I had fifteen minutes unfettered viewing of the US Capitol building as my taxi tried negotiating rush hour gridlock towards Washington DC’s Dulles Airport. The Greco-Roman architecture, pillars on a carousel holding a majestic dome, this imposing building, which had just had a seat-shuffle after the recent midterms, is a symbol of US power.
Its pearly whiteness was a stark contrast to that other symbol I was about to visit – the Kaaba in Mecca, draped in black.
My transit stop was in Frankfurt, Germany. Pilgrims waited at the boarding gate, men dressed in white unstitched sheets, some wearing the upper piece like a poncho, others imperious, exposing a shoulder, like Greco-Roman warriors who might look quite interesting if they stood outside the aforementioned Capitol in those threads women were clad mostly in black hijab (veils). A thirty-something German woman was stopped cold in her tracks as she passed the gate her look puzzled, confused and intrigued.
I was warned about the customary six-hour wait when I got to Jeddah airport. At first the problem was I’d reached the wrong terminal. That was resolved within three hours.
Then the problem was my visa. You’re either a businessman or a pilgrim here. But my visa says I’m a “Journalist” sent to cover the pilgrimage, who will perform the pilgrimage while working, with a “Hajj” stamp that adds I’m a “guest of the Ministry of Culture and Media” but “Not Permitted to Work”.
Straight forward black-and-white bureaucracy.
Once those cute nuances were no longer a hindrance, my misplaced baggage was. So, yes, six hours it was. The six- hour rule never fails the pilgrim.
But during my wait I couldn’t help but feel for three forlorn figures stranded at the terminal. They were Uighurs from Urumqi, in Xinjiang China. They had 16 bags between them but couldn’t locate a single one.
They spoke neither Arabic nor English, rendering conversation with airport staff impossible. They spoke a variation of Turkish – which was barely intelligible to Melis, my Turkish colleague who I called at midnight in the hope of helping them -and a variation of Mandarin that sounded more Russian than Chinese.
They had lost their baggage stubs with the tracking number.
Their flight route took them from Urumqi to Shanghai to Beijing to Doha to Jeddah, where they were now stuck. Stuck socially, politically and economically at home in a tense relationship with China, whose passport they carry but the relationship more or less ends there. And now stuck in Jeddah, devoid of their possessions. Or maybe it’s not that black and white and I’m generalising.
Once my bag was recovered, I was on my way to Mecca to perform my “Umrah”, or minor pilgrimage rituals as stage one.
I arrived at Masjid Al-Haram, or Noble/Grand Mosque at 3am, fighting sleep but happy to capitalise on the fact that, unlike when I left DC, this wasn’t rush hour in pilgrim-sense.
As I circumambulated the cube-shaped Kaaba, beautifully contrasted with the cool white marble beneath it, the soundtrack was prayer. Prayer from Indonesian old ladies who I towered over as they snaked their way through the crowd praying “Rabbana Aatayna fildunya hassana wa-fil alakhira hassana” (“Our Lord give us the best of this world and the next”). Iranian ladies holding fast to their husbands in green and white coloured scarves as they incanted, “Labbayk Allahumma Labayk” (“I’m here oh Lord, I’m here). Young Hausa Nigerians who dwarfed me calling “subhanallah, subhanallah” (“glory be to Allah”). This stream of counter-clockwise circling was energising yet asphyxiating.
And then a sneeze. I wondered if all my prayers would protect my immune system when cloudy mists of germs splattered me from the nostrils of my fellow pilgrim.
Next I speed-walked between Safa and Marwa hills (more marble chic than hills nowadays but hills nonetheless) and soon after drinking mineral-rich water from the well of Zamzam, I was done. Well almost.
I chose the “symbolic” haircut of clipping off a few hairs, rather than the prison-break look. For now at least. Another haircut is due, later in the pilgrimage, the locks may not be spared then. Neither the black, nor the few specks of white that are creeping up on me.