Thursday, November 29, 2012

Hajj 2012 - 5

MAKKAH/MINA: Day 4 of our journey/11thof Dhul-Hajj month of the Islamic calendar:

On this day, and the following day, the aim of the pilgrim is to –
  a) continue praying as much as possible
  b) visit Jamarat after the afternoon salah (namaaz) and throw stones not just at the large devil, but also at the other two devils; in fact, one starts from the “little devil” and progresses from there towards the large devil.
 c) one has to go to the Holy Mosque and do a Tawaaf-al-Vida (a Farewell ritual) on the last day before one leaves Makkah.
 d) One has to go to Mina after Maghrib to stay there for part of the night, as we did on day 3.

In fact, because of the relatively free mornings, we could get proper sleep. As before, we ate little food and drank even less milk so as to avoid the need to visit the loo often. I did manage to eat some food, though, and especially relished fried chicken with rice, the way Arabs eat chicken. As the food was purchased from a neighbouring eatery, it was fresh when hauled to my room, and I shared it with a few of the other room-mates. After the Dhuhr prayers, we went to the Jamarat to stone the three devils; Each devil had to be stoned seven times … which means we would need exactly 21 stones to do the deed on three devils; I carried the requisite amount of stones in my belt pouch, and marveled when I discovered that I had, in fact, brought the right number of stones, and had not lost any on the way! The walk to Jamarat and the walk back to our room took up more than a few hours, and the crowds were much larger today. In fact, when we reached the 2nd floor of the Jamarat building, we had to wait for about half an hour while the police arranged everything for the rites to be performed. The adhaan (call to prayers) occurred while we waited, and it was about 15 minutes after this that the barricades were opened and the pilgrims surged inside to reach the row of devils that they (i.e., we) were to stone today. After this was done, we returned to our rooms to pray the Asr’ and the Maghrib and Ishaa prayers. At about 9:00 p.m., we set off for Mina to spend the next several hours there. This time, Faisal brought his entire family – i.e. his wife Dr. Naheed, their two children, and Dr. Naheed’s mother, who was also with us. I had purchased a foldable mat (S.R. 10/=), which I now used to lie down for the evening/night when we had selected a spot. Dr. Sadia, one of the residents who is at Al Muwayh hospital was also with us, and hence we were a fairly large group.

Tonight, though, the crowds were huge, and we had to really hunt for a good place in which to relax. Our successful location of a nice spot turned out to be a not-so-nice one after all as a police van landed within 15 minutes and started blowing all the on-board horns and sirens. In tandem with them, foot-soldiers began to ask everyone to get up and take themselves elsewhere. We got up, moved a little way off, and waited for the police car and the troops to move before returning to the spot where we had lain a few minutes earlier. This kind of ritual was repeated once, but we managed to remain at the same spot for a few more sessions of prayer. In between, a Saudi guy came and handed over a pizza pack to Dr. Naheed. We all partook some of the pizza and found it hot and fresh. I also visited the Al Baik outlet (to buy some chicken) , but returned as the queues were very, very long.

At about half past two, we left Mina and returned to our hotel in Makkah.

MAKKAH/MINA: Day 5 of our journey/12thof Dhul-Hajj month of the Islamic calendar:

Today was to be the last day of our stay in Makkah, and hence, a visit to the Holy Mosque to perform the final farewell circumambulations was compulsory. Late in the morning, I left with some of my friends to the Jamarat to stone the devils for the last time. Readers will re-collect that I had collected 49 stones from Muzdalifah on the second night; I had already used 7 on the 10th of the month to stone the big devil, and another 21 to stone all the three devils on the 4th afternoon, i.e. yesterday. I now had exactly 21 stones to throw, 7 at each of the three devils. The ritual took less time than it had taken on the previous day, but it was basically a repeat of the experience we had already had.

In the evening, I went back to the Holy Mosque to perform the final circumambulation of the Kaaba. This time, the crowds were really HUGE, so I decided to do the circuit from the 2nd floor of the surrounding mosque structure; this, in fact, is the terrace of the structure, and it was a pleasant experience to walk around. From the top, one can look down upon the crowds going around the Kaaba. The walk is much longer than the one that one can take from the ground floor, but as the crowds are less, one can perform the circuit much faster. One has to be careful here, though, as all those who use wheel-chairs or are brought on wheel-chairs (the old, the infirm and the challenged) use this terrace area for their circumambulation.

After this ritual, we left, met each other outside, and walked to where our bus was waiting to take us back to our village.. On the way, we had tea/snacks at some of the stalls that were lined up. Here, we met Dr. Gofran, one of the residents I work with at the hospital. He was with his wife and his two children, both of whom were really cute, Presently, after a walk of over 2 km, we reached the place where our bus was parked. We finally left at about eight thirty p.m. The return journey was not as slow as the arrival journey had been.

It was at about half past one in the morning that we finally touched Al Muwayh, and another half hour before I reached my home and went to sleep, almost immediately.

Officially, I was now Haji Taher Yunus Kagalwala.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tuesday, 9th October, 2012: Gave my MRCPCH Part 1 exams

Due to a busy month, I skipped publishing this post at the right time.

As the title says, I gave my Part 1 A and B papers for MRCPCH (Membership of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health today, at the King Abdulaziz University's examination center (building No. 29, next to the Football stadium), located within it. The experience was humbling. As expected, the question papers only looked simple. Each part had 75 questions, and lasted 2.5 hours. 

I answered as best as I could, and was also able to stick to the correct time schedule. I allowed myself at least ten minutes at the end for revision of my answers. In the end, the format for the exam was simple. In between the two papers, we got a lunch reprieve of about 45 minutes. The organisers gave us a chicken burger each and supplied us with tea twice and unlimited bottles of water.

I had the chance of meeting three of my friends from the Facebook study group that I was a part of. These three, Drs. Alaa Mahmoud (from Khartoum, Sudan), Shreen Ahmed (an Egyptian) and Shaima Lofty (also from Egypt) are working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as doctors. It was a happy meeting indeed. We exchanged good lucks etc. before the exam, but did not get any more occasions to meet up.

After both the exams were over, I got a surprise when a car stopped near me to give me a lift back into town ... the driver was none other than the supervisor for both the papers in my room! He was gracious enough to take me into the town center, from where I managed to go to my cousin Juzer's place for the night.

The next morning, I would go back to Ta'if to pick up my passport in preparation for my journey to India.

Hajj 2012 - 4

MINA: Day 3 of our journey/10thof Dhul-Hajj month of the Islamic Calendar:

In reality, we returned to our hotel room in Makkah and snatched a little sleep before dawn. After the Fajr prayers, we proceeded to go to Mina, which is about 2 km away. Just ahead of Mina is the “Jamarat” or the place where the three “devils” are located. Before I describe this, let me say that stoning of the three devils is a ritual more to remember and praise Allah than to actually denounce the devils.

The route to Jamarat goes through a tunnel that is over a kilometer long. This tunnel was full of devotees right in the morning; only police and emergency vehicles are allowed to pass (and some motorcycles, which had one Saudi and one pilgrim … a private arrangement where the Saudi earns some quick bucks). We also saw several guys with wheel-chairs for hire; they ferried the willing pilgrims to Mina for 50 Saudi Riyals. However, theirs is an illegal enterprise, and we frequently saw the police blocking them and asking the pilgrims to “disembark”. However, the thing I wish to say is … the road to Mina, and beyond, to the Jamarat, is easily traversed as you are walking with hundreds of others. We went past the tunnel, and via a busy but narrow road, we finally reached Mina. 

A view of Mina with cloth tents in the distance
This is a town that sports thousands of tents, where Hajj pilgrims must stay for at least two nights, the 11th and the 12th of Dhul-Hajj month (more on this later). Past the bustling town of Mina, one reaches a huge building complex that has the huge stone columns that represent the three devils. 

The pilgrims proceeding towards the Jamarat
The four-storey complex is reached from different directions, and all the upper floors are centrally air-conditioned. The “devils” are tall columns of stone that start at the ground floor and are identical in shape and size through all the upper floors. You pass the “small” devil first, then the middle one and finally the “large” one. Today, the ritual required one to just stone the large devil. Hence, we went past the first two columns and launched seven stones, one after the other, reciting “Allah-o-Akbar” with each throw of a stone, at the stone column before us.

Throwing stones at the "large" devil
This ritual hardly took five minutes. Thereafter, if one can, one must “sacrifice” an animal. I had pre-arranged for the sacrifice to be done in Mumbai through my family, so there was nothing to be done here. However, some of my colleagues went to designated counters and paid a pre-set amount of Riyals (450 per person, I think) to register their sacrifice. Thus, the pilgrim himself/herself does not actually knife the animal. It is done by the Saudi governmental agency, and the meat is distributed among the needy people in several countries where deprived people stay (usually among Muslims).

After the sacrifice, the males among us went to shave our heads, but found the salons full. Eventually, we returned to the hotel, prayed the afternoon salah, and went to the barber nearby and got tonsured by about 4:00 p.m.

Leaving the Jamarat and proceeding towards the Holy Mosque
Once this is done, you may remove the special two-piece garment that you had to compulsorily wear for the previous two and a half days (the ehram). This done (I changed into a tee-shirt and a pair of loose trousers), I went to the Holy Mosque to perform the second set of seven circumambulations … this is the Tawaaf-e-ziyarat, and it is mandatory to perform this.

This done, I then proceeded with some of my colleagues, to go back to Mina to spend the night. This ritual is also one of the mandatory ones. Spending the night at Mina and praying through it is a requirement that must be fulfilled or a sacrifice has to be done in lieu of it. My partner for this venture was Dr. Naheed’s husband, Mr. Faisal. We reached Mina at a little later than 10 p.m. The roads were full of several illegal pilgrims like us who had brought with them cheap plastic floor-spreads and various other types of material on which to sit or sleep. As we had none of these things, we picked up some old water-bottle cartons, opened them up to make a “mat” for ourselves, and found a place on the road where we would stay for as long as possible.

It wasn’t easy, as the police came again and again and forced the people to get up and leave. A police jeep with the worst possible sirens would arrive, and the man within would use a loud-speaker to ask people to get up. Along with this jeep, there would descend on the crowd several young and brash policemen (probably in their late teens or early twenties) and they would wake up sleeping pilgrims or stir those already awake and ask them to leave. I decided to argue with one of these with rationality: where do they expect the thousands of us to go. When he replied that there were tents where we could go, I reminded him that the tents were for those who had come legally, and in any case, there was no place in Mina to set up tents for so many others! Also, I questioned their basic step of trying to clear a road that, in any case, was out of bounds for all vehicles! He seemed to understand my broken Arabic, and after a few more futile attempts, the police left.

Faisal and I stayed until about 1:00 a.m., then we left to return to our hotel back in Makkah. Soon, I went to sleep till about half past one. After this, we got up, dusted ourselves, and walked back to the hotel to await the morning of the 11th day of Dhul Hajj.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hajj 2012 - 3

ARAFAH continued.

There is a requirement to stay and pray in Arafah till the sun sets on the 9thday of the month of Dhul-Hajj, so everyone must come to spend his/her day here. Prayers recited here are believed to be “always” heard by Allah, so people pray very fervently at this location. I discovered, during the morning, that although we were in the shade of a tree, it gets very hot indeed, and it is almost impossible to stay within the tent! I therefore meandered about, here and there, trying to locate any of our other doctor colleagues, from whom Dr. Measser and I had parted the previous night. I finally found them all under a communal shade proferred by a large, billowing plastic sheet, sitting on rather comfortable carpets amidst the buses parked around them exactly where we had got off the bus yesterday night. It transpired that Sk. Jamal and his men had actually organized this way of spending the day! Most of the entourage were lazing under the shade, and some were actually sleeping!

At that moment, a thought went through my mind: had I NOT brought my own little tent, I would have stuck around with these people rather than follow my friend and his family … and what a nice thing that might have been. In the event, I decided to stay with the others for the rest of the afternoon, and even enjoyed a small nap. At half-past four, I woke up, went to where my tent lay, and with a little help from Dr, Measser, I disassembled my tent, folded it into its cover, and took his leave to join with the rest of my co-passengers. Dr. Measser, too, came within the next half an hour. We prayed the Asr’ prayers, and then, the “camp” was broken, and we gradually returned to the confines of our bus for the next phase of the journey.

Like it or not, the general exodus of thousands of vehicles meant only one thing: although we were ready to leave at half past five, our bus started its journey only after half past seven! We covered the short 5-6 km distance from Arafah to the next place on our itinerary, MUZDALIFAH in about six hours.

MUZDALIFAH: Day 2 of the journey/9th of Dhul-Hajj month of the Islamic Calendar:

General view of people resting at Muzdalifah
 It is at Muzdalifah, among the sands of the desert, that we have to spend the night of this particular day, praying and sleeping. Also, it is from here that one needs to collect, rather carefully, about 49 stones for a future ritual of Hajj, the traditional stoning of the three Satans at Mina (read about this later). The stones must be collected at Muzdalifah; one may collect either 49 stones, or 70 stones - and one may collect a few morein case one loses some during the next few days. The stones must not be very big and not very small either. The first restriction is imposed to prevent injuring others who are also present at the stoning; the next one is imposed to enable one to throw the stone properly from a distance of between 3-10 meters. Hence, the size must be about half a cm in diameter. No more, and no less.

We reached Muzdalifah at about mid-night, and as at Arafah, I found myself a place amongst the thousands of other people to lie down for the night. I decided against using the tent, but slept on my sleeping bag that I had also carried with me.
It was at about half past three that our group decided to start the return journey from here to the next phase of our journey, viz. going to MINA. This – our early departure – was a bit unusual, since books mention that one must stay at Muzdalifah till the dawn, pray the morning prayers and then proceed to Mina. However, the Islamic scholars among us opined that it was okay to proceed after a few hours’ stay.

Hence, we moved on.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Hajj 2012 - 2

MAKKAH: Day 1 of the Journey/8th of Dhul-Haj of the Islamic calendar:

After disembarking from the bus, we reached the bus stand, where there was a bus that was loading passengers. We all failed to reach the doors and, presently, it departed. We waited in the heat for another ten minutes, and a second bus came by. In the mad rush for seats, a few among us got in, while the rest, especially those with families, got left behind. After a long journey that went through almost half of the city of Makkah, the bus unloaded all its passengers, including yours truly, at the last stop, which was about half to one kilometer from the Holy Mosque. My friends moved away ... one of them was with his parents and went off directly to the Holy Mosque; the other was with his friend, and ran off to the same place. I was all alone. I had no idea how long I would have to wait before the others arrived, and I was getting frantic when no one had come after a two hour wait by the road-side.

I was in regular touch with the other doctors whom I had left behind, and at about half past twelve, one of them informed me that Sk. Jamal, the tour operator, had finally sorted out the problem with the police, and that they would all be proceeding shortly directly to the hotel where we were to be lodged for the next few days.

I then caught a cab and went to the hotel, where everyone else was just arriving/settling down. This hotel, grandiosely called the Salman Plaza Hotel, was just a building with sub-standard rooms ... the kind that you saw in your salad days! They had allocated one room of about 220 sq. ft. for 11 males! Each of us would get to sleep on a half-width Chinese mattress, with the rest of the space being used to keep our bags and shoes/slippers. The A/C worked okay, as did the fan. The room had a small (read cramped) toilet-cum-bath. I chose my "bed" and lay down almost immediately.

My co-passengers were all as tired as I was; one of my friends brought some food, and invited me to share it with him, which I did. We prayed the Dhuhr prayers, and then went to the Holy Mosque to perform the ARRIVAL circumambulation (7 rounds around the Holy Kaa'ba). I continued after this to also complete 7 lengthwise walks between Safaa and Marwah. This perambulation is about 3/4ths of a km each direction, so we walk about 5.2 km during this ritual of 7-lengths, praying all the time. The word for this is "saai". Performing the saai is one of the most necessary tasks during the Hajj. One can either do it on the first day of arrival, as I did it, or later, when we would return to Makkah to perform the FAREWELL  circumambulation.

Late in the evening, I returned to the room, and packed my bags for the next step of our journey: this part of the journey would take us to a place known as Arafah. As per the ritual, we would need to spend the entire next day at this place.

Hajj consists of several rituals; some of these are compulsary and CANNOT  be skipped at any cost; some are mandatory, but may be skipped under extremely extenuating circumstances; however, one has to perform an animal sacrifice to propitiate Allah for this; and finally, some rituals are neither compulsary nor mandatory and may be skipped.

As per the original sheet of itinerary issued to us, we were to spend the night at a place called MINA and go to Arafah early the next morning; however, our delayed arrival in Makkah yesterday put paid to the original plan, and we decided to proceed forthwith to Arafah. This was possible only because the ritualistic night at Mina was neither compulsary nor mandatory.

Thus, we arrived, tired and harried, at Arafah on the first night itself. It took our driver over an hour to reach the parking area. We disembarked with our luggage, and, almost immediately, my friend Dr. Measser, with his wife and mother, and I, all alone, went off to search for an appropriate place to pitch our tents for the night. The spot we located was on the edge of a large open space laid with medium-to-large sized pebbles; at the edge, the surfaces were cemented nicely, and there was no cobbliness of the ground. I had purchased a foldable tent last week from Ta'if.  (I hadn't gone personally, but had ordered it through a colleague who had gone to Ta'if for a visit.) I have never, ever used a plastic tent before, and it was with the help of my friend Dr. Measser that I learned to, and managed to pitch my tent in the proper way.

Our tents were pitched next to each other, and it was quite late at night that we settled in to take a much needed nap.

ARAFAH: Day 2 of the journey/9th Dhul-Haj of the Islamic calendar:

The problem with Arafah is that everyone, including all the legal people, sleep in tents. so that all the people need to use public toilets periodically. The best advice I could offer here is one that my advisors gave me: eat as little food and drink as little water as possible so that you DON'T have to go to the loo! This is what I did, and I am glad for this, as it would have taken me over an hour awaiting my turn to visit the loo.

Thus, night ended, and a new day began at Arafah.

Hajj 2012 - 1

I began working for the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last year in mid-November. At that time, I perceived myself to be a moderate Muslim, not too much into religion, a sort of average person. About four days after my entry there, I went to Makkah to perform my first Umraah ... a sort of prelude to the Hajj, the once-in-a-year annual pilgrimage performed by millions of devout Muslims from all over the world. The experience I had at my first Umraah made me a stronger Muslim than I had been earlier. During my first eleven months, I performed the Umraah three more times, each time hoping to return for the Hajj in October 2012.

What prevented me from actually considering this was the fact that my co-pediatrician was first in line to go for Hajj as he had joined before me. Then, due to some personal reasons, he opted out at the eleventh hour, and I suddenly realised that I could, after all, go for Hajj.

Unlike pilgrims who are brought from overseas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I had only 5 days in which to complete the rituals that make up the official visit to Hajj. These five days are the “core days” of Hajj. In fact, overseas pilgrims, including those from India, come much before the actual date for the performance of the Hajj, and spend their money and time doing whatever suits their temperament. Once the dates for Hajj have passed, most tourists often hang on forever … or at least a week more. No such luxury for me.

I was going to Hajj with several of the doctors from my hospital along with their family members (in some cases). We were a contingent of 20+ with children and old persons in addition to the six or seven of us, the doctors. Arrangements had been made with a travel organizer by the name of Sk. Jamal for his bus to pick us all up from the village, and to bring us all back at the end of the pilgrimage.

Thus it was that on the eve of 23rd October, all of us gathered at the pre-agreed rendezvous to board our bus. It was a 19-seater small bus, and there were already about 12 people inside. The bus had come from Riyadh, and had passengers who had already boarded it from there.

We were all sort of wondering how the organiser planned to accommodate twenty other people in the 8-10 remaining seats, when the driver announced that there were foldable seats attached to each of the rows of seats that would unfold in the aisle ... thereby opening 10 extra seats!

We gave our luggage to the driver who now stood atop the bus, adjusting our luggage in the carrier at the top. By around half past nine, we set off. This journey would count among one of my most unique journeys. While I was unprepared for the troubles we would all soon face, I was totally surprised by the overall result of this trip. More of this follows.

A trip to Makkah normally takes about three hours, give or take. The actual distance from my village to it is about 290 km. This night, though, we took over ten hours to reach Makkah, and over 16 hours to finally reach the hotel rooms where we would all be staying. I would tell you all the sordid details, but suffice it to know that our agent had arranged the whole trip DIFFERENTLY ... that is, there was no payment made to the Government of Saudi Arabia for performance of a legal journey. We were performing Hajj at a very low cost ... the cost would include the transportation to Makkah and the return from it, and the 11-persons-per-room stay in a hotel in Makkah. Food, internal travelling, comforts etc. were EXCLUDED. Of course, the organiser's huge profit margin was INCLUDED in the 1800 Saudi Riyals per person package!

As we were not official pilgrims, the police stopped our bus at many places. At one spot, we were immediately directed to the opposite side and asked to return to Ta'if, the city from which we had just left; we tried to re-negotiate this barricade, and failed again. Then, in a burst of creativity, one of my co-passengers simply shifted one of the barricades aside and we drove past it, out of sight of the police! Ahead, as night deepened, most of us went off to sleep. The bus plodded on, inch by inch, as it neared Makkah. At the break of dawn, the driver woke us all and asked us to get off the bus, while he tried to get the bus past yet another police barricade. We got off, and walked past the lingering police with hundreds of other pilgrims in a similar predicament. Finding some flat, even ground on the side of the road, we all plopped there to await the bus that would come to pick us up. It was another two hours before it did. In the meantime, night turned into day and the sun climbed up, changing the weather from a balmy, warm one into an uncomfortable, hot one.

We got back inside our bus as it came around, and after a tiring, slow run of another few hours, we reached the third, and as it turned out, the final police outpost about 20 km before Makkah. This spot was, in fact, a huge parking lot or "sharaaya", and the unforgiving policemen here brought our journey to a complete halt as they refused to allow the bus to proceed ahead.

We all got off, unloaded our baggages, and trudged towards the public bus stand. We were all told to reach Makkah, now a mere 20 km away, by public buses.

... to be continued.