Omar Otoum… Medina and Mecca

ladies and gentlemen, I  present you proudly my dearest cousin Omar Otoum with his newest article about his trip for Umrah, its a very interesting article, and it was puplished in theie local newspaper, for those who are inerested seriously its a must read …

the article:

“Sunday, December 31, 2006

Medina and Mecca
A Louisville Muslim shares his pilgrimage

By Omar Attum
Special to The Courier-Journal

The scoop of McDonald’s ice cream struggled to retain its shape against the pounding Saudi sun. I stepped into the full bus, leaving Riyadh for a pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca.

The hajj is the required pilgrimage of all Muslims who can undertake such a journey. I had heard the stories of crowds, stampedes and long lines for the world’s largest pilgrimage. One has to be mentally prepared for such a journey and pay off all debts before setting off.

I was not ready by either account. Instead, I was undertaking an umrah, an optional and lesser pilgrimage that has fewer stipulations and can take place any time of the year, unlike the hajj. For less than $100, I had chosen the most spartan and least expensive tour package for the 2,000-kilometer roundtrip journey. There would be no guide, only hostel reservations and a seat on a bus that left on schedule, with or without me.

My reserved seat was at the back of the bus, with the rest of the men traveling alone. Women, children and families sat in the front. Most of the passengers were from Asia or Africa, home to the majority of the world’s Muslims. I was the only American and one of the few Arabs on board.

“Alakum Al Salaam (I return the peace unto you),” I responded to the traditional Islamic greeting from the passenger who sat next to me. I made small talk by asking Mohammed if this was his first trip. He responded proudly, “This is my fourth umrah, and I have already performed the hajj.”

Mohammed performs the umrah as a religious vacation to meditate through prayer and self-reflection and to reconnect with the larger international Muslim community. Mohammed has worked for an IT company in Riyadh for the last four years. He plans to work in Saudi Arabia one more year to save money before returning to India to buy a home and start a family. I asked him, “Any advice for a beginner?” In a sage-like voice, he advised, “Have patience. If you don’t, it will be forced upon you.”

The Prophet’s mosque

A gentle tug on my shoulder awakened me from my slumber as Mohammed told me, “We have to hurry if we are going to make the fajr (dawn) prayer.”

We had arrived in Medina. Visiting Medina is not part of the umrah. It is an optional side trip to visit the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and home after he was exiled from Mecca in 622 for insisting on the worship of one God.

There was no mistaking the direction of Islam’s second holiest site, Masjid al Nabi, the Prophet’s mosque. I followed the excited pilgrims from the bus-filled parking lot to the distant rows of minarets glowing in the floodlights. Inside, the luxurious Islamic art and colorful, ornate embroideries overwhelmed my senses.

After the prayers, we made our way to a crowded corner of the mosque to see the Prophet’s grave. Some pilgrims, overwhelmed with emotion, tried to kiss or touch the tomb, to the dismay of the religious security guards, who admonished them, “Don’t worship the Prophet — this is a sin; he is human.”

Medina is also home to other historic mosques. The Mosque of the Two Qiblahs is where Muslims stopped praying toward Jerusalem (the old qiblah or prayer direction) and started facing Mecca as the new qiblah.

I stopped an elderly local man for directions to the old city. As he rested on his cane, he said, “There is no old city; the Prophet’s mosque has taken over the old city.”

The Prophet’s mosque was originally built by Muhammad himself. Today, it is larger than a football stadium and expanding to accommodate more than a half-million worshipers. I eventually did find some of the old mosques. They were minuscule and seemed out of place, dwarfed by the sounds of traffic and the shadows of high-rises.

A setback

We left Medina for Miqat, where my umrah would begin once I was in a state of ihram, a declared mental and physical state whose cleansing rituals signify a readiness to perform the pilgrimage.

The bus door opened and the driver warned, “We leave in one hour sharp,” as we headed to the bathhouse to perform the cleansing rituals. I studied the men in the lines in front of me, waiting for a shower stall. It was relatively easy to guess the pilgrims’ socioeconomic status and ethnicities from their hairstyles, clothes and shoes.

I watched them disappear into the stalls, where they would shower, clip their fingernails, cut off a hair lock and shave all body hair. They exited looking more like equals, wearing two simple white cloths, one wrapped around the waist and the other draped over the left shoulder. Women wear a white robe and scarf, with the face exposed.

My ihram state was completed after I prayed in the mosque, asking God to accept my umrah. I was now forbidden to kill any animal (including roaches), to engage in sexual behavior or cut any hair, and I would have to exhibit patience with others until my pilgrimage was over. I was now ready to go to Mecca, or so I thought.

To my disbelief, the bus was not in the parking lot. I had been gone for over an hour, and the bus was punctual. I had lost track of time, and all my belongings, my clothes and camera were going to Mecca without me.

Finding the Ka’bah

Embarrassed, I walked to a small, one-room building marked “police station.” There, covered in a toga-like outfit, with my jeans and T-shirt inside the clear bag that the ihram clothes came in, I told an officer I had missed the bus. “Try to find another bus to take you to Mecca,” he advised. I walked around and came back. “They’re all full,” I told him. He brought me some tea and promised to take me to the taxi station if I could not find a seat within the next half-hour.

The unofficial taxi was an ultra-economy rental car, whose fare I shared with two other passengers, Salim from Sudan and Naseem from India, who worked as hotel receptionists in Mecca. The taxi driver, Gamal, worked part-time by renting a car and driving people between Medina and Mecca.

As with most of my experiences in the Arab world, my companions were more intrigued by my American background than my Arab background. I answered their questions — “Is it safe for Muslims in America? Do Americans hate Muslims? Have you experienced racism after 9/11? How do you feel about the Iraq invasion? Who did you vote for in the last election?” — as the car twisted and turned through the mountains.

Arrival in Mecca

Mecca never goes to sleep. Its compounds and mosques are open 24 hours. It was only a few hours before sunrise, and people were walking inside the mosque, while families sat outside on the courtyard floor enjoying themselves in the cool summer night. Children played tag or rode their bicycles while worn-out parents snoozed or prayed.

The top of the Ka’bah could be seen above the swirling masses of people. The Ka’bah is a small, cubed building that, according to Islamic tradition, was built by the prophet Adam, and then rebuilt by the prophets Abraham and his son Ishmael and later the Prophet Muhammad. It serves as the geographical center of Islam, marking the direction that Muslims face to pray five times a day.

I began the tawaf, the first of my seven counterclockwise circles around the Ka’bah to symbolize the oneness of the Muslim community and that God is the center of human activity. With each circle, I made my way closer to the Ka’bah, encapsulated by an intense crowd, chanting “La byak allah labaehk, (You have called me, God, and I have come).”

Seeing the Ka’bah for the first time, I felt like I had finally met the legend that marked the direction of my prayers wherever I was in the world. In the United States, I face east to pray. In Riyadh, the direction of my prayers was west, toward the Ka’bah. Although I had seen a million pictures of the Ka’bah, it had always remained an abstract. Now it was a reality.

Some pilgrims, overwhelmed with emotion, pushed their way through the crowd, tears flowing, to try to touch or kiss the Ka’bah. The religious police scolded them, “Do not worship the Ka’bah; it is a stone.” I marked the end of tawaf by prostrating in prayer. In supplication, the pillars of life, such as family and health, were exposed, with the trivial clutter gently swept away.

I reenacted the sa’i, Hajar’s frantic search for water for herself and Abraham’s son, Ishmael, who, according to Islamic tradition, were stranded in the valley of Mecca until the Angel Gabriel led them to the well of Zamzam by walking between the peaks of Mount Safa and Mount Marwah seven times. The mountains are more like hills, whose granite peaks are now connected by a road-sized path of marble, covered by a roof and ceiling fans to protect against the merciless sun.

The diversity of the world was represented in Mecca. It was as if nationalities, ethnicities and social classes temporarily disappeared. People were part of the same human family. Although Mecca is in the heart of the Arabian peninsula, the diversity of the pilgrims reinforces that Islam is an international religion.

The people in the pilgrimage paused when the call to the fajr prayer sounded. Lines were instinctively formed. There was no time to segregate the sexes for prayer, as is usual; men and women prayed in the same rows. The pilgrimage abruptly resumed after the prayer.

I completed my circuit and cut a lock of hair to declare that my umrah was over. This action sanctified what was forbidden for me during ihram. I then went to the barber to have the rest cut.

Back to reality

The slap of reality is a rude awakening outside of the Haram al Sharif (the Holy Mosque) as commercial enterprise defines status according to where you sleep, eat and shop. There are opulent Hiltons for the wealthiest Muslims, as well as hostels or the free, white marble floor of the mosque courtyard for those with little or no money. Fast-food stalls line the sidewalks. Global chains such as Hardee’s and Pizza Hut are busy in the malls, and five-star dining is available in the finest hotels.

Historically, pilgrims often paid for their return by trading or selling goods from their homeland. Global commerce is still important today, as mall signs advertised the brand names of Tommy Hilfiger, Oakley, Nike and Body Shop. Outside, people were hawking fabrics, clothes and cheap electronics from Asia.

I spent my last day and a half answering calls to prayer by returning to the Haram al Sharif. I spent a lot of time inside, meditating and watching people.

One day, in accented English, a stranger invited me to join him and his daughter as he handed me some bottled water and dried fruit. My reading an English translation of the Quran had probably piqued his interest. At first I declined, thanking him in accented Arabic for his thoughtfulness. But he was adamant that I share his company, while insisting on speaking to me in English.

At first I felt uncomfortable with this undeserved attention, but then I appreciated his attempt to make someone from the English-speaking world feel welcome.

Attum is a freelance writer and photographer based in Louisville. He spent a year in Saudi Arabia working for the Conservation Program of the Zoological Society of London.”

Good luck Omar we are really proud of you… God bless you

If you want to see the original article you can visit Omar Otoum

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