And still recuperating!

And still adjusting to the fantastic news that on Nov. 7th, not only did Big Red Lollipop receive a glowing review from the New York Times, but it was also named one of the top ten picture books of the year!

In addition to that it made Kirkus’s top 100 books of the year! So good attention all round!

The day before I left for Hajj, I presented at the LINC Childminding Conference and received a little notebook that I ended up taking with me on hajj. I thought I would write down my feelings as this journey of a lifetime progressed, never realizing that I’d end up almost filling the entire notebook!

I’m going to type out my Hajj journal exactly as I wrote it, without censoring it. Any additions I add will be in parentheses.

Here is the first installment:

Nov. 3rd

I’m writing this even as I lie on my comfy hotel bed, with my feet up in the hopes of reducing their swelling.

What an experience the past few days have been!

The flight to Abu Dhabi was extremely difficult.

Usually I conk right out on long flights but I was crammed in a middle seat and the lady to the left of me kept insisting the whole section at her feet belonged to her when it was clear that there were only 3 sections for four passengers.

I know this sounds petty but a few inches of leg room means the difference betwen comfort or relative comfort and pain on such a long flight (13 hours +). I sat with one foot on either side of the metal bracket supporting the seats in front of us and for most of the flight, she pressed her foot against mine in such a way as to try to discourage me from taking my rightful space. It didn’t work.

I held fast and finally she had the nerve to say that her foot was squeezed and hurting. I just told her that mine was too. Thing was I was in ‘hajj’ mode, and I looked at this incident as the first of many tests of my patience.

By the time we got to Abu Dhabi it was dark. We were just there the one night and I ended up bunking with this 28 year old lady who was doing hajj with her parents.

She was such a dainty young thing and I felt quite embarrassed using the bathroom, well aware that every sound could be heard outside by this relative stranger.

The food has been great! Ther is NO  substitute for Muslim hospitality. But it was weird to see ‘bacon’ on the breakfast menu of a Muslim state like Abu Dhabi. Turned out it was ‘halal’ bacon, made from beef not pork, but still, it felt wrong sampling it.

Apparently Dubai is different. You can get real bacon there. Still, the first thing I saw when we got off the plane in Abu Dhabi was the duty free liquor store. Even on the airplane they were giving booze for free when they charge for it on Air Canada.

I know this sounds really judgmental but I consider alcohol to be one of the most stupid and disgusting compounds around. Can’t stand the smell.

It pollutes people’s minds and makes them do stupid things. One of the best things about Islam, in my opinion, is that it forbids it. And yet these people have to go ahead and follow other cultures’ love for it.

I had wondered why we didn’t just catch a flight straight to Jeddah from Abu Dhabi instead of laying over like that in Abu Dhabi but afer experiencing the processing we went through in the Hajj terminal in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I think it was very wise indeed that we had that night to rest up.

It was gruelling! And the worst was having to face the bathrooms.

I had been amply warned about the washroom situation during Hajj. I mean how could it be otherwise? Up to 5 million people from every country on the face of the earth converging on one place, all with their own standards of hygiene?

Chalk it up to more tests of patience.

It took about 4 hours to process our paperwork and get through Saudi customs. Not bad at all! They processed the women separately from the men and strangely enough they made the men give fingerprints and take pictures of their faces. One man I met thinks that they’re doing this on behalf of the CIA. It makes a lot of sense. He said that the FBI can’t get fingerprints without a warrant so they’re probably getting the Saudis to do their work for them.

I can just imagine some people reading this might think this is a good thing, but I see it as an erosion of civil rights.

The nicest thing that happened was that when we arrived at one of the checkpoints a couple of the officers boarded our bus and handed out little boxes full of cookies and snacks along with a bottle of zamzam water. (It turned out that this place was once called Hudaibiyah–where a famous treaty was enacted–but I didn’t know this at the time. It was dark when we were there and I wish I’d taken a better look around!)

A gift to every hajji and boy was it welcome after that long processing wait!

For a while on the bus all you could hear was the happy sound of unwrapping and munching the goodies.

The first time I saw the Kaaba was 2 years ago and it was such an emotional experience!

I went for Umrah.

We arrived in Mecca, my parents, one of my daughters, and myself at 12:30 am. The three of them were too tired from the flights to go to the haram. Haram is another name for the Kaaba. Haram in this case means sacred, sacrosanct, inviolable, a place where violence is forbidden.

So all three of them went to sleep but I’d waited so long, I just had to go see the Kaaba.

I went over with a kind of hustling walk–hurried, excited, and I entered through King Abdul Aziz gate. As I came down the stairs I felt like I was coming to meet a beloved. And then catching glimpses of it through the graceful columns, and seeing the people circumambulating it in tawaf, as they always do, was coming face to face with something I’d only ever seen in pictures all my life.

And dazedly, I joined the crowd, not quite daring to believe that I was actually there on that sacred ground.

I guess it was too much to expect that the same feeling of almost infatuation would overwhelm me this time.

Maybe it was that I’m nervous about the Hajj.

Worried–with good reason–about the crush of people I’ll have to face. I HATE crowds!

It was still a pleasure to see the Kaaba, as always, but it was not as intense as that first time, when the highlight was the Kaaba and I didn’t have any lingering sense of trepidation, of unknown challenges to come.

And the Kaaba looked different. Because of the Hajj they had rolled up the heavy silk black covering of the ancient structure so that it was out of reach of over eager pilgrims who might, in their zeal, tear it to shreds.

People might think it’s just a building, but it’s not. It’s God’s house, built by none other than the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael (peace be upon them).

For thousands of years people have been making pilgrmage to this iconic building, circling it, counter clockwise, as if to say, this! This is our centre! Our nucleus, the black force drawing us in at the centre of our galaxy. Only this time, when I beheld it, it was a LOT more crowded.

And it was only going to get more so. Everyday more and more people are arriving in Mecca, with every bit as much passion and zeal for this place as I have.

It’s a bit disconcerting. It’s almost like meeting a woman who sees the same qualities in your husband that you do.

I’ve prayed beside women from South Africa, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nigeria. I’ve seen people from Iran, every state in Nigeria, Kurdistan and even Kirgyztan. And I know this because many of them wear some sort of insignia marking their country of origin.

Sometimes the women will have a patch sewn onto the back of their head covering, sometimes they’ll wear the same colour scarf, or the same colour band, or a large kerchief tied around their shoulders in a bright colour like neon green or orange.

Or sometimes it’s just printed on their scarves.

There’s a Kirgyz folktale that I tell that I’m particularly fond of. When I saw the word Kirgyzstan printed on the back of this lady’s scarf I wanted to run up and tell her, “Boy do I have a story for you!”

Oh it’s remarkable.

So many many people gathered from so many different parts of the world, and they all get along!

I don’t think there have ever been any racial riots at the Hajj.

On the first full day of being here the clouds began to build in an all too familiar way and I was sure there would be rain!

Rain in the desert!

By the time I crossed the courtyard from our five star Movenpick hotel to the haram, it was spitting. Something made me think of the well of Zamzam and I had the crazy notion that a deluge would help fill its coffers. Somehow I felt sorry for this well that would have to quench the thirst of so many pilgrims. It’s the standing miracle of Mecca, and I’ll mention more about this well later.

The lightning flashed after I had settled into a prayer spot on the second floor. Then it was boom, rumble boom for the next couple of hours.

Because Mecca is so close to the equator the length of time from the sunset prayer (Maghrib) and the night prayer (Isha) is only an hour. Most people come in time to get a spot for Maghrib–usually at least an hour early and then stay till Isha at about 7:15. (Later on an hour wasn’t nearly enough time to come early. I was going two or three hours early to get a good spot.)

Then after Isha they eat dinner and relax for the rest of the night. The shops are all open late.

Well, as I was saying, the thunder boomed and the heavens opened up and poured out a deluge. It didn’t stop those from doing the tawaf, which is the circumambulating of the Kaaba. And when the water started to pour out of the rain spout at the top of the Kaaba some people, thinking that they’d get a blessed shower, ran to the spot and in the process four people were trampled to death.

So sad!

But it occurs to me that most such incidents occur when people are thinking selfishly and stupidly. They want the blessing, if indeed there is such a blessing from such water, and they don’t care if they mow down others in their path to get it.

Don’t they realize that they are violating the rules of tawaf  and the conditon of their state of ihram? Being in ihram is more than just the wearing of two pieces of white cloth (for men) and not cutting your hair or wearing perfume. It’s making sure  you bring no harm to anyone. Hurting even a blade of grass or an animal in your path is usually enough to break your ihram. And yet people from various countries decide to do tawaf as a group. They lock arms so they won’t get separated and like a barge plowing through a surf–they force their way through the crowds.

People warned me to stay out of their way. Especially the Africans! Tall powerful men jogging through the masses!

Last night me and my sister in law went for umrah again. Went at about 11:45 thinking the crowd would have died down somewhat. It had in that it was possible to do the seven rounds of tawaf on the ground floor, right around the blessed Kaaba.

It’s so nice to be able to be near the Kaaba while you’re circling it in tawaf. But the way the crowds can push and shove, even while they’re obviously trying not to is alarming. And there’s always the contrarians, with no consideration for anyone else, trying to walk against the flow! And then some people will start praying in the middle of the tawaf area so that a good soul will stand on guard trying to ward off the crowd, make the crowd go around the silly worshippers instead of trampling over them.

I’d been warned about that too, so I guess there haven’t been too many surprises.

It’s all part of the tests of patience I guess. But it’s funny, there are also times when the crowd opens up and you’ll see the hapless debris some unfortunate pilgrims left behind in the crush. A slipper, a sock, a niqab–face covering. And they look quite comical lying there.

One prayer in the haram/Kaaba is worth 100,000 prayers most anywhere else. And one prayer in the Prophet’s mosque (peace be upon him) in Medina, the second holiest site in Islam, is worth one thousand prayers most everywhere else, and one prayer in Masjid Al Aqsa-Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, is worth 500 times a prayer most everywhere else. So it goes a long way towards explaining why people brave the crowds to come and pray in this blessed place.

To be continued…