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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Religion

Umrah 2009 – A wish fulfilled after 42 years
K Fatima

In April 2008 my husband and I went to prepare our income tax returns. Our accountant had photos of himself and his sons in Makkah on his computer as a screen saver, he told us they go for Umrah every year, and for a reasonable cost one could go for a week. That was the catalyst to set me onto a path that started 42 years earlier.

In a school history course we studied world religions, and I made the intention to become Muslim and go to Makkah. In the intervening years I covered a lot of territory and converted to Islam officially in 1998. Having harbored the wish to do Hajj for years, friends advised me to go for Umrah first partly as an educational venture, to get the feel of the ground before joining the phenomenal crowds of the Hajj.

I departed New York on 16th April 2009, the Saudia flight was impressive as there were audio/video Islamic programs and an area cordoned off for Salat. As we neared our destination, many male passengers donned the Ihram and all around the chatter was about Umrah and Hajj. This environment was the perfect launch for my journey of a lifetime.
The Jeddah-Madinah flight provided my first view of the bleak landscape of rolling stone hills through which our Prophet (PBUH) with the Sahabah and his Muslim soldiers marched, and I mused about the difficulties they would have faced in this inhospitable place.

Having just missed Salat Al Juma in Madinah, I ventured out with an air of expectation and awe, stepping into the gleaming marble compound of Masjid An-Nabawi. Hardly believing I was really there, I followed other females and found a Ladies’ area in the courtyard, shaded by giant umbrellas. I prayed with tears streaming, trying to comprehend I was really there, and was so distracted I forgot the last Ruku.

Inside the masjid, one jostles for a spot and tries to retain it, as thousands of women from all corners of the earth converge on the holy precincts. A friend told me to choose a spot along a wall or column so I could not be pushed out of it—proved to be invaluable advice. There are numerous movable shoe racks just the height of a chair, and so they are commandeered, generally at the last minute before the Qadaqamat by healthy (read "heavy") ladies who are unable to sit on the floor. So as comfortable as one may get after arriving early and settling down in a serene spot, the shoe rack requisitioners can upset the moment entirely. I was reminded Allah sends such trials of pushing and shoving to try our patience, and it is essential to keep one’s cool.

In the first Salat Al Fajr a realization struck me: In that huge crowd of Muslims from everywhere, speaking all sorts of languages but praying together in Arabic, it felt like Yaum al Qiyama. Each and every one of us was desperate –desperate to get a good spot, desperate to pray in our Prophet’s (PBUH) mosque, desperate to make the most of our pilgrimage, desperate for blessings, desperate for Allah’s forgiveness. It was a taste of the fear of Yaum al Qiyama I sensed and carried with me throughout my brief time in Madinah and Makkah and now back in the NYC rat race try to hang onto.

On the morning of the second day in Madinah we were escorted on a tour of the Battleground of Uhud, Masjid al Qiblatain, the Quba Masjid and the date market. At the Qiblatain Mosque there were escalators leading to the ladies’ prayer area on the upper level. The down side was running but empty, while the up side was stationery and packed with women descending as well as ascending. Many of the women were afraid of the toothed monster. A friend and I braved the rush and made our way up and prayed two rakats, recalling the story of how the Prophet (PBUH) received the order to change the Qibla half-way through the Dhuhr prayer in that very spot and changed his orientation precisely from Jerusalem to Makkah.

At Quba, the first masjid built in Madinah after the Migration and frequented by the Prophet (PBUH), we prayed two rakats and were reminded by a wall plaque that Salat at this mosque is equal to the benefit of performing Umrah.
And at the date market we bought the fresh dates for which Madinah is renowned, while one of our members assured us we would be allowed to enter the U.S. with our dates and the Zam-Zam water because they are for religious purposes despite the restriction on agricultural products.

My venture to Rawdah Sharif (the Graves of the Prophet (PBUH) and the first two Caliphas) was like a dream. I entered Gate No. 25 of the Masjid an-Nabawi in a mental state best described as glowing fog. Joining the crowds of Hajjas, I walked and walked with my palms up making dua and an expression of wonder and confusion on my face for what seemed like blocks and blocks through the cavernous, elegant confines, at times with tears streaming trying to realize where I was.

When we came into sight of the Prophet’s (PBUH) Qabr, there were signs in various languages stating not to push and shove but to take one’s time in order to pray there. Much of the area being cordoned off by screens, the Guards controlled the flow through a narrow passage leading to the actual Grave-site and the Minbar area—as near as one could approach it. I performed two rakats in a quiet area to the side, then joined the crush trying to touch the gate of the Qabr. Everyone was crying and reciting duas and it quickly escalated to a crush in which headscarves were inadvertently pulled off and I was carried along with no control.

One Hajja clung to a pillar in order to keep from being swept away as the weight of the crowd bore down on her. It was quite frightening and reinforced the impression of Yawm al Qiyamat – an infinitesimal glimpse of the terror and helplessness we will all face. Eventually however I managed to extract myself and prayed in front of the Minbar. As people realised where they were, some of the Indians started shouting " Rawdah Sharif!" and a heightened air of excitement took over the crowd. A young Arab women asked me "Esh?", and I wanted to tell her about the part of Jannat that the Prophet (PBUH) said exists somewhere in there and that anyone who gets to that spot will never reach hellfire, but since we did not have a common language I could not explain.

All the photos and other representations of the Masjid an-Nabawi only give a hint at the intensity of the real thing. Walking in the courtyard at night is like stepping on a huge pane of glass illuminated by moonlight.
The female guards in the masjid are truly phenomenal. Clad completely in black including naqab and gloves, they looked like numerous Darth Vadars and felt as ominous as they deftly directed traffic and kept the throngs in line shouting a steady stream of Arabic with an occasional Urdu phrase thrown in.

On the third afternoon I took the flight back to Jeddah, and was whisked from the airport by car the 50 kilometres to Makkah. Madinah is a quiet provincial town and all I saw of Jeddah was a carpet of white stone buildings along the sea, but as we whizzed into Makkah I felt that this holiest of earthly places is the real metropolis of the area. Swooping across flyovers and through tunnels, I was deposited several stories underground at the hotel entrance, as there is no vehicular traffic around the Haram so all comings and goings are subterranean.

I had been told that one should make all one’s duas upon first sight of the Kabah, so I wanted to be ready to seize the moment. As I prepared for the focus of my journey, an indescribable feeling of apprehension, excitement, even real fear was upon me, always with the element of disbelief that I was actually there in Makkah and about to enter the realm of Allah Subhana wa Ta’ala’s House, the Kabah, the geographical vortex of prayer for the millions of Muslims, human and jin, in the universe, and the place I had mused about visiting when I was a young teenager. It was overwhelming and I wondered whether my feet were touching the ground as I made my way and entered the King Abdul Aziz Gate at 23:15 on April 19, 2009.

A kind of numbness gripped me at first sight of the Holy Kabah, and the duas played on in my brain as I performed two rakats and then joined the throngs in the Tawaf—this was clearly more unbelievable than ever. I stepped methodically with the flow, at times reciting duas or ayahs, at times joining recitations of individuals or groups as I passed through. My husband had enjoined me that if I did not get in to catch the cloth of the Kabah and make my duas relentlessly, then I had not gone to Makkah, while others told me it had become impossible to get in because the crowds of Muslims are increasing year by year. But Allah had mercy on me and I was able to catch the cloth and even prayed two rakats at the Station of Ismael.

After completing seven circuits, and two rakats at the Station of Ibrahim, I headed for Safa to start the Sa’y. One had to be watchful for the wheelchairs, which even though they have a special lane, they enter the pedestrian lanes at times; some of the helmspersons give a warning as they approach whereas others just plow through. Large containers of Zam Zam for ready refreshment line the passage. As I trod back and forth between Safa and Marwah, I felt like a seru—rhinoceros—a solitary animal whose epithet is used to describe persons who are loners. Since that first Fajr Salat in Madinah, the feeling of Yawn al Qiyamat struck me often, and I felt that being alone on my Umrah journey was a benefit rather than a liability, as it reinforced that feeling of aloneness.

I completed the Sa’y and requested a young woman who was clipping her husband’s hair to clip the requisite strands from mine to complete the Umrah ritual. It was 1:15—it had taken me just two hours to do the Umrah. Returning to the hotel, I was exhausted like never before in my life, with leg joints and bones aching. Another day I performed a second Umrah after taking the Ihram afresh at the Masjid al Tanae’em on the outskirts of Makkah. I spent three days in Makkah, but it seemed like 10, as I hardly slept, and the disbelief that I was really there never left me.

On departure day, it was perhaps 40C and the sun most brilliant when I went to do my farewell Tawaaf. I felt great sadness at leaving, exhausted and hoping Inshallah to come again next year and soon for Haj as well.
As I joined Salat with Muslims from all corners of the earth, we were unable to converse in words, but stood together before Allah, reciting the same words in Arabic, and all desperate for Allah’s mercy and for our duas to be answered – duas for our families, friends and every person who asked us to make dua for them, and I felt an obligation to remember each and every one of them.

Now people keep congratulating me on my Umrah, and I feel so privileged to have done it, especially because there are so many, even those living in close proximity to Saudi Arabia, who have not been able to do Hajj or Umrah, and I have known many who passed away without making it. I had also passed up opportunities earlier because my priorities were wrong or it just was not the right time for me. When the time is right, Allah will arrange, and I am so fortunate that I lived long enough to reach that point. Inshallah my time for Hajj will also come, and Inshallah everyone who reads this article will determine to go as well.
© K Fatima September 2009
marwan asmar <>

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