Arriving in the late evening into Mecca was not plain sailing. Though I am part of a large media outfit, even being with Al Jazeera holds little sway with the police when they see you wearing the two-piece white sheets – ihram.
It’s a complicated catch-22 situation. To arrive in Mecca, in fact in Saudi during the Hajj month you have to state your intention religiously, so you wear your ihram as you fly into Jeddah.
However, we were not performing the Hajj as we’re guests of the Ministry of Information covering Hajj for the channel, so theoretically one might say you shouldn’t wear the ihram.
The problem arises when the police who patrol the toll plaza as you enter the city see who you are and what you’re wearing.
People performing Hajj can only enter the city with the correct Hajj visa. We’re travelling on a Media/ Business visa and wearing the ihram but not performing Hajj only Ummrah – the lesser pilgrimage that can be performed at any time. Do you see the problem?
Well even the simple explanation of: “We’re here to cover the Hajj” wasn’t good enough at two police check posts. They stopped us and even demanded we change into western clothes. Our minders from the ministry eventually managed to sway them, but it seems even ministry officials are ignored by the all-powerful police.
Memories from 1973
I don’t ever remember it being like this. I had been to Mecca for pilgrimage just once before, in 1973 with my beloved parents, Habib and Zubeeda. I was a mere slip of a lad and I know I’m still as cute now as I was then…the years have been kind.
My mum’s cousins lived in Saudi, owning gold shops and watch concessions. Uncle Aziz was a large man with a huge straggly black beard and crazy hair he reminded me of a pirate and I thought he was really cool. During the day in Mecca they would be selling their wears, closing only for prayer time.
The days were warm and sunny and the night cool. My recollections are vague but whilst I walk on the warm marble in 2010, I have no memory of it or how wide the pavement was from the Kaaba to the street.
The area around the grand mosque, too, is different. There are fewer shops and now one side has a huge complex of five-star hotels and shopping malls, definitely a new addition to a city that has to balance spirituality with the need for many to stay in touch with the modern world and all that comes with it – from clothes to food. It wasn’t like that in 1973.
I remember no major hotels – just a range of small guest houses, situated close to the Kaaba perimeter. I recall my uncle’s home above the shop and rooms to spare of the never-ending line of house guests that arrived from across the globe.
I was amazed to see a small metal tin placed in front of me one day, along with some butter and lots of French styled bread. I pulled the ring and there slipping out like a lump of custard was cheese, yes, my first sight of cheese in a tin.
Now living in Qatar, I see this all over the Middle East but it is a strange sight to befall the eyes of one so young when you are so used to seeing cheese in a refrigerator at a supermarket deli counter.
The smells of Mecca have changed too gone are the attractive aromas of spit-roasted chicken and in their place are the fast food chains and kebab shops. Not my cup of tea, but in the fast-moving media world and in between prayers it’s the best source of nourishment.
As I meander around the outer wall of the Grand Mosque my feet stumble on what can only be described as a pile of seed – of course – the pigeons. My father used to bring me to feed them each evening.
Happy memories are beginning to come back slowly, as is the reason my parents journeyed to the holy centre of our faith. Many come here to thank God for his blessings and perhaps ask him for his grace. My parents came for nothing more than to say thank you for giving them their only son and to ask for his forgiveness and mercy.
They wanted nothing more than to appreciate his kindness for giving them a son 13 years after their wedding and several beautiful daughters. Of course I want my sins to be absolved, but foremost, I want nothing from God except the chance to thank him for the wonderful parents he gave me.