The plane had touched down nicely and I was very pleased that the flight had gone so smoothly. I had generally only flown on American and Canadian flights in the continental United States. I did not trust American pilots given the crash record and the amount of plans that fell out of the sky from the ‘70s all the way into the ‘80s so it was good to know that someone else was at the helm. I watched it taxi through the runway and continued to do the talbiyyah with all the other believers on the flight.
The only break was once it had docked to the raised staircase and we gathered our things. Although my ihram was thick, I braced myself mid-way through the plane for the cold gust of wind that I thought would come from the outside. I saw Khalid and the other attendants and thanked them a great deal for how good they had made the flight with their hospitality. Khalid looked at me and in characteristic Egyptian wit remarked, “Nevermind me. You just go and pray for me. That’s what will help me on the flight back!”
Making my way down the steps, I felt no gust, no piercing wind. Instead I was presently surprised to feel weather reminiscent of the West Coast and so the balmy weather felt welcome to me. Large airport buses pulled up, lowered to the ground but with large seats plush for comfort. As soon as the doors opened, our group split into smaller teams and boarded each of the handfuls of buses that had appeared. I stood up once I saw the sign reading, “Seats Reserved for Ladies and the Elderly Only.”
I did not feel any fatigue anyway and wanted to look around at this massive complex that was the Jeddah airport. I had spied one unbeliever from the corner of my eye but it would be the last time I would see those under the threat of the eternal curse of Allah for some four weeks. Once at the terminal, we had to come in the door where we had four stops to make. The first stop was a standing area where all of us were separated into lines, military officers with gun belts staring at us cautiously.
Each one of us was huddled into a separate line and told to wait in single file order. Different soldiers of different ranks charged up and down the booths in front of the line, making sure all the documentation was ready, the stamps prepared and each booth occupied. One guard walked daringly into my face (three feet), usually what we call punch radius on the West Coast. Seeing that he was amicable looking, I only looked at him back in the face, while I saw others sheepishly looking down. He seemed surprised that I held his gaze rather than look away.
“You’re not Pakistani,” he remarked matter of factly in very clear Arabic, his voice slightly raised. “Yes,” I agreed, taking a quick scan around the room and seeing a sea of Asian faces in the group. I think I was the only non-Asian in the posse of intendees of hajj. “What are you?” He demanded to know and stood facing me. “I have a United States passport.”
This was the standard line of reasoning I was used to and so I was prepared. “No, no. What are you? That’s not a race.” Now I knew what he meant. He was trying to make sense of this whole thing, who I was and how I was related to all of these other believers. “Well, I’m Egyptian.” “Right, okay. So you’re on hajj with all of them.” He looked at the passport, read my name, printed in the passport in Arabic and then English under it and looked up slightly bemused.
He uttered my name to one of the attendees and I had to leave the single file line that I was in and go to another. What –is-going-on I wondered loudly in my head. How am I already in trouble and I just got off the plane. I thought back if there were any previous convictions or anything I had not considered, litter that I had thrown down when I was young and hadn’t rescued or the guy just thought I looked shifty.
Finally I found myself at a desk with a man that resembled my younger cousin Ridwan and had to stifle a laugh that almost came seeing this look-alike in an authority position. I would have jumped behind the desk and yanked Ridwan from his position and sat in his seat if it was him, but this was another man. His name tag read Mansur. After only three questions, he gave me back a well stamped passport, took a few prints from my fingers and did not use the retina scanner.
I was told to head to the next check point. Well, I still have my passport, I happily consoled myself. The second stop was a seating area in which scores of people were sitting on chairs, long couches or some seated on the floor. Signs hung up all over the place indicated the dangers of swine flu, meningitis, malaria and even a small one on AIDS.
Some members of the group had swept forward before me and were seated already, so I chose a seat next to them. Awesome. Soon I heard the footsteps of more military men, stepping from place to place with surgical masks and checking passports. I was next to be checked and he snatched my passport and looked me in the face, studying my features. He read out my name, checked for the stamps from the desk and then handed it back and nodded. As for the passports of the Pakistanis, he snatched them, looked inside and then slapped them back in their hands, almost throwing them. I knew I would see more of this before my journey was over.
All of us were accounted for so the Imam of our group led us out. Lagging behind the people, I saw a large contraption that people were stepping in and out of and a consecutive set of beeps issued from it. I wondered what they were doing until one man, by his accent a Tunisian, got inside. The machine bleeped with bass and treble alerts and startled everyone in the room. “I don’t have it! I don’t have it! It’s just a warm day! It’s just a warm day!”
He wept while being led away and others filled his place in the line to the mechanical checker. Someone in the line told me this was some sort of system used to check for swine flu. The Saudi establishment took the threat very seriously, to the point that most military were wearing these surgical masks. Anyone who seemed like their temperature was outside of accepted standards was detained and not allowed to venture further. Stop three was the terminal itself where the people were waiting for the buses that would later carry them to Makkah, may Allah ennoble that city; but before then we had to have our passports checked yet again.
This time more than eight stamps were put in my passport and I got the usual look, but someone gave me a stare that lasted for more than the usual time. What? I thought in my head. What do you want? Soon he looked away and I was waiting for the luggage cart, which slumped by on a three wheel device pretending to be a luggage carrier.
Once we did the compulsory bag counting, checking and counter checking, then a head count we were fine. I just watched one couple trying to reason with a member of the counter staff at stop three. “No, no. I’m an American. Where is the luggage? The luggage?” He made the sign for luggage with his hands, his wife then trying to speak Urdu after him. The counter people looked at them dumbly and shook their heads, saying to them in Arabic. “Go pray, hajji. It’s time to pray.” So much for the international language rhetoric, I chuckled under my breath.
Once outside of the safe confines of their comfort zone, especially those of the rank and file American, it must be pretty disconcerting to realise that not every one is dying to learn English. And what is more, those that might know it aren’t too interested in having to speak it in their country when you have come to visit them.
In mid thought, I received greetings from seven foot Nigerian men going by. Suddenly, five feet eleven inches didn’t seem so big. Not only were they large, but well muscled. I’m glad I’m on their team, I thought. “Wa Alaikum us-Salaam,” I returned the greeting. Our walk to the waiting area (stop four) began and once there the wait began. The severe heat, the wait and all the other conditions crept up on some of the people that had truly not expected it.
The seats were nice, but only few were available as takers were quick, especially the Turkish. Once seated, the wait was on from 3:30am-11:00am. I saw that there were some people that needed water and soon Allah brought about someone who had water in his suitcase. The chilled two litre bottle of water somehow kept its’ coolness on the flight over. Coolness and freshness were the grateful compliments of everyone that sipped from the container after they had first praised Allah.
“Brother, are those people getting ready to pray?” I felt a sharp but careful nudge in my rib cage by brother Khubaib. “Huh? Oh, they’re praying. Subhanallah, they’re about to pray Fajr!” I dashed over with him to the wudu’ area and was soon purified and ready for prayer. The recitation behind the imam felt so nice, simple yet heartfelt.
Many of the brothers that I prayed next to did not have ihram yet as they spent everything they had just to get there. They would have to get one once they arrived in Makkah and go out of the miqat and come back into it; but they all seemed so grateful. I counted people from Ghana, Nigeria, Burkino-Faso, Gambia, Mauritania, Algeria and others among their ranks. We took in the whole atmosphere of this spread out terminal, complete with electricity powered canopies instead of a roof. They could be expanded or contracted by the pressing of a button.
Faces in our group showed apprehension, some were already tired; but this was no time to be weary! It was only the beginning of the journey. Relief swept the camp once our buses arrived but there were the usual organisational problems and teething issues (this just showed me that the Arabs never recovered since forfeiting the khilafah in the 656 AH disaster in Baghdad). The sisters had air conditioning, but mysteriously, the side the brothers were on did not.
I took my second opportunity and went to sleep, brother Mumtaz shaking his head and grinning at me from the front. He did not know how I could sleep in this heat, but I was certainly going to make a try of it. Within moments my head had slammed against the window next to me and I was now in the darkness of heat sleep.
And with Allah is every success,
brother in Islam,
al-Hajj Abu Ja`far al-Hanbali