Here we come!

The days spent in Medinah quickly became a habit. Woke up at 3am, in the mosque by 3.30 am for the Qiyamulail or night prayers, waited for Subuh and followed by breakfast at the hotel. I would usually have a short nap after breakfast and then down to the Bin Dawood to just walk around (absolutely love the supermarket there) or browsed at the bookshop below our hotel. By 8ish am, I would gear myself for my personal battle to enter the Raudhah. I discovered, the best efficient way to go about it is to go on my own and putting our aikido nimbleness into practice, my daily Raudha visits became less harrowing. I usually treated myself to a Movenpick cone after each Raudha trip and hence subconsciously, that became a motivation to brave the crowd (in addition to being in the Prophet’s presence of course! :p)

On one of the days in Medinah, we were taken to Mount Uhud where the famous Battle of Uhud took place and also to the graves of the warriors who died protecting the Prophet in the various battles when the enemies tried to kill him for preaching monotheism. While at the grave of Hamza, the Prophet’s uncle, I remembered the movie The Message starring Anthony Quinn about Muhammad pbuh. I must have watched that film a gazillion times and each time, I cried as though I had lost my mother. To be there at Hamza’s grave and remembering his character in history and everything else about him somehow made shiver ran down my spine despite the scotching midday desert sun.

We also went to the date plantations where all of us loaded up on the ‘Ajwa’ or a special kind of dates personally used to be planted by the Prophet himself. This kind of date is said in the hadith to contain exceptional medicinal values and he himself used to eat 7 ajwa dates with honey and milk every morning. Amongst other things sold at the plantations were dried camel’s liver, said to be good for asthma and bronchitis problems, date pollens powder for infertility problems, Sedr honey- a very famous honey from the mountains of Yemen, various nuts and other natural healing products. We had a gleeful time shopping with the rest so much so that the ustaz cautioned us not to finish all our money as yet because we had not even left for Makkah.

We were also taken to several mosques like the Qubah mosque-first most the Prophet built when he moved to Medinah, the Qiblatain mosque- the mosque with two Qiblah and did all the historical touristy thing around Medinah.

During the nights, after isya’, the husband and I would walk around the shops looking for grubs when we felt tired of the hotel food. Sometimes we went for the ‘kebabs’ which were cheap and good. Our attempt to be meat minimalist people went out the window with the arrays of ‘kebabs’ around and also Hardees, the fast-food chain which caught our eyes and taste buds.

As enjoyable as it was in Medinah, the day came when we had to say goodbye to the Prophet during the ‘ziarah wida’ i.e the farewell visit. Really surprisingly, my ‘ziarah wida’ was made smooth, so much so I had a good ten minutes in the Raudha and I actually stood there without being pushed or shoved and I had a good ten minutes to say to him everything that I wanted to say to him. I even thanked him for teaching us to love animals, especially cats. I told him about Milo and Tito and Mia and all our feline kids through the years. It was strange because through all these, no one was actually pushing me, and this was in the Raudha mind you. And what was stranger was the feeling, a very very strong feeling of ‘highness’ I felt after that conversation that I had with him about our cats that I had this strange feeling that he smiled. I smiled back and waved goodbye and softly asked him to please invite us to visit him again in the near future and this time for Hajj, insya Allah. I then walked out of Raudha, which was another strange thing because one does not actually walked out of Raudha, one gets pushed out of Raudha or squeezed out of Raudha. But I managed to walk out, because no one was actually in my path, although every other spot in the Raudha was filled to the brim. Surreal indeed!

That afternoon after the ‘ziarah wida’, lunch and zuhur, we made our way to take ‘miqat’ in Bir Ali. We put on our ihrams, did our solat ihrams, said our intention of doing the umrah ritual and called out the Talbiyah. Soon we were on our way for the 6 hour journey to Islam’s holy city of Makkah which held more challenges for us on a much more personal basis.

‘Labbaikallahuma labaik!Labaikallah syarikalala baik! Innal hamda, wal ni’mata, laka wal Mulk, la syarikala!’, we called out the Talbiyah in unision in the bus. Basically it means, ‘Here we come our Lord! Here we come, answering YOUR divine call !’

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New found friends and Swiss Ice-Cream

Other than the new found friends I made from our umrah group, I made two more new friends amidst the crowd in Masjid Nabawi. And strangely enough, both are teachers. The first one approached me with ‘ Salam, can you read Arabic?’ She had a black veil on her face and she was dressed typically Saudi, with only her eyes showing. I was quite surprised that her English, especially her diction was so good. I said yes I can read Arabic but no, I don’t understand Arabic. Through her eyes, which were the only features I could see from her face, I saw her smiled. She gave me a dzikir card which she bought in a stack from the bookshop outside and was distributing it to everyone where we were sitting. She thought I was a Filipino. Or an Indonesian. When I told her I was from Singapore but living and working in Malaysia, she got excited and exclaimed ” Ohhh I love Kuala Lumpur!!! We Saudis love to holiday there, go shopping at Pavilion and KLCC.” Yes, ma’am, I know that very well :P. She was in KL just last year and she was chirping excitedly about her holidays in KL when I couldn’t resist asking, how come her command of the English language is really good?

She revealed that she is an English teacher who graduated from the faculty of languages in the University of Riyadh. I couldn’t resist asking further, ‘Do you have to wear the whole full black abaya+niqab when you are teaching?’ She laughed and that suddenly made me feel that I had just asked a silly question. ‘No sister..’ She said, her eyes still laughing. ‘University is divided into two parts, the male campus and female campus. All schools in Saudi are divided into male and female buildings. When we enter the ladies side of the building, there is a locker room where all these are taken off and we wear whatever colouful things we fancy since it is all about female teachers and female students.’

Achso. So THAT explains all these sexy colorful clothes I see in their departmental stores and malls. Like if all I see were black robes and veil, when do they actually dress up? But now I have the answer. They dress up in their own ‘harem’ of ladies or in front of their husbands/male family members. We chatted further while waiting for Zuhur, most common topic would of course be the Raudhah stampede which we go through on a daily basis in Medinah. We exchanged email addresses as well but we parted after zuhur without me even knowing how she looks like because like the rest of the Saudi women, they kept their veils on their faces in public.

The second friend I made was on my last day in Medinah. After I had done the farewell visit to Raudhah, said goodbye to the Prophet, to Uthman and Umar peace be upon them all, I had gone around Masjid Nabawi to take photos with the husband. Then came zuhur time and I went in for my very last prayers there for this trip, feeling all sappy and sentimental et al when suddenly, a really beautiful lady in long hijab plonked herself next to me. In her hands, she was holding a book on Muhammad in French. I blurted out ‘ Are you from France?’ She looked surprised but then quickly smiled and asked me ‘Parlez-vous français??’ I told her I can’t speak French but I can do English and German if she can. In halting English and smattering German she said she can only do fluent French but she can try English but she warned me her English is really, really not good. So we tried conversing in English. She is from Paris and a teacher teaching Economics in a junior college. Great. Another teacher. Is Allah trying to tell me something here? Two retired teacher roommates and two random teachers sat next to me right before zuhur in Masjid Nabawi.

She went straight for the cut asking me if I am Indonesian. Same ol, same ol. Anyway, I asked her, trying to speak as slowly and as coherently as I could about the whole hijab fiasco in France recently, what with the banning of hijab in government sector and how she as a teacher in a government school deal with her hijab issues. With a sad expression, she told me Muslims in France just had to ‘make do’. In Paris where she is teaching, teachers or government civil servants like her who happen to be French AND Muslim, they take the desperate measures i.e leave the home with hijab and then at the doorstep of their workplace/schools, take off their hijab just so that they could carry on working/schooling. After work/school, they put on their hijab again outside the doorstep of their workplace/schools.

That piece of info was very humbling for me. I realised that I am indeed lucky that I do not have to go through all that. At the same time, I also feel a tinge of sadness for my other sisters in Islam here who have the freedom and opportunities to don the hijab in a place where their lives are not threatened by it and yet let the opportunity and freedom to just pass like that.

I have a third best friend that I made there though and this one is not a teacher. It is not even a person. Bearing in mind we stayed at Movenpick Hotel, and Movenpick is well known around the world for what else, if not their yummilicious Movenpick ice-cream. Put sweltering dry desert setting and freaking hot days, the readily available SR7.00 per cone Movenpick ice-cream of various flavors soon became my best buddy, and our dates with each other sometimes be as much as 3 times a day. Even the seller recognised me by the face and the ‘telekung’ and he always had that ‘You again Hajjah?’ laugh/snigger when he sees my grey ‘telekung’ top walk towards his Movenpick ice-cream stand…

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.

Jln Surabaya, Menteng…

I spent the new year’s holiday along the streets of Jakarta in which I saw the dirt poor and the filthy rich side by side. I asked myself where is justice in this world when this is allowed to happen.

I walked on and I saw the the smiles and laughters of the seemingly poor people on the streets, their children’s playing gleefully in the puddle by the roadside after the storm and the simplicity of their lives. I also heard the complains of the stresses of the rich who are controlled by their wealth in manners we common people can only imagine. And then, that was when it daunted upon me, that justice, in accordance to HIM is more than what meets my eyes.