Before I left Australian authorities had conducted sweeping and much-criticised anti-terror raids across Sydney and Brisbane. In Melbourne, a young man thought to be sympathetic to the Islamic State had been shot dead after he’d tried to stab two police officers. The number of attacks on Muslims – particularly women – rose. I knew I’d be leaving for Hajj under these strained and tense circumstances and did various media interviews about how Muslims felt they were under siege.
In preparation for Hajj I collected the du’as people had requested me to make, and added my own for everyone close to me. Everyone advised me to build up a reservoir of patience. I mentally prepared by scaring myself stupid reading reviews of Jeddah’s international airport.
There was no need to worry, however. The Saudi hajj authorities ran a tight ship. The Hajj and customs officials at King Abdul Aziz airport were helpful, courteous and friendly even though they help out millions of pilgrims each year. They’d figured out that Indonesians were bad at queues – when our host showed a customs officer my Australian passport under my parents’ Indonesian passports, the customs officer thought we were part of a group traveling from Jakarta, and told us to ‘antri, antri’. Our host explained we were guests of the Muslim World League, and the customs officer waved us through.
The immigration officials, however, were something else. They deserved all the negative comments they receive in reviews of Jeddah’s airport.
We were picked up by our MWL hosts, and a driver who looked about fifteen. He was actually nineteen, spoke very little English, and expertly navigated insane traffic to Mecca-a journey of about one and a half hours from Jeddah. By ‘expertly navigated’, I mean he drove like a maniac. I traded worried glances with my parents all of us thinking the same thing: this kid – who we can’t communicate with – is holding our passports and driving like he’s possessed. But we got to Mecca safe and sound. While most pilgrims stay near the Haram – the Ka’aba and its surrounds – we were put up in a guest house at Mina. For the Umrah or minor pilgrimage that most pilgrims do before the actual Hajj (with a break of a few days in between), we were driven to the Haram, which was six kilometres from Mina, and back by bus.
My first sight of the Ka’aba was emotional. We were fortunate and managed to do our first circumambulation (the seven circuits the pilgrim does of the Ka’aba) on the ground floor, and very close to the building itself. Because Indonesians make up the largest single group of pilgrims for Hajj (and for Umrah throughout the year) many of the officials in the Haram spoke some bahasa. One showed me the direction I had to go in by saying ‘Hajjah! Jalan terus! (Female pilgrim, go straight ahead!)’. He waved and replied, ‘kembali’ when I smiled and said ‘terima kasih’.
Back in our home country life went on – it was late September, which meant the AFL and NRL finals in Melbourne and Sydney. A newspaper in Australia wanted to do an interview about the link between Muslim NRL fans and the Canterbury Bulldogs – a topic I’d researched and written about. The reporter kindly mentioned in his story that I was speaking to him while doing the Hajj.
Our Umrah completed, we waited until the 8th of Dhul Hijjah – the first day of the actual Hajj. After doing the dawn prayer Fajr, I grabbed my camera and ran to the highest floor of our guest house, and took a photo of Mina, which had turned into the world’s largest tent city. Muslims believe that doing the Hajj is accepting an invitation to visit Allah (God) and at that moment I knew that the three and a half million people who’d been lucky enough to score an invite this year were there, in that tent city that stretched for miles, waiting to begin their Hajj. The pilgrims’ refrain ‘Labbayk Allahumma labbayk (Here I am my Creator, here I am)’ reached my lips and I went back downstairs to wait with our group to depart for the plains of Arafat.
Arafat is a desert, and searingly hot. My survival kit – sunscreen, wet wipes and moisturiser, all fragrance and alcohol free – was made redundant by the cool, air conditioned tents and prayer room tent provided by our hosts. They even set up a coffee stand under a breezy tent – a hipster Hajj. The ABC called, and wanted to speak with an Australian on Hajj. While standing on the plains of Arafat I did a phone interview, exploring issues of technology-infused worship (or the problem with ‘Hajj selfies’) as well as my dismay at not having any fellow Australian pilgrims around with whom I could discuss James Hird and the Essendon Football Club.
Over the next couple of days we did the ritual stoning of the devil after collecting pebbles at Mudzalifah, and our farewell circumambulation of the Ka’aba, which was a far more crowded affair. From the second floor we took the classic photo of the Ka’aba surrounded by masses of people, and saw a couple of selfie sticks – though to the credit of those people using them, these were generally used in a way that did not inconvenience the pilgrims who were still walking around the Ka’aba.
With the Hajj officially finished we were able to make a quick visit to Medina. Luckily for me this year the Hajj coincided with mid-semester break and while I wish I could have stayed a bit longer I had to rush back and finish teaching and marking. In Medina, seeing the Prophet Muhammad’s final resting place was just as emotional as seeing the Ka’aba for the first time. After doing a short, two unit prayer, I addressed him directly in my head and heart. “I’m the crappest Muslim ever, but I’m a Muslim,” I thought. “I’ll continue to stumble, but I’ll try to live my life according to the values you set in this crazy land fourteen hundred years ago. So please intercede for me and acknowledge me as one of your followers on the Day of Judgement. I bear witness that there is no God but God and that you are the messenger of God. Peace be on you Muhammad son of Abdullah, and your entire Ummah (community).”