Meccan Chronicles: Sadness
Every year, people I know make their way to the Hijaz, the cradle of religion. My father-in-law has made the Pilgrimage his annual wird, sacred litany, for the last 20 years, truly a grace from above. But he takes the nomadic approach and goes off to negotiate his own program, a concept that I cannot begin to imagine. My personality -- requiring structure in unfamiliar grounds -- could not countenance such a move. But there is something addictive about Makkah and its environs. It is "home" in a primordial sense, no matter what race or former tradition a pilgrim comes from. This may rub people the wrong way, but there's subtle "proof" in this rite and venue. Abstractions and platitudes take form. Real comes within reach. In the West, the Pilgrimage is reduced to 20 seconds of a nightly news reel, or, God forbid, a report about a tragedy (fire, trampling, or other unfortunate events).
The first time I visited Makkah was in the summer of 1984, Umrah during Ramadan. Four of us from Chicago went, and we've remained friends ever since. Some of my Pilgrim-mates are tested severely these days, and I hope for their relief. Something about Makkah: you remember forever your Pilgrim-mates. For my 1984 visit, I packed everything to only lose my luggage. The airlines, Royal Jordanian, was "on it" and made promises. But I never saw my luggage until the day I returned home. Covered only by our ihram tunics, we made Umrah and then ran around to find clothes to wear. We lived on two jalabiyyas, slept in the haram (the Sacred Mosque), showered in the bathroom stalls, and ate humus and crushed fava at night in crowded "restaurants". I remember the first dawn. It came fast, and we had been too busy that night to hydrate ourselves. When we heard the Call for Prayer, we were shocked. It's an understatement. We were very thirsty already. We slept after the prayer. When we woke up, we each had the feeling that we had slept through the noon and late afternoon prayers. It was death-level sleep and the sun was slanted downward. We got up to make ablution, make up the prayers, and prepare to break our fasts. By that time, we were thirst-crazed. But when we saw a clock, it was still 8:30 in the morning, with a full day of blaze and sun until we could break our fast. We couldn't believe it. We needed more evidence. We looked at other clocks and saw the same information. We stared at each other with the looks of dread. It was, no doubt, the longest day of my life. When my friends gather together, invariably that story comes out. We remember and laugh, although, at the time, mirth was not our first reaction.
It’s hard to keep a dry eye when recalling memories like these. Memories are complex and what they do to you now is nuanced. I have more memories that are not related to the rites per se, but stuff that I can never forget, like the tall beggar who looked like a saint in disguise or an old Yemeni man showing me amazing patience that to this day comes to my mind when I read about sabr (patience and/or perseverance). Anyhow, thanks for indulging me in my ramblings. These "things" truly flavor life.