need for any of this. Yes, the crowd was substantial, but if everyone remained calm and focused and aware of the collective needs of all around, an individual's throwing of the stones could have been achieved in less than five minutes with ease.

It was interesting to link the loonier behaviour to how various of the participants were interpreting the ceremony. If you saw the throwing of the pebbles as symbolic of the casting out of the negative parts of the self - the interpretation given by Ustad Haron and Ustad Hafiz accompanying our group - then it made little sense to deliberately drive a wheelchair into the back of someone's legs (as one gentleman took it upon himself to do to me) in order to force them out of the way since this was a fairly negative thing to do in itself, suggesting that the ceremony had not worked so well for the wheelchair propeller involved. (I might just add here that I was actually moving into an open space with little difficulty when my legs were assaulted and the perpetrator of the assault following me was going to arrive in that open space in another five seconds or so, but obviously decided he couldn't wait. Mind you, the guy actually seated in the wheelchair did manage to look faintly embarrassed about the whole thing to do him justice.) A somewhat different interpretation of the business at the Jamarat I suspect some pilgrims adhere to is that they see themselves as the holy righteous, slaying the devil in others when they cast their stones. In that case pushing aside all who deflect you from your righteous purpose has, I suppose, a grim logic about it.

But let's dwell on the positive. The vast majority of pilgrims don't behave in that manner. I didn't see anyone get hurt yesterday. And apropos the friendly cop I mentioned earlier, I've been taken aback by how the police and soldiers around have managed almost uniformly (pun intended) to cope with what must be difficult, thankless tasks, in extremely difficult, trying conditions, often with humour and understanding. So I reckon, all in all, a victory for the better angels of our nature.