In a series of special programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslims from around the world as they embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.
As one of the world’s iconic landmarks, the Panama Canal has been the facilitator for many long journeys.
For Ray Henry it constitutes the departure point for what he considers the most important journey of his life.
Historically Panama has never, wanted to acknowledge the history of the Muslims in this area... Islam in Latin America was taboo
Ray who works on the canal was been chosen by the growing Muslim community in Panama as their candidate to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Visibly proud, he demonstrates that every last detail has been prepared for his trip.
“Well, as you can see my bags are out. I am ready,” he says.
“They told me normal towels but normal towels won’t work. And I am not that big a person anymore. I’m a shrimp of what I used to be.”
Ray has been trying to improve his basic skills in Arabic, studying alone on his computer after his teacher left for the Middle East last year, aware that not speaking Arabic may be an issue when he arrives in Saudi Arabia.
Growing up in Colon, Panama’s second most important city Ray converted to Islam about four years ago after seeing beyond what he says were initially negative images of Islam conveyed to him.
“The idea of Islam did appeal to me at some point, but it was tainted by overtures of racism from the current that I received, and a lot of negative media input,” he says.
“But I did get started reading pamphlets on the life of the Prophet and seeing how much of an extraordinary person he was… I was in a large meeting … with a Muslim person and I started asking Muslims about their religion. And I came to understand the true meaning of Islam.”
Although a relatively recent convert to Islam, Ray is a member of what is a growing Muslim community in Panama, a community that has long roots that historically were ignored according to Abdulkhaber Muhammed, the director of the centre of Islamic Studies in Panama.
“Historically Panama has never, wanted to acknowledge the history of the Muslims in this area,” he says.
“Because Panama was a Spanish colony, and if we go back to that period of the inquisition, Muslims were being killed and forced to change their names. Islam in Latin America was taboo.
“Historically, however, the first Muslims that arrived here in Panama, came here from Africa. In 1552 a Spanish slave boat came to Panama because, Panama was the crossroads of South America.”
Abdulkhader says there are Muslims living across Panama but those in Colon are mainly of Arabic origin.
The first mosque built in Central America, was inaugurated in 1982 funded in part by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. There are now 10 mosques throughout Panama’s nine provinces.
Ray says the sight of Mecca in photographs does not necessarily “excite” him but that he has definitely become more emotional as he has got older.
Ahead of his anticipated journey, he has the full support of his family despite initial concerns from his wife, Maria.
“When he converted to Islam, I felt little bit uncomfortable, because I wondered how could he decide to become religious overnight. And even more religious than me,” Maria says.
“I did not understand his behavior, which made me worried. But I noticed great change in his conduct. I wondered, can this really be true?
“But, it’s good. The change has been incredible, and it has completely changed him. I see that because of his sincerity, God will give him all the guidance that he wants in order for him to enter paradise on judgement day.”
|FOR MORE: The Road to Hajj|
From Xi’an to Mecca – China
Islamic revival – Azerbaijan
The luck of the draw – India
Ray has been getting advice on his pilgrimage from Abdulkhader, whom he met shortly after his conversion, who teaches him the importance of reading Arabic and what to expect during the Hajj.
But as Ray prepares, Jamel Saker from the Islamic Association of Panama, who picked him to be their candidate for the pilgrimage is up against it in his attempts to secure the all important visa for travel to Saudi Arabia.
The chosen Panamanian candidate has to have their visa secured via Caracas in Venezuela rather than in the US or Mexico. But it appears Ray is in the same predicament as 30 other pilgrims, in a race against time to make the journey.
Ray’s visa does not come through in time and his disappointment is palpable.
“I’ll keep my intention to make Hajj next year, God willing. This means I have to work little harder. Prepare myself. But like I said, I understand it is Allah’s will, and I don’t question that,” he says.
While Muslims in Mecca perform the Hajj, Ray undertakes his own prayers and sacrifice for Eid al-Adha in Colon, a holiday that lasts for just one day in Panama rather than the traditional three.
He gets his hair cut for $3.50, in honour of the ritual he would have undertaken during the Hajj and seeks solace in his work on the canal he says is a “wonder”.
“And part of the wonder, of this great project begins. The force of gravity will let water from this chamber into the adjoining chamber and lower the ship,” he says.
“The locomotives will hold her in position and prevent us from going to the wall or drifting further forward or backwards. We are now 85 feet above sea level. By the end of the process which is three sets of locks, we’ll be at sea level.”
On the subject of his pilgrimage to Mecca Ray remains positive.
“Allah didn’t think I was ready yet, so I guess there was some work to do, internal work to do. God willing next year he will think I’m ready and then it will all come together. The white towels will be used, for now, for house use.”
The Road to Hajj documentary series first aired in 2010.