Push it push it somemore

When my mother cautioned us about the crowd she experienced just the week before we arrived, I was not quite prepared for the fact that the Sunday we arrived was the first day of the one week school holidays for the Arab nations. And due to the political situations, uprisings and wars, most of them couldn’t get visas to travel to other countries and so what did all these Arabs decided to do? Flocked to Medina and Makkah for their umrah of course.

My first prayer at the Masjid Nabawi in Medina was barely into the gate of the mosque. Every other spot was filled up. I was a bit bewildered, because the last I could remember, there were plenty of space in the courtyard for at least 5 F1 cars to do the Schumi.

During breakfast, the ustaz leading our group told us that after all these years, he only experienced this type of crowd during Ramadan or nearing Hajj period. For this crowd to be happening at this time of the year was quite amazing, even to him. The husband’s theory was however a bit different. He was of the opinion that with the recent happenings around the globe and all the calamity that came along with it, people are more aware of their mortal vulnerability and hence started spending their money for ‘cleansing’ before it is time to ‘go’. Oh well… :S

By mid-morning, I began to notice just about how many people there were and in the intense summer heat of the desert, and the shoulder to shoulder crowd most of the time, I had to force myself to throw my irritability a few thousand miles away. Patience. Patience… I kept telling myself. There were Arab high schools on ‘Umrah school trips’ what with their school flags and teachers with loud hailers. There were the many groups of pilgrims from Turkey–and there were seriously a great number of Turks (Easter break there) and the huge groups from Indonesia who were  also on their one week school holiday break.

The biggest test in Medinah, to me was the first visit to the Prophet’s, Uthman’s and Umar’s graves at the Raudhah. The last time I was there, although it was quite difficult, it was nothing and I mean nothing compared to the stampede that I myself was caught up with this time round. Due to the crowd, all the pilgrims were divided into continents/areas. There were Asia, Turkey (which included other European nations), Arab and India. An ustazah from Indonesia was in charge of leading our group and when we went in through gate 25 at 8ish am, it was already jam packed and the Raudhah was not even opened for the ladies yet!

There were many women ‘mosque-police’ guards with their loud hailers screaming ‘Hajjah! Hajjah!’ while directing the different groups of pilgrims to their respective waiting areas. While waiting our group were lead in non-obligatory prayers and we just sat there in the mosque, all crammed up like sardines, waiting for our turn to meet the Prophet and step on that piece of heaven on earth where all our prayers would be lifted up unconditionally, as promised by the Prophet himself.

I watched snippets of what happened when Justin Bieber in KL on video and if every young girl tried to surge onto stage to touch or get close to their idol, imagine throngs of thousands of female adults from every soil of the globe you can think of trying to surge into a space no bigger than my living room, for a chance to be in the presence of their most beloved and his companions, and be on that piece of heaven-Raudhah, the area in front of his grave to make prayers for any of their wishes.

The mosque-police, may Allah bless their souls –must have the most nerve-wrecking job in the world. Since pilgrims come from all walks of life and all kinds of colours and habits and languages, crowd control and logistics was impossible to my naked eyes, but miraculous if it even worked. Despite posters and banners in so many different languages before the Raudhah area cautioning the women about the safety precautions and to enter the Raudhah in an orderly manner, not to push and shove as insya Allah, everyone would get a chance, the desperation of thousands of women to get what they wanted surpassed everything.

The moment the barriers were opened by the male guards to indicate that the Ladies visiting time was officially opened, no one cared about following the continental groupings earlier on, no one cared about which group they were going with, no one cared about anything but to jump up and run towards the Raudhah. Remember that scene when Ahmad Nisfu in the film Madu Tiga tried to stop his 3 daughters-in-law from coming into the house he was guarding? There were the Ahmad Nisfus in the male mosque-police guards shouting ‘Hajjah!Hajjah!Sabr!Sabr!!’ when the barrage of women ran into them, some almost toppled from the chairs they were standing on while holding on to their loudhailers.

Our group linked arms as we were wary about protecting our two grannies from being the victims of the stampede. There were about 15 of us from our group and along with our ustazah, we slowly inched our way into the Raudhah. When we finally made it in there, I just broke down. It was such a harrowing experience just to get into there and when one was finally in there, although at every second being pushed and shoved STILL, the feeling of being barely a meter away from Rasulullah, Uthman and Umar peace upon them all, was out of this world.

We formed a barricade by linking hands and forming a circle. 3 ladies from our group would pray their 2 rakaats at any one time in our self-made barricades so as to ensure their safety that they wouldn’t be trampled upon when they were making their prostrations. While this was going on, the ones making the barricades continued to be fighting the current of women still trying to push their way in. The Turkish ladies used their huge sizes to gain advantage, the Arabs swayed their big behinds to push their way through and the small and flighty Indonesians squeezed in under, crawled from below, ‘selit sana sini’– oh gosh.. all kinds. I was almost hit by an old lady from Kerala as she was frustrated that she couldn’t get an inch closer to the Prophet’s grave.

Once all of us had our turns, we just stood there and was ‘naturally’ pushed out by the crowd out of Raudhah. The whole harrowing experience made some of us cried still. It was too much for me. I am claustrophobic and somewhat agoraphobic too and I could just use one word to describe that first day in Masjid Nabawi– harrowing.

Energy bunnies

We specifically chose not to be placed in the same room. Firstly, we registered with the travel agent on the very last minute, which means we would have to pay a lot extra to get a room for two of us together. Secondly, I didn’t want to be in the same room as the husband. This decision was supported wholeheartedly by my mom. The challenges there are aplenty, she said. And knowing how hot-headed both of us first borns are, it is for the best that we don’t share the same room, so as to minimise any squabbles or spewing of words on Tanah Haram which we may regret later, especially when ‘doa terkabul secepat kilat’ there, and since ‘setiap kalimah adalah doa’, I don’t trust myself not to snap, especially since I anticipated the heat and the crowd.

When we were unloading from the coach, I made a silent prayer to get roommates who would be good for me and I, good for them and that it would be an awesome 12 days with them.

I was slightly surprised at first when the names of room sharing were called out. I was placed with two grannies, an 85 year old and a 75 year old. And the husband was placed with 2 senior citizens as well.  By the time I got into our room, I learned that the two grannies with me are retired Maths teachers and the 75 year old is the niece of the 85 year old. They get pension money and every year, they go for Umrah together using their pension money as a token from their teaching days.

That was my first really humbling experience throughout the whole journey. So much for me being around 3 decades younger than the elder granny. So much for my aikido fitness level. So much for my walking a couple of kms daily at the park. Because on the holy land, none of all those mattered. The spiritual level of a person determines their resolute there and hence, wide eyed with amazement, I watched my two granny roommates moved around as though they are two bunnies fitted with Duracell batteries.

…and so on

I was awake throughout the bus ride, waiting in anticipation for the moment I would once again enter the city of Medinah. The last time I did and that was when I was 20, I had just finished reading Martin Ling’s book: Muhammad. Lings was a writer in which his writings not only evoked vivid imaginations, but the way he wrote about the life of Muhammad (pbuh) was as though readers were living through that era, feeling Muhammad’s pain, fear, joys, sufferings, triumph and struggles. Without doubt, that first time I entered the city of Medinah, fresh from the journey on Ling’s opus caravan, I found myself slightly shivering when the coach made its way into the Prophet’s city.

This time round however, I was just simply tired. I had not finished Muhammad Asad’s Road to Mecca book that I had wanted to read prior to this trip and hence, emotionally, I was not yet pricked by any great writings to evoke any sentiments within me that I had felt previously. Hence I was not sure if the anticipation I felt had to do with the fact that I was exhausted and finally we could check in somewhere, or the fact that we were really on this journey now to meet the Prophet together. Probably a bit of both.

It was almost 3 am when the first sight of city lights came into view indicating that we were slowly but surely entering into Medinah. The husband was excited. The coach drove in through the bright but sleeping city and I noted the many changes I noticed about the city. At around 3 am in the morning, we were welcomed in true Swiss hospitality by the Arab staff of Movenpick Hotel.

Le Voyage

We have made many journeys together as a couple. However, I must say that nothing beats this journey we recently made together to perform the Umrah. The intention to go on this journey was made as early as late last year and till the beginning of this year, it remained just that, an intention. There were obstacles to overcome along the way, leave issues, visa issues and whatever else– to the point that my mother actually discouraged us from pursuing it with a text which said ” I think you both don’t push it. To go there, it is an invitation from Allah and the prophet. If so many obstacles like this, that means you are not really invited to be there – yet. So go for holiday to other places first lahhh”

Just shortly after that, true to her words that this journey is by invitation and if once invited, by hook or by crook, we would be able to make it there, everything fell into place. We got a good agent, our visas settled, we got our stuffs and we were ready and set to go.

My first umrah trip was when I was 20. I went with my parents, sister and a few of my relatives. The trip, as I remembered it, was easy going and was actually fun. It was not the peak season, we had good hotels, we had a good tour agent, there was plenty of space to move about. At 50kg then, I was very light, fit and fast that I was able to complete the whole ritual with ease. More than anything else, I guess at 20 years old, I was not so bogged down with life’s baggage, misgivings, sins and whatever else life can throw into the package.

More than a decade later, this trip with a ‘pilgrimage virgin’ husband and whatever I have accumulated in my own life’s suitcase, I became  nervous more than anything else as the day drew nearer.

When I look back, there was a blessing in disguise despite the challenges of getting the right dates and the visa issues earlier on. We ended up leaving on the morning of 10th April, the day after our marriage and myself turned a year older. Hence it was a significant beginning to start a fresh new year of our marriage with us taking a spiritual time out to do lots of reflections, cleansing and bonding.

The journey itself was not without challenges. Upon arrival at the KLIA  on Sunday morning, we were told that we had to hang around at the airport because our Saudi Arabian flight was delayed. Great. Called my dad. He reminded us again and again… “Sabar…be patient.. More to come”. And indeed.

We finally got into the belly of the aircraft at 4.30pm and the journey hence officially started. It was not a smooth plane ride mind you. There were turbulence here and there, but nothing quite prepared us for that incident over the Indian Ocean. It started out as  turbulence by the air pockets and then in the midst of it, we could feel the plane taking sort of a plunge  few meters down as though we were in a roller coaster ride. Everyone screamed, there was panic, I saw magazines and newspapers flying off table tops. I had experienced turbulence in airplanes before but nothing quite like this. Let’s put it this way. If it even scares season travelers like my husband, who is the epitome of masochism and who doesn’t fear many things– especially flights, it must have been a really bad flight.

But alas, we arrived safely at Jeddah Airport. It has changed so much since the last I remember it. The efficiency too, was up by about 10% (and that’s too good for Arab standards :P). Everyone was talking about the flight and how they felt towards it. One makcik said she zikr ‘Subhanallah’ all the way to Jeddah, some even cried, a lady was crying out thinking she would be leaving her only daughter behind, a Pakcik thought it was the end of him. Those exchanges in the wee hours of the morning sort of bonded us together. Bleary eyed and exhausted, the whole lot of us pilgrims were then herded into buses which would take us on a 6 hour journey into the city of Medinah, where our beloved Prophet ( peace be upon him) awaited us.

Journey

I’m on a journey with my husband. So far it has been challenging. But it is also humbling and physically draining. Not forgetting spiritually enriching. We are in the company of the most beloved man ever to live. And right now as I am typing this down, thousands of other travellers like myself from each and every corner of the globe, who love him like we do are here with me to be with him too.

I don’t know what is in store for me in the coming days. I just hope we are both strong enough to go through the challenges as they come to us…