To Mecca and back again

Hajj is a journey, people tell you. An amazingly spiritual journey. And it is. But here’s what they don’t tell you. To get an idea of what it’s like, take your most difficult camping trip ever, multiply by ten, and imagine doing it with four million other people at the same time. And if you’re ...

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546648_hajj2resized2.jpg

Hajj is a journey, people tell you. An amazingly spiritual journey.

And it is.

Hajj is a journey, people tell you. An amazingly spiritual journey.

And it is.

But here’s what they don’t tell you. To get an idea of what it’s like, take your most difficult camping trip ever, multiply by ten, and imagine doing it with four million other people at the same time. And if you’re a man, you spend at least three days dressed in nothing but two towels. (To the shock of my two younger brothers: "No boxers?!")

It’s intense. A spiritual, emotional, and physical rollercoaster.

My father has always dreamed of going on hajj with his family – that’s me, my mother, and all four of my siblings So as soon as my youngest brother "came of age" — basically, hit puberty — the plans were made and the flights were booked.

Hajj is the last of Islam’s five pillars: Muslims, assuming they are physically and financially capable, are required to journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetimes and participate in a number of rituals over the span of a week.  The rituals commemorate the actions of Prophet Abraham and his family-his wives and his son Ishmael. For us, it means relinquishing our attachment to the world.

So why do we do this? Go in circles round and round the Ka’aba – the cube, stone structure in Mecca that Muslims all over the world face when they pray, and which symbolizes the house of God — and recite the Quran at the foot of Mount Arafat? Why do we do so squished between hundreds of thousands of sweaty people? Put ourselves through so much difficulty?

We do it because there is an innate beauty in the rituals. In every moment, there is a feeling, a thought, a memory, an experience: Realizing I am walking next to the foreign minister of Turkey, indistinguishable from any other man. Realizing I am at the most cosmopolitan gathering of human beings in the world: black and white, rich and poor, from every corner of the world. Millions of people stand together in perfect circles, in perfect unity, gathered together over a most intangible thing: faith.

The hajj is also about the noise and chaos of everyday life. Hundreds of people lined up at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Sleep-deprived pilgrims gulp down coffee like there’s no tomorrow. Parents finally snap at camping in the desert with millions of others in the sweltering heat and shout at their crying children. Hundreds of piles of human hair litter the ground — a product of the fact that men and women are obliged to cut their hair after the main rituals of hajj are over. Men are advised to shave their heads, while thankfully, women only have to cut a tiny lock. My brothers all went bald — apparently, it makes their heads "static-y."

The world is changing, and Mecca is not immune. You circle the Ka’aba and your eyes cannot help but be drawn to the enormous clock tower — the biggest in the world, and housed in the second tallest building in the world. I walk into that tower and discover my haven — Starbucks. I turn on my Blackberry in the pilgrimage destination of Mina — in the middle of the desert — and find free Wifi. I look around and see half a dozen people reading the Quran — on their iPads. 

The "real" world has crept into what is supposed to be the most spiritual of spiritual places.

The heat is intense. The pillars that we stone on three consecutive days are in Mina, miles away from the Ka’aba. Most pilgrims spend those nights outside in that desert valley, sleeping on the ground and at the base of mountains. Physical hardship teaches you discipline. You discipline your body, and in turn that helps you discipline yourself.

Then again, I did eat a whole lot of chocolate ice-cream on hajj, so I’m not too sure I did well at the whole discipline thing.

It’s easy to think to yourself: "Okay, I’m going to go to this really spiritual place, and it’s going to make me all spiritual. The world is going to make sense and I’m going to come back all changed." It’s possible. But unfortunately, there’s no magic wand.

True, it’s easier to reflect on God and the afterlife in an atmosphere when everyone is praying and being holy. And yet, I find that reflection and introspection comes to me with smaller things, the moments that fill your heart with joy — or sadness.

Seeing hundreds of little girls in the most beautiful of dresses and colorful hair accessories on Eid holiday in Mecca. Having one of them come up to me and hand me her orange juice, offering the traditional greeting of the day: "Eid Mubarak." Then, smiling at her pun: "No, no Mubarak khalas!" — (Hosni) Mubarak is finished.

Being proposed to by a totally buff Nigerian man while I was standing in line for pizza.

Seeing a couple so old they were hunched over help each other up the stairs, and burst into tears at their first sight of the Ka’aba.

Seeing people giving out dates by the bucketful to passersby. And camel milk — which, by the way, tastes horrible.

Staring at an African woman in the most beautiful red turban and colorful dress and have her poke me, smile, and point to her Tiffany heart bracelet — identical to mine.

Observing the discrepancy between the poor and the rich in Mina, where hundreds slept on the ground and rode like cattle in the back of a truck while the privileged few sat on La-Z-Boy chairs in huge air-conditioned tents, eating lobster.

Laughing hysterically with my mother over the fact that under our black dresses, we’re wearing bright animal print leggings.

Buying chicken meals and distributing them to those too poor to buy. Having every woman I give a meal to — without fail, no matter what nationality — pray that God grant me a good husband.

God is in Mecca, when my heart and mind are thinking of nothing but Him. But He’s also here, in Cairo, when I’m blasting Adele in my car and running dozens of errands. Or when I’m in the middle of Tahrir Square, surrounded by thousands of Egyptians, all together on a different kind of journey: one to democracy and a free Egypt.

Life is full of all kinds of journeys, and if you want, you’ll find God in all of them.

Ethar El-Katatney is a journalist and author based in Cairo.

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