RECENTLY I CAME across un-mailed postcards in my cupboard. Nearly 9 years old already, they bore beautiful pictures and lovely words, written to old friends in faraway lands. They spoke of circles and lines, white and black, a presence of people, and an imperfect cube in the center of it all.
These were postcards I had written on my Hajj trip. I had remembered people haphazardly in random places while there and wrote them accordingly, even though I had no addresses to send my postcards to.
All those years ago. And still the postcards have not reached home. I still don’t have the addresses.
Now, I think that, perhaps, these postcards were not meant for any other. Maybe it was Allah’s wish for me then to “send” them to my future self, to find them when I needed to remember a journey forgotten.
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Being at Hajj for me meant many things. I’m sure it does for most people. Being Muslim. Being there. Being a woman. Hajj throws us into the midst of a tumult of feeling and emotion—undoubtedly like nothing we’ve experienced before.
As I stood there—at ‘Arafat, in the Haram (the Sacred premises in Makkah), at Mina, at Muzdalifah, at Madinah, in tents, on bridges or wherever it may have been—yes, I thought of the common Muslims united, of all colors bowing together, and the like. But, perhaps, more acutely than any of this, I saw the faces of women as they went about. A look that said: “I am a woman, and I am here”—a sound that reverberated in my mind as Ana Hajar, Labbayk! “Look at me! Here I come, just like Hajar did!” Not with an invisible presence, but with a painfully real sorrow, and beautifully real faith and hope.
I sat there one afternoon, on the second floor of the Haram. The spot I chose was right next to the balcony, where one sat and looked at the Ka‘bah from in between a pattern cut in stone. I had my tiny mushaf opened, and I was reciting Surat Al-Baqarah, the verses about the Prophet Muhammad being sent to us to teach us faith and wisdom, and to purify us.
There was proximity in what I read and the place where I was. This is where it was all coming to him, I thought. This is where he was sent to teach and purify, in this very space had he recited this very Book.
When I looked up, I saw an old, old, Turkish woman staring at me with love. She could not read a line, or understand a word, of Arabic—as “history” systematically stole the language away from most Turkish people. She had tears running from her eyes. Then she held my hand to kiss it, and prompted me by signs to keep reciting.
And I did.
Another day, in the Haram, this time much further back. We finished Salah, and an Afghani woman stood there, not having prayed. Her face spoke of an exhausted sorrow that sought peace in this House of God. Allah had brought her here, along with a son committed to a life in a stroller with cerebral palsy. There she stood with a brave, breaking face that begged Allah for mercy. “I have come here like Hajar, with a son who needs you most!”
Outside the Masjid of the Prophet after Maghrib, I saw the most beautiful side of womanhood. Near the doors sat a woman from Algeria, I think. A small group of four others surrounded her, as she spoke from the heart. I do not know a word of colloquial Arabic, but having been through a study of the Quran and Sunnah, I could pick up on the conversation she was having.
She talked of a deep love for the Prophet an ease created in faith, as it lends itself toward an accumulation of good deeds. It was like looking at a parent with love, she said, and getting the reward for Hajj, or performing nawafil, voluntary, salahs in the morning and earning the reward of “making a Hajj and an Umrah”—as indicated by a hasan hadith.
Then they rose, and she said: “Let’s clean up the masjid of the Prophet as we walk out.” I joined her silently, as did other nearby women, to clean. And as they met one last time, I stood in their circle—the only one who did not speak their language. I did not know how to say what I wanted. So I said the invocation the Prophet made before a gathering disperses. Her eyes gleamed, and she told the rest of them what I had said and why.
We had connected. They all read Surat Al-‘Asr.
Perhaps the most amazing of experiences I had at Hajj was an episode of a wondrous joining of hands in Al-Rawda Al-Shsharifa, the Gardenous Patch of Paradise by the Prophet’s Pulpit.
I had sworn I would never go to the pulpit of the Prophet if it meant pushing, or being pushed. I did not want to be in a place and presence so beloved, with a passion that became oblivious to patience. Nevertheless, I stood in line, a long, long line of women who waited for that hour and a half of doors opened and closed for women to step onto the “small piece of Paradise.”
I stood there weary of what would follow. Allah plans much better than we do. As I walked in, of course I was overwhelmed at the station I had reached. There was all this pushing going on, and this calling out of women in different languages: “Islam is Peace, sister! Islam is Patience!’
Each one wanted to offer two rak‘ahs in this personal “heavenly garden”, and it seemed it did not matter for many where they placed their head for sujood. Sometimes it would be in the middle of feet stamping, sometimes the wrong direction.
I saw, then, two women standing side by side with their hands joined as they stood in front of a praying woman to make sure she had enough space to prostrate, as if to block and protect her from being trampled. I joined hands to help, and gradually our circle grew bigger and bigger. There ended up being about a dozen women in our human chain. Women came and went, joining in the chain and then taking a turn inside the protected circle to offer salah. And then they left.
I don’t remember how many women offered salah that day in our human circle. They used to come, signal with their eyes their request for a chance, and none was refused. One other sister and I remained. We stood there as part of the human chain for the whole hour and half. I had tears in my eyes, at what Allah had chosen for me. The other woman made salah. She was the only person who knew that I had stood there all along, but had not made salah yet. She nudged me to go inside our chain and pray, and I shook my head to refuse.
I did not want to let go of the chain. She wanted me to take my turn and offer salah. She nudged me again and again. Time was almost up. She worried for me. I let go of the chain to pray.
We all dispersed as the guards closed the women’s enclosure. I craved to meet that woman again. Once, when I did see her, she did not recognize me at all. I realized, then, that all that time in the garden I had had my face covered. I went up to her to talk, again not knowing enough Arabic. I tried to say: “We had met in Al-Rawda Al-Shsharifa.” She looked at me and said: “Insha’Allah.” I realized that with my chaotic grammar I had said: “We shall meet in the Garden of Paradise!” I smiled at my mistake and the beautiful du‘a’ her “insha’Allah” had turned it into, and left.
And then came the most anxious of days when I wept like ‘Aishah, one of my favorite women in history. Her menses arrived at a time she despised. Heartbroken, she wept that this was her Hajj, and she was impure, and the Prophet consoled her.
I sat outside his masjid weeping. This was my Hajj, and I was in a condition that does not permit me to be inside the masjid. I imagined the consoling words of the Prophet. We could still get through with it.
As I wept, I saw a mommy walk to the masjid with a small girl on a leash. The child was challenged mentally and the mom had come to offer the Fajr Salah. She began, and the daughter roamed round the mom, all the while attached to the leash. Later, the little one mimicked the mom, only in a much more beautiful manner. She put her little head down in sujood. Not face down, but face sideward, like a child laying down in the lap of a mom.
She had felt Allah’s presence, I thought.
There we all meet, as women, with sorrows, faith, and hope.