HAJJ-MY JOURNEY OF FORGIVENESS, REDEMPTION AND REBIRTH
Walking in the footsteps of Adam, Abraham and Muhammad
By Idries Abdur-Rahman, M.D.
FORWARD: Hajj was never something I really wanted to do.
Hajj is a required journey for every physically and financially able Muslim at least once in his or her lifetime. I have to be completely honest, while Hajj was something that I’ve always known I would have to do, it was never something that I ever wanted to do. Sure Hajj is supposed to be this great spiritual journey, but I rarely heard any positive Hajj experiences from family and friends that had gone before me. Even the stories that were presented in a positive light honestly seemed pretty dreadful to me. So my head was filled with horror stories about the crowds (2-4 million people in a very confined space), the heat (think Saudi Arabia in the summertime, enough said), the conditions which could politely be described as unhygienic and of course the occasional mass casualty due to trampling’s or fires. Disney World Hajj is not. This meant years of excuses when my better half brought up the idea of making Hajj. Sometimes finances were the excuse (Hajj ain’t cheap folks), other times family (new babies) or career (residency, starting and nurturing a new private practice, etc…) were the excuses, but the overall theme was the same: I just wasn’t ready to go. Every Hajj pilgrim leaves home with the understanding that he or she very well may not return. You’re supposed to get all of your affairs in order and stated bluntly, you’re supposed to prepare yourself for death. So the idea of Hajj definitely scared me.
On the other side of it all now, I’ve come to realize that what makes Hajj so scary is the same thing that makes it so inexplicably beautiful simultaneously rewarding. Human beings spend a great deal of our lives trying to control our destiny from big things like our education and career choices to smaller things like the route we take to work. During Hajj however, you relinquish all control and for five days you are one with God (quite paradoxically so since you are surrounded by millions). For five days you are a mere speck in the mass of humanity that has converged from every corner of the globe with the shared sole purpose of worshiping God and self improvement. For this finite period of time you have absolutely zero control over your surroundings, zero control over your activities and zero control over your fate. While this probably sounds viscerally unappealing to most folks, it quickly not only becomes okay but it becomes welcome, even for a type A control freak like yours truly. You really learn what it means to let go and let God. All of the preceding years when I made excuse after excuse to avoid Hajj, the reality was that it just wasn’t my time. Through this journey I came to realize that you will never be ready for Hajj until Hajj is ready for you. Hajj is a deeply personal transformative journey and it means different things to different people. God knows when your heart and your soul is most in need of this transformation and for me that time was now. It was time for my personal journey of forgiveness, redemption and rebirth; it was my time to make Hajj.
WHAT IS HAJJ?:
Hajj is one of the so called “five pillars of Islam” that guide the lives and daily activities of every Muslim. The other pillars are the declaration of faith to one God (Shahadah), praying five times a day to that one God (Salat), fasting during the month of Ramadan and giving charity to the poor (Zakat). Hajj in particular is the holy pilgrimage to the city of Mecca that each financially and physically able Muslim must make at least once in their lifetime. There are specific rites that pilgrims must perform on each of the five days of Hajj. The purpose of these rites is to connect the pilgrim to God, allowing him or her to bear their soul and their sins, seek forgiveness and work towards renewal and rebirth. Many of the rites recreate the actions of prophets Adam, Abraham (his wife Hagar and son Ismael) and Muhammad and they have been in existence for centuries.
GETTING THERE: The Journey to the Journey
Anyone who knows me knows two things. First, I am an unashamed aerophile. I love airplanes, I love flying and quite honestly 35,000 feet is my favorite places to be. Second, I am a bit of a status whore (sorry mom, the rumors are true). I have been known to go a bit out of my way to make sure that I keep my status in the United Mileage Plus program every year. What can I say?, I like the perks that come with status. So why am I telling you this (other than the catharsis that comes with admitting ones flaws)? Well, it meant that instead of taking a more direct route with only two flights, my wife and I took four flights to get to our first destination, the Saudi Arabian city of Medinah. We flew United Airlines from Chicago O’Hare (my home airport) to Newark and from Newark to Zurich, Switzerland. From Zurich, we flew SWISS to Dubai, enjoyed a nice overnight layover and finally flew Saudia Airlines from Dubai to Medinah. To be completely honest though, miles and status were not the only reason for the circuitous routing. When you travel to Saudi Arabia on a Hajj visa, you can only enter the country via either Jeddah or Medinah. Most folks fly into Jeddah, which means immigration waiting times can sometimes top 12 hours or more. After flying 6,500 miles over more than 18 hours, I had absolutely no interest in waiting in a hot sweaty immigration line for another 12 hours. So Medinah it was! The only somewhat direct routes from Chicago to Medinah involved Turkish Airlines who was charging $2,500 per person. This meant that I had to get creative and booked two separate tickets, one with United to Dubai and the second with Saudia to Medinah. Sure it required a few extra flights, but it saved close to a grand per person while giving the added bonus of a night to recuperate in Dubai before heading to Saudi Arabia. It just so happens that I also got my frequent flyer miles and status points. Win-win.
The first flight on our long journey was operated by N13110, a Boeing 757-200 originally delivered to Continental Airlines in November of 1994. Flight UA#485 took 1 hours and 39 minutes to fly the 718 miles between Chicago O’Hare and Newark Liberty airports.
We had the bulkhead seats which of course…
meant unlimited legroom. BTW, are you digging my new slip-on shoes? Admit it, you love them!, style meets comfort.
My wife and I ready for departure. She’s going to kill me because she’s closing her eyes in this picture but come on, I was looking pretty damn good, so here it is.
Our Boeing 757 pushed back from the gate at O’Hare on a nice beautiful summer day in Chi-town.
Soon we were lining up on the active runway enjoying a day with near perfect visibility.
Salaam Chicago, A powerful take-off followed…
and soon we were climbing into the wild blue yonder.
As we crossed the coastline of Lake Michigan…
I kicked back and checked out the flight map.
United’s patented Savory Snack Mix was served along with beverages. While I appreciate that light snacks have made a comeback on US domestic flights, a little variety wouldn’t kill ya UA!
As we flew eastbound, blue, blue and more blue as far as the eyes could see.
I’m sure my fellow areophiles can probably tell me what airport this is (?)
The 1 hour and 39 minutes flew by (ba dum dum….), and we were soon…
descending into Newark Liberty International airport. Surprisingly given the time of day (afternoon primetime), we were not placed in a holding pattern which meant that we were soon on the ground taxiing to our gate on the C concourse.
My artistic way of telling you that we chilled in the United Club for a few hours enjoying some light snacks. Celery and Cookies, a little yen to balance out the yang.
After a couple of hours, we headed over to gate C-110 where…
N69063, a Boeing 767-400 delivered to Continental Airlines in March of 2002, was waiting to take us the 3,940 miles to Zurich, Switzerland. Total flight time was a quick 7 hours and 3 minutes.
Okay fine, turn about is fair play. So here it is, a shot where she looks good and I look, well, not so good. We passed time during boarding taking stupid pics.
Economy Plus legroom on the Boeing 767-400 definitely gives you a few more inches to stretch out on longer flights. Now you know that I was eye-balling that empty row hoping for a poor man’s sleeper seat. Unfortunately people did eventually show up, so I clearly was meant to spend my night upright.
Soon we pushed off of the gate and slowly taxied to the active runway.
A couple of United 777’s, including a Star Alliance logo jet, awaiting their next mission while a Lufthansa Airbus makes its way towards the active runway.
About to start the trans-Atlantic journey to Switzerland.
Almost at the active thresh-hold. The cars and trucks in the background were out pacing us but just wait a few minutes and you’ll be eating our dust…….or diesel.
And away we went, flying into a beautiful sunset.
As we flew further east, the colors became more and more striking.
Views like this are why I love life at 35,000 feet!
Just when I thought the sunset couldn’t get any better, this happened.
And before anyone besmirches my good name and accuses me of photoshopping, I took a video for proof! Bam!!
Sunset done, I turned inward for entertainment. By inward I mean that I turned to my PTV screen and not my imagination because, well, I have no imagination. Barbershop 2 or 3?, can’t remember. Either way, it was funny.
Soon dinner was served.
To be honest, the main (pasta) looked a bit disgusting but in fairness, it was actually pretty darn good.
Once dinner was done, ice cream was served along with a bottle of water for mid-flight hydration.
Sufficiently entertained, fed and watered, I plugged my phone up and closed my eyes.
One of the hazards, or perks, of living through decades (between Med school, residency and practicing OB/GYN) of sleepless nights is that I can sleep anywhere, at anytime. So, I was not surprised at all when I opened my eyes and saw that the sun was already rising. Four hours of solid sleep, yayyy me!
A typical continental breakfast was served and we were soon…
descending over central Europe…
as the sun fully rose on a new day.
Close up of the Limmat (I’m guessing) river…
as we establish ourselves on short finals for Kloten airport.
The Swiss countryside below looked quite inviting…
until a little cloud of pollution came along to mar the otherwise picturesque scene.
and welcome to a sleepy Zurich Kloten airport.
We passed a fellow Star carrier’s Airbus 380 on the way to our gate…
where we cozied up next to a Germania Airlines Airbus 321.
We had a five hour layover in Zurich, so why would an aerophile go anywhere else? Where am I you ask?…
The outside observation desk at the SWISS lounge of course. Bet you can’t guess who spent a couple of solid hours out there?
The views across the airfield, including the active runway, held my attention for the entire time.
Of course the action was dominated by SWISS, but United did represent with the 767-400 that brought us from Newark and a 777-200 that did the Washington/Dulles turn.
When you are simultaneously airplane spotting and eating free Movenpick ice cream, the time really does fly by. Soon enough we were heading to the gate where our aircraft was waiting to take us to the middle of the desert.
Flight LX242, a 5 hour and 56 minute, 2,965 mile journey, was operated by Airbus 330-300 HB-JHD, delivered to SWISS in June of 2009
Soon after fueling was completed…
we boarded the SWISS Airbus. By now fatigue was definitely setting in and I was more than ready to Rip VanWinkle this flight away.
My willingness to sleep this flight away was magnified by my inability to secure a window seat despite all of my efforts. I have to say that spending six hours sitting in a middle seat is a fate close to death for an aerophile. Thankfully jet lag was on my side and I didn’t wake until we well into our journey…
flying over Iran. Iran is on the short list of countries that I would like to see one day, but with the current US administration and the fragile state of US-Iranian relations, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.
I slept through lunch but my wife was kind enough to wake me for the best part, ice cream.
Before long, we touched down at a very HOT (think 103 degrees at 9PM) Dubai. For some reason we were given “special treatment” by UAE immigration officials, which meant we spent an extra two hours in the arrivals hall of Dubai International airport. I suspect that it was because we were traveling in transit on Hajj visas. Eventually however, we were allowed to enter the country and after a hot, sweaty taxi ride, we found ourselves at the Hilton Garden Inn. After room service and much needed showers, we quickly fell into bed and into a deep, deep sleep.
The next day we had a 5PM flight on Saudia Airlines from Dubai to Medinah. This meant getting to the airport at 3PM. A huge part of the Hajj experience is the unknown. Sometimes checkin lines are long, sometimes they are short. Sometimes you have issues with your visa, sometimes you don’t. We didn’t want to tempt fate, so we were good little soon-to-be Hajjis, and made sure we were at that airport two hours ahead of time as requested. Luckily the lines were short and our visas were quickly reviewed and boarding passes were issued.
Bags were tagged to Medinah. The luggage of all Hajjis were tagged with special Haj tags.
Immigration was quick and problem-free and we soon found ourselves at gate D18 with plenty of time to spare. Now this is when stuff started to get real for me. On the flights to Dubai I was somehow able to fool myself into thinking that I was just going on another vacation. Who doesn’t love Dubai, right? Now however, sitting at gate D18 waiting to board the flight to Medinah, the realization smacked me square in the face; this was no vacation, I was really headed to Hajj. This wasn’t my first time going to Saudi Arabia, and I absolutely love Medinah. Somehow knowing that I was getting that much closer to Hajj however, made me really, really nervous.
Bit of a detour here, but I am a Mamba aficionado and Dubai airport was the first place that I saw a cola flavor, so I had to grab a pack before jetting off.
Boarding was called on time…
and soon we were on HZ-AS13, an Airbus A320 delivered to Saudia in October of 2009, for the 985 mile, 2 hour and 8 minutes flight to Medinah.
Okay, one more usie for the road. This time on the Saudia Airlines Airbus bound for Medinah.
A company Boeing 777-300 next to us was boarding for a flight to Jeddah.
Safety first on Saudia.
Descent legroom on this narrow body jet, I’m guessing about 34 inches.
The safety video was played first in Arabic followed by English.
As we taxied to the active runway, I flipped through the Ahlan Wasahlan (Arabic for Welcome) in-flight magazine and of course I found the….
fleet page. I always skip straight to the back of any in-flight magazine.
An Air India Express Boeing 737-800 turned onto the active runway and slowly slipped the surly bonds and then…
it was our turn. Soon we were over a hazy suburban Dubai…
slowly climbing to our cruising altitude of 38,000 feet.
Once we reached 38,000 feet, lunch was served and…
it was pretty dang good. Curry fish with rice and spinach, a roll, salad and dessert.
All three cookies were good minus the date in the middle of the third one. Not a date lover so I nibbled around it.
We both made quick work of the lunch and then kicked back and relaxed for the remaining hour or so of the flight.
I think most travelers to Saudi Arabia know that the Kingdom has very strict laws, but one last warning was provided for those who either didn’t know or were unwisely considering tempting fate.
The clouds were thick as we started to descend…
into the hazy skies over the Arabian dessert.
After a smooth 2+ hour flight across the desert, we landed in Medinah just before the sun fell below the horizon (allowing me to get this great pic despite the dusty airplane window). I was once again in the city that always feels like home every time I return. Medinah was the city that gave the prophet Muhammad pbuh (pubh is an abbreviation for peace be upon him, something all Muslims say when referring to the prophet) refuge when he left Mecca and there is an undeniable peace and serenity in this city. What a fitting end to our travel journey and start to our spiritual journey.
The last time we were in Medinah (2014) they were building a much needed new airport. When we got off of the airplane, I was pleased to see that the new airport was finally open, complete with air bridges (no more stairs and buses), air conditioning and western toilets (I am still a bit scarred from the memory of getting a case of the bubble gut last time I was at Medinah airport. Thank God that I have been blessed with strong thigh muscles and good balance and as Forrest Gump said, that’s all I’m going to say about that!).
The new Medinah airport has a totally modern feel and…
my wife and I really enjoyed the unique architecture. Yup, we enjoyed the unique architecture for THREE freaking hours. Now normally three hours would be nothing to complain about when it comes to immigration during Hajj. Actually for folks flying into Jeddah, three hours would be a blessing from on high. So, why did I just yell three hours? Well, immigration literally only took five minutes. What you quickly learn during Hajj (and it is really best to prepare for this before you leave home) are what I call the four rules (or realities) of Hajj. #1. Hajj is best described as organized chaos (even though it usually looks and feels like plain old, everyday, run of the mill, disorganized chaos), #2. There will be a million bumps in the road but at least there is still a road, #3. You will frequently be confused, that’s okay most people are and #4. In the end everything will work out.
As we emerged from the Immigration hall, a man dressed in plain (i.e. non-government) clothing gestured for me to come to his desk and bring him our passports. One of the many things that freaked me out about Hajj was the fact that every pilgrim (yup all 2-3 million of them) has to give their passports to the Saudi authorities on arrival. So, when our passports were taken and thrown unceremoniously into a plastic bag (that I swear I never saw him label), I wasn’t too surprised though my inner type-A was still freaked out. I just reminded myself of rules # 1 and #4, organized chaos, it all works out in the end, blah blah blah, when, in very broken English, he asked me for a four digit code that we needed before we would be allowed to leave the airport. I again inwardly panicked before remembering rule #3, confusion. Anyone who comes for Hajj has to do so with a tour group approved by the Saudi government. Casual tourism just isn’t a thing in Saudi Arabia. Almost everyone flying in for Hajj flies in with a group leader who likely has this mysterious four digit code. My quest for miles meant that we were flying alone and I had no idea what this code was nor how to get it. And so I walked with this Saudi official back and forth from office to office as he explained our situation to various colleagues while my wife just sat and did, well whatever the heck she was doing, I have no idea what it was because I wasn’t with her. Eventually rule #4 did bear out and it all worked out in the end. We were given two plastic cards, which I can only assume were somehow tied to our passports, and we were allowed to jump into a taxi and leave the airport.
Check out part 2- Medinah, Saudi Arabia HERE
Check out part 3-The Hajj pilgrimage HERE
Check out part 4-The long journey home HERE