While in Mecca, do as the pilgrims do.
Following this dictum means braving through a set of Hajj rituals performed in and around the holy city by millions at specific times.
Hajj is indeed a spiritual journey but there is a very strong physical component of this act of faith.
Pilgrims endure tough and basic living conditions, especially oppressive heat, walk for a large part of rituals spread across 3-5 days and even spend a night under open skies.
Men and women of all age groups, ethnicities, race, sects and nationalities share the same space and are reminded constantly that the only thing certain in every human’s life is death.
The annual pilgrimage is also a mammoth exercise, a lesson and experience in endurance, in piety, in discipline and in colossal logistics management and crowd control.
I had the privilege of an inside view of all that earlier this week and have few modest takeaways. They are rather obvious but worth mentioning.
There is a story behind every pilgrim and most stories are relatable. Everyone is mentioned as “hajji” (pilgrim) and they have all chosen to embark on this journey out of their own volition.
All the pilgrims are driven as well as united by faith, not just in the power above but in the concept of a pilgrimage, which is to strengthen one’s belief system.
But it’s the plethora of stories that humanize Hajj. The most enduring one I recall unfolded in the year 1960.
Two not-so-young men in a remote Indian town decided to bicycle their way to Hajj. Wirasat Hussain was one of them.
Dozens of wealthy people were astonished and volunteered to offer them bicycles as their vehicles of choice.
Hundreds of cyclists accompanied the two for some distance, dozens went a bit further, and then the two set out on a long trail that brought them to Mecca.
The story of Wirasat Hussain - and his companion - is extraordinary and hence part of the folklore in this otherwise quaint town.
We may not come across a Wirasat Hussain today but stories of faith, piety, sacrifice and endurance continue to surround us.
In my week-long stay in and around Mecca so far, I have witnessed several such stories unfold, some of them unknown to the world.
The Makkawi pride - as explained by one of my colleagues in Mina - is the spirit with which the residents of Mecca serve the pilgrims.
According to him, in his formative years, during the Hajj season, every man in Mecca had to either perform Hajj or help organize it - all with a sense of pride.
He even shared some interesting anecdotes related to how women would guard the neighborhoods of Mecca when men would be away in Arafat.
I encountered a young man named Noor - son of a Burmese father and Pakistani mother. He calls Mecca home.
The only son, after four sisters, the newly married Noor chose to accompany all the women in his family for Hajj as his father isn’t alive to do the needful.
Watching Noor attend to every companion’s needs was a lesson in emancipation.
I have no doubt that congregations of other faiths have similar fundamental principles and lessons to offer.
But till I get to cover one of those and arrive at my own set of conclusions, here’s hoping - and praying - that the spirit of Hajj lives on for all humanity.
Ehtesham Shahid is Managing Editor at Al Arabiya English. For close to two decades he has worked as editor, correspondent, and business writer for leading publications, news wires and research organizations in India and the Gulf region. He loves to occasionally dabble with teaching and is collecting material for a book on unique tales of rural conflict and transformation from around the world. His twitter handle is @e2sham and he can be reached at [email protected]
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