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“A mystic trip”: El Haj, by Ilija Trojanow

Going on haj (pilgrimage) in the Moslem world is not necessarily going to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) as one of the obligations to be satisfied once in your lifetime.  Most probably, as you started to earn a decent living to undertake this hazardous and expensive trip, you might contemplate this Haj.

The poor Moslems go to local pilgrim places where locally or regionally recognized “saints” are buried.  The pilgrims visit these local places to demand miracles for ailments or improving the livelihood of a family or bringing suitable marriage partners, or even punishing a rival or a wrong-doer.

For example, the city of Mashhad in Iran attracts over 10 million shias a year, while only two million Moslems converge to the Kaaba in Mecca.  Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco have many “holy” sites.

The early sufi Moslems used to spend their life touring every pilgrimage site in the Moslem world.  For example, Ibn Al Arabi walked from Cordoba (Spain) to Konya (Turkey) and visited Sevilla, Fez (Morocco), Tlemcen (Algeria), Tunisia, Cairo, Jerusalem, Mecca, Medina (the first Moslem city-state), Baghdad, Mosul, Damascus.  He was executed in a most barbaric manner as a heretic because he dared invoke Allah as an intimate friend.

Ilija Trojanow recount his haj to mecca in 2008, the year late king Fahd had distributed over 1,750,000 Korans translated in 19 languages.  The translated Wahhabi versions added many details on how women should be dressed and how they should be controlled and assuaged.

Ilija Trojanow landed at the airport of Jedda in a charter of pilgrims arriving from India.  Tents of the various nations were awaiting the passengers hajis.  Ilija wrote: “We, arriving from India, were dispatched to the Pakistanis tent.  We marched as separate groups as in Olympic games, every nation walking behind its national flag and the back of our vests carrying the names of our provinces and villages for administrative facilitation.”

“We had to wait 7 hours under the tents drinking tea with condensed milk in plastic cups.  All passports were collected to be returned on our departure day from Jedda.  The whereabouts of the journeys of each passport during the 13 days of pilgrimage is complex and many arrived to Jedda and finding out that their passports has been misplaced and lost.

On the way to Mecca, we reached a giant arc of 40 tons representing a Koran opened on a pulpit.  Beyond this arc, everyone must be wearing his “ihram” (a two-piece white cloth:  one piece to wrap around the loins and the other to covering the left shoulder).

It took us 7 hours to arrive to Mecca because of the road controls; in ancient periods, a robust donkey used to make the distance in less than 7 hours.

Our hotel was at walking distance of the Haram Al Sherif or the Grand Mosque.  Grand Mosque has 99 entrance (corresponding to the 99 qualifications or qualities of Allah) and it encircle the Kaaba so that everyone can be facing the Kaaba; it has a surface of 130,000 square-meter.  My guide told me: “At your first look of the Kaaba your wish will be exhausted.  No pilgrim ever forgot the first sight of the Al Kaaba.”

You access to Kaaba by a tunnel and then you suddenly see this black cube of black marble shrouded in a black veil embroidered with gold strings.  The pilgrim is supposed to walk quickly, chest up and out, for the first three of the 7 tours or “tawaf” around the Kaaba, but it is impossible with this crowd.  At the end of each tour, the pilgrim is to stop, raise his palms toward the sky in order to receiving the benediction and then shout “Bissmillah, Allahu akbar” and then kiss his own hands.

At the call for prayer, a miracle happens:  a silence roamed the place, and concentric files of pilgrims are directed to the Kaaba; mats are shared with anyone close by, joining in the mass player.

The second day, I descended the staircase to Zamzam water well.  The well is now enclosed in a glass where a complex pumping mechanism extract the sacred water.  This water is currently free of charge.  All pilgrims carry on their way back home 10 litres of this water.  More often than not, the planes forget to load the Jeri-cans.

I all my pilgrimage stay, I never witnessed anyone read the Koran or a religious book.  Brochures containing requisite prayers and their translations are most in demand.

The touring of Kaaba and drinking from Zamzam is called the “little haj”. The grand  haj is supposed to start when we have to head toward the desert for purification, sacrifice, and dilapidating satan.   We are now on the eighth day and we are boarding a bus to Mina.  White tents by the thousands have invaded the plain and the hillsides.  The Mosque Khaif serves this town.

Day nine is for witnessing something.  Thousands of Indians and Pakistanis are wearing orange outfits for cleaning the camp ground and arranged in military battalions.

It took us 2 hours to cross 15 km to Mount Arafat.  Trucks followed buses and walkers distributing can juices, water, and oranges.  During Ibn Batouta time in the 14th century, camels charged with water and medicines accompanied the pilgrims.  Technically, the haj is completed and pilgrims can congratulate one another “Haji moubarak.. haji mabrouk”.  Sins were forgiven and you can be called a haji.

The 10th day is for the sacrifice, and we are heading to the town Muzdalifa by Mina.  Many are upset by the disorganization in that town and decide to walk back to their Mina tent.  In that day, half a million cows, sheep, and camels are slaughtered for distribution.  Since pilgrims are technically well-off, they cough up $100 so that meat will be shipped to designated needy countries.

The 11th day is for the great dilapidation of satan.  Pilgrims converge to throw stones at 3 columns representing satan.  Many are trampled to death:  pilgrims are angry at satan and people are punished:  Weeks of peaceful state of mind are ruined in this day where satan always win.

The 12th day of haj is for the rain.  We go back to Mecca and more of satan’s dilapidation horrors are underway.

The 13th day is the last official haj and pilgrims tour the Kaaba.  Many pilgrims visit Medina, the first Islam city-state and they have to suffer more control and harassment just to enter Medina.

During the haj, the pilgrim live an experience of strict rigor not feasible in everyday turmoil. A hadith recommends to paying the worker before his sweat is dried, but in Saudi Arabia thousands of house maids and immigrants are denied being paid, even after 18 months of work:  the immigrant has to stay in order to be paid, otherwise his due rights are cancelled.

Note:  Ilija Trojanow is born in Sofia (Bulgaria) and immigrated to Germany and was raised in Kenya.  He travels with a German passport and participated in many pilgrimage sites such as in India, Cashmere, Africa, Cairo, and pushed forward to the Antarctic.

He writes about his experiences; “A mystic trip” was translated from German to French and talks about the pilgrimage to Al Kaaba (Mecca) and the Maya Kumbh Mela in India.

A mystic trip or voyage of pilgrims to sacred destinations requires a long preparation.  For Moslems, to be eligible for undertaking the haj to Mecca and Medina, he must have paid off all his debts; he must have reconciled with his neighbors; he must have put in order his relationship with the members of his family and business. 

A Moslem must have satisfied his civic duties; for example, be married and preferably with children, and earning a good living: not many people can afford going to pray at Al Kaaba.  If the neighbor or a member of the family is in distress then, it is sufficient cause to postponing the haj.

Before going on haj, a Moslem must have memorized all the required prayers during the 13 days of haj, have exercised the proper ways to the “zikr” or how to focus and meditate repeating the words and sentences “There is but one God Allah”, bismillah Allahu akbar, soubhan Allah for over an hour.  The goal is that on reaching the 10th level of zikr you should be thinking of God with every breath you take and go on with business as usual while God is present in your dealings.

The haj purifies you of all sins committed, but it does not necessarily render you a better person:  If you go to the haj a hypocrite, you return a hypocrite; if you go a scoundrel you return a scoundrel unless you prepared well for the haj.  The haj is not a goal in itself: a haj done with bad preparation and without proper piety is worse than not going to the haj.

A Moslem, regardless of genders, going to the haj must leave enough money to his family and leave no debts:  Thus, only the well-to-do can afford the expensive trip to Mecca.  When you board the plane, you are already dressed in the “ihram”; the ihram is a two-piece of white cloth with no sewing; one piece is wrapped around the loins and the other covering the left shoulder.  The ihram could be used to covering the dead body.  Many Moslem friends ask you to think of them in your prayers:  Prayers done on behalf of others (the sick and elderly) are more efficient for people in distress.

The most repeated chant is:

“Labbayka la homma labbayk (Here I am facing you my Lord)

“Labbayka la charika laka labbayk (You have no associate)

“Inna le hamda wa niaamata laka wal molk (To you praise, grace and sovereignity)

“La charika lak (You have no associates)

The first day of the 13 days of haj starts by the “tawaf” or walking around the Al Kaaba seven times and then drinking from the well Zamzam.  This is the mini-haj.  The greater haj is done in the desert to Mina, Muzdalifa, Mount Arafat, dilapidation of Satan with stones (and the consequent deaths by trampling), and then back to Mecca for more tawaf.  Many resume their trip to Medina,which requires more control to getting into that first city-state of Islam.  (The next part will describe in more details the haj).

When I hear people going on pilgrimage to a “sacred location” I assume that they know the consequences of being trampled and submitted to all kinds of humiliations in foreign lands.  It is normal human behavior to snap in a “sacred environment”, for example a football field, believing that whatever you do during the ceremony is holy and sins are forgiven.  When amid a crowd of million, there is high probability that many will snap, stab, rob, hurt, or trample people.

I prefer that every Moslem State build its own local copy of Al Kaaba for the pilgrims not able to afford this expensive and long pilgrimage to Mecca.  The local cube Kaaba will be shrouded with the black veil without the gold strings and tents erected all around the kaaba for an overnight sleep, at most.  Thus, the poorer Moslems and citizens of other religious denominations will be walking around the local kaaba, pray in their tents facing the Kaaba, and not having to stone any columns representing satan.  Since no sandals should be lost then, no sandal merchants should be allowed in the vicinity.

The only requirement for pilgrims is to sign an affidavit that, on returning from this mini-haj, they should return the favor to those kind-hearted people who were of service to them, instead of hating them.  If they insists on being called “haji” then, a certificate of “national haj” could be delivered, at no cost to the tax payers.




June 2023

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