The lessor known facts of Hajj - By A. Magdon Ismail (July 2009)

If you are thinking of performing Hajj this year, you may have already started the process of planning your pilgrimage. If not, it is time you get started immediately. If it is your first time, there is so much you need to know and prepare, so get cracking. There is no time to lose.

There is no need to panic though. Most Hajj groups will conduct information sessions. You can also speak to your local Imam, friends/relatives who have performed Hajj before, and there are a number of books and videos on Hajj.

My family and I were fortunate enough to perform the Hajj last year (2008). I would like to share my experience with you and hope this has some benefit to you. Many persons more qualified than me, have written about the pilgrimage itself, so I will leave that to the experts. I would like to give you some details on the lesser known facts of the Hajj, and some of the truths and myths that are out there. Again, these are based on our own experiences in 2008. Every year the Saudi Arabian authorities improve the services and facilities to the pilgrims, so this year you could expect a better and safer journey, Alhamdulillah.

If I can be of any further assistance to you, I am happy to do so. [Please obtain the contact details from ALMA secretary]

1.     Flight out     

- Emirates (so we can change into ihram at Dubai)

- Long flight (17 hrs to Dubai + transit + about 3 hrs to Jeddah)

- Change to ihram in Dubai

2.     Hajj Terminal (special terminal for Hajj pilgrims)

-      You have to make sure you got that covered exactly as required. For example last year we had to take Meningococcal vaccine, and there is more than one vaccine available for slightly different versions of this, and you have to make sure you get the exact one requested by the Saudi authorities. Your vaccination certificates are also checked in Sydney during airport check-in process. However, we did find the lady at check-in was misinformed about the required vaccination and had to clarify with her supervisor. If you had received the Saudi Hajj visa, be confident you have the right vaccination.

-      Lost one of our bags, so spent a lot of anxious hours trying to locate and finally to sort it out. This bag contained all my wife’s and daughter’s clothes. Fortunately we got the bag delivered to our hotel after few days. (It is important, if you take more than one bag, put few clothes for each person in each bag, so if one gets lost, everyone still has a few clothes to wear).

-      Generally a fairly long wait (minimum 3-4 hrs at least)

-      Bus trip to Mecca takes about 3 hrs

3.    Still in ihram until you complete Umrah (if that is your intention)

4.    Umrah – You need to complete Umrah (tawaf & saee). It is cooler at night, so if you are able to do it, I suggest you do that straight after getting to Mecca, so you can then get out of your ihram. Remember when you are in ihram, there are certain restrictions that apply. We reached Mecca at night and were too tired to perform the rituals; so we completed the Umrah the next morning.

5.    Ibrahim – a lot of the rituals of Hajj is surprisingly based on Prophet Ibrahim. Prophet Ibrahim lived long before Islam was born, as we know it. So you begin to wonder, when Islam really began.

6.    Cut your hair (or shave your head – males); then out of ihram

7.    Lots of walking; no covered shoes during ihram (for males). I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a very good/comfortable pair of (preferably leather) slippers. Make sure you “break” this in by wearing it before your trip.

8.    Blisters - Heaps of blisters. Surprisingly I have seen them on some of the pilgrims on their 3rd, 4th, 5th Hajj. You think they knew how to avoid them.

9.    Non-perfumed – when in ihram you cannot use any perfumes. You can get non-perfumed soap (Neutragena) and lotion (Sorbelene). You need to take some with you. The Sorbelene will be good for the blisters you will get on your feet.

10.  Haram – it is an awesome sight; the first time you see the Qaaba you are enthralled, and get the feeling you have finally “arrived”. You will never forget that first sight of the Qaaba.

11.  Praying - If you want to pray inside the Haram you need to get there pretty early; at least half hour before prayer time. During the Haj period you need to go even earlier. If not you will be praying on the road, sometimes half a kilometer away.

12.  100,000 – Every prayer you perform in the Haram in Mecca is worth a 100,000 times more. That is about 300 years’ worth. In the Prophet’s mosque in Medina it is worth 1,000 times more. So try to make it in time for each prayer to the mosque. After all that is what you are there for.

13.  Cameras – taking pictures inside the mosques are forbidden. You take them inside the Haram at your own risk. There are guys checking your bags as you go in; ladies are body searched by women. You are ok if you are only going to pray outside the main building; but if you want to pray inside watch what you carry.

14.  Even during December, day time temperature was about 33 deg.C in Mecca. Medina is much cooler.

15.  Tawaf - on the ground floor in the open area beside the Qaaba is the shortest; about 200-300 M circles; on the first floor or roof, about 1 Km circles. By the time you do 7 circles you have done 7 km. Remember during Umrah you are in ihram and bare footed; lots or blisters. You then have to walk about 7 x 0.5km for Saee after the tawaf.

16.  Myth – before you leave for Hajj you hear all these stories how people steal your money belt off your body even in the Haram, and similar stories. You go half expecting to be mugged in the Haram. We saw nothing of this; not one incident. Neither did we hear of any. So take care, be careful, use a money belt, but don’t fret too much about it, and don’t carry negative thoughts with you to Mecca.

17.  Fact – Not a lot of red meat is sold in Mecca or Medina. A bit of chicken is served but red meat is not common. You have to go to a Pakistani or some such restaurant to get red meat (beef, mutton)

18.  Myth – your slippers are bound to get lost; don’t worry there are plenty of people selling slippers outside the mosque. We never lost our slippers; but we took them in with us in a small back pack. True there are a few people selling slippers around the place, but not heaps. Don’t forget to take a small back pack; you can carry your essentials in it, especially when you are in ihram and have no pockets for your things.

19.  Dinner - Only breakfast supplied as part of the Hajj package during our stay at Mecca and Medina. Since you spend a lot of time in the mosque it would be handy to have dinner supplied as well. Lunch you have time to get.

20.  Friday Jummah gets really crowded; there was an estimated 1.5M people our first Friday in Mecca; and reportedly about 0.5M in the Haram in Medina.

21.  Medina nice city; cool in December. Max 22 deg.C, and quite clean. Always see street cleaners, unlike in Mecca.  Carrying at least one sweater is preferable for those early morning prayers.

22.  The Prophet’s mosque in Medina is very clean, and very beautiful.

23.  Women – unlike in the Haram in Mecca where women can pray inside the main mosque pretty much anywhere (as long as they do not get right in front), in Medina they have to strictly keep to the allocated women’s prayer area. Very strict.

24.  Clouds – never saw any cloud when in Mecca, Medina or Mina; not a speck

25.  Hills – Mecca & Medina all surrounded by a lot of hills. These are mainly just rock; completely devoid of any grass or vegetation. This is just a very strange sight.

26.  Fact – one set of ihram is enough. We took two each but gave the second one away. Too much to carry around too (when you go to Mina) since it is quite bulky, and you don’t really need it.

27.  Hawkers/Traders – they try to fleece you all the time; take care. One of the chaps, who forgot to pack his ihram when going to Medina, was quoted about A$200 for an ihram because the trader knew he was desperate. I gave him the extra ihram I had with me.

28.  Fact – there are no newsagents as we know it, either in Mecca or Medina. If you need to get a newspaper you have to go to the supermarket. Bin Dawood is the Woolworth’s of Mecca/Medina. All decent hotels do have newspapers in the lobby.

29.  “White” carpet area (Riyard ul Jannah) in the Prophets mosque in Medina. The carpet here is actually light green. This area next to where the Prophet (SAW) is buried is considered a very special place. Praying here is considered the same as praying in heaven. Needless to say, it is quite hard to get there. But you can do it if you are smart and go at the right time. Good time is late after Isha or after people start leaving Medina for Mina (for the start of the Hajj) and the crowd in Medina gets less. Women are only able to pray here at allocated times. You can find out what these times are from either the hotel or other pilgrims.

30.  The Prophet’s mosque is now open 24 hrs, unlike some years ago.

31.  Our tour group supplied us with a Mina kit bag containing bedding (mattress, pillow, bed sheet, and pillow case), toiletries, some food, etc. There was some room for few personal items. That is all you need to take to Mina. You need to travel light. Check with your travel group whether they are supplying these.

32.  Mina – tent city. This is where your Hajj starts and where you spend most of your Hajj days. Thousands of tents. It is an awesome sight. Although the facilities are basic, this is where you interact with a lot of other people, and make lots of friends. We found it a great place and enjoyed our stay here.

33.  Myth – Mina has air conditioned tents. There is no air conditioning. What they have are evaporative coolers. But these do their job; keep you a bit cool. Should take extra blanket if you feel the cold a lot. Sharing with many people in the tent means you may not be able to turn off the cooling units if you feel cold.

34.  End of Mina – the non-Muslim country pilgrims are at the far end of Mina (US, UK, Canada, France, Australia); right next to the big sign saying “End of Mina”. So you have a lot of ground to cover to get to the Jamarat (for the stoning) or to Mecca.

35.  Shops in Mina – there are a few shops selling food and plenty of hawkers selling all sorts of other wares. Best to avoid buying food from the shops here; not worth falling sick during the Hajj. Your Hajj group should supply all meals when in Mina.

36.  Myth – you have to line up for toilets a long time. Actually it is not a big problem if you are a bit organized. Avoid azan times; at other times it is ok. Plenty of toilets around. Peak time is in the morning at Subah time; either go half hour before Subah or after sunrise.

37.  Toilets - Are the toilets clean? If there were any cleaners cleaning the toilets, I did not see them. But they are ok; not great, but ok. If you think the particular toilet is dirty, go to another one. No shortage of water. Shower is in the same toilet situated above the toilet bowl/pan; make sure you don’t drop the soap. You will have to carry your toiletries in a plastic bag so you can hang them off the clothes pegs because you cannot leave them anywhere else. Remember while in ihram you cannot use normal scented toothpaste or scented soap.

38.  Garbage – rubbish is removed regularly form the tents, but it all ended up outside by the side of the road. It sat there until the “dump” got out of hand. Then there was a great big operation using bob-cats and trucks to clean it up.

39.  Fact – no cooking allowed in the tents, so all meals are supplied. The quality depends on your tour group. Our group supplied pretty good meals. Tea/Coffee making facilities available in the tents.

40.  Arafat – you spend the day at Arafat between sunrise and sunset simply in prayer. You can take a book of duas with you which may help you make dua.

41.  Myth – no toilets in Musdalifah. Actually last year they must have built new toilets because there are heaps of new toilets. No worries.

42.  Stones – pick your stones (for the Jamarat) in Musdalifah if possible; easier than in Mina. (You need a minimum of 70 stones, size of chic peas)

43.  Sleeping in Musdalifah – under the stars; so take your bedding from Mina with you if possible. Take your blanket with you.

44.  Stoning the Jamarat – it is very safe now; no problems. But a lot of walking to and back. Every day you stay at Mina you have to stone the Jamarat anytime after Zuhar (except on the first day where you stone just the one Jamarat before Zuhar). The Hajj authorities will give each tour group an allocated time for the Jamarat. They will also give you a guide. It is best to go with your group. You can go on your own if you wish; after you do one Jamarat, you pretty much know your way and what to expect. There are four levels for stoning the Jamarat; it is like a great big super-highway. Although you go in this great big crowd of people, they all split into the various levels and crowd thins out. Also the flow of pilgrims is all one way. So it is most unlikely you will have the problems as in the past where pilgrims were crushed and injured. Very safe now.

45.  Tawaf al Ifadah – Walked all the way from the tent (in Mina) to the Jamarat (about 50 mins) and proceeded all the way to Mecca (another hour). Did Tawaf, Saee and had to get back to Mina. We left the tent about 7.00pm and only returned the next morning about 5.00am. Very tired.

46.  Taxi – Don’t take a taxi from Mecca to Mina; the taxi guy cannot get into Mina because he has no permit; he just goes around in circles. He may just drop you off somewhere and leave and you can get lost in Mina easily; especially at night everything looks the same. There are places you can go for assistance, but it can be a long wait. Some pilgrims have taken 3-4hrs to get back to the tent after being dropped off in Mina. Mecca is only about 10kms from Mina. We took a taxi back as well, because we were too tired. We spent about 3hrs ourselves (and SR275); but our driver did manage to get somewhat close to our tent because he went through a road block, much to the annoyance of the policeman manning that check point. Best to get a taxi from close to the Jamarat to Mecca and walk back from Mecca.

47.  Sick – most people get some ailment guaranteed. Take your medication with you. Almost everyone ends up with a bad cough (popularly known as the Hajj Cough), which takes abut a week or two after returning (to Sydney) to clear up. Every member of my family was sick at various stages of the trip (nothing major), and all got the cough in the end. This year you have the added problem of the Swine Flue (H1N1) to watch out for. It is very hard not to catch something when you are in a crowd of 2-3M pilgrims.

48.  Doctors – at Mina there are plenty of medical centers; all free. We never visited them but they looked ok (we could see one next to our tent)

49.  Pharmacies – plenty of pharmacies around. In fact there are heaps of them everywhere. You don’t need a prescription to buy most drugs, including antibiotics.

50.  Traffic – we were lucky. Only got caught in one very bad traffic jam when returning to Mecca from Mina after the Hajj; a very bad one. In the end the driver asked us to get out and walk the rest of the way; it was hard work carrying your bag and being very tired. Fortunately the hotel was only about another 0.5Km away. The driver is expected to drop us at the hotel and we were told later we should not have got off the bus.

51.  Language – useful to know some Arabic.

52.  TV – we found there were a lot of good TV stations showing very interesting Islamic broadcasts. Some of the main prayers are also telecast live.

53.  Zam Zam – usually each pilgrim is given 10L to take home. Emirates do not charge you extra for carrying this. No trouble in Sydney airport either.  It needs to be sealed in a clear polythene bag and these can be purchased at Jeddah airport.  At Sydney airport, you have to go and pick it up from the over-sized baggage section.

54.  The Pilgrimage – without doubt one of the most memorable journeys of your lifetime. One of the most amazing sights is to see all these people attracted to the Haram for the main prayer 5 times per day; no gimmicks no Shannon Noll or Pauline; no fireworks or giveaways; no free lunch. Just their devotion to Islam.

55.  Before you are too old – try to do your Hajj as early in your life as you can. You have to be quite fit too. I saw too many pilgrims in their later years struggling in wheel-chairs. Strain on everyone. And you don’t get to experience it and enjoy it to the extent you can when you are younger and mobile.

56.  Finally, enjoy your Hajj. Be safe, have lots of patience. It is indeed the journey of a lifetime.

- By A. Magdon Ismail (July 2009)

 

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