Archive for April, 2011

My Umrah

April 27th, 2011 7 comments

We arrived in Mecca in the evening.

My day had started in Dubai at 6:00 AM when I rose to get the kids off to school and to pack for Umrah— a trip similar to Hajj but shorter and performed at no specific time. While Hajj is a huge, annual event that takes days, Umrah requires only several hours. I thought of it as “Hajj Lite.”

On the airplane I skimmed over my “Guide to Umrah,” a printout from the internet that explained the ritual, what to do and what to say.

I could grasp the four main steps: 1. Purify oneself and make intentions, 2. Circle the Ka’bah seven times, 3. Walk seven times between two geographic points (full of symbolic meaning), and 4. Conclude the Umrah.

Flying somewhere over Saudi, we made our intentions and murmured some phrases in Arabic. Half the passengers were doing the same. The male pilgrims—from the boys to the old men—were dressed in two sheets of white cloth, one around the waist and the other over the shoulder. Thankfully, my daughter and I could wear ordinary clothing—if you consider the abaya and shayla “ordinary.”

We arrived in Jeddah at 8:00pm. After a long taxi ride, we reached Mecca finally. (Mecca! We reached Mecca!)

By the time we set out for the Ka’bah, it was late (11:00pm Dubai time). Tired and sleepy, I willed myself into a spiritual mood. We entered the Masjid Al-Haram, the holy mosque, and walked amongst our fellow pilgrims through a series of archways. I admired my husband and sons in their white Gandhi-style wraps. My daughter and I adjusted our shaylas for the hundredth time. We paused to sip Zamzam water, holy water from a nearby spring.

Then we stepped into the Haram, the space around the Ka’bah, open and brightly lit. The Ka’bah stood before us, illuminated and glowing. Just as I had seen in photographs, it was cloaked in black velvet and trimmed with gold embellishment.

I stepped toward it and made a prayer of greeting. It was a lovely and magical moment … and lasted about four seconds.

Then I took in the mass of pilgrims churning around the Ka’bah. So crowded! The entire area—every inch—was filled. We joined the throng of people and tried to stick together as we were swept along with the others—old people, young people, children, elderly, Arabs, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Iranians, Turks, people of all nationalities, all walks of life, families, couples, groups and wheelchairs. Lots of wheelchairs.

Everyone around me was chanting, reciting, raising their arms or reading from little prayer books. Overwhelmed and distracted, I could hardly focus. Beyond the most obvious prayers, my mind drew a blank. I couldn’t remember the Arabic words I had planned to recite. Like a special-needs child, I repeatedly tugged my husband’s sleeve and asked, “What was I supposed to say?”

I grew agitated by those bumping into me. We moved to the outer edges in order to minimize collisions. The crowd swelled and grew as the hour went on. At last, we completed the seventh circuit and moved to the next step.

We trudged along barefoot between two points. My husband (also exhausted) told me we needed to walk back and forth seven times. I looked at the long hall and thought: Fourteen trips? I can’t do this.

I was stunned at how physically demanding it was. I had never imagined that Umrah would be too much for me. After all, Umrah was performed by the elderly! I hadn’t considered how exhausting it would be to walk barefoot on a marble floor or to be jostled by a crowd.

At midnight I found myself mindlessly performing the ritual, wishing to get through as quickly as possible, to be done, to be in my room sleeping.

My husband, who saw how I was feeling, said, “You know you can rent one of those wheelchairs and pay someone to push you.” My mind clicked in, and I wondered how much such a service would cost.

Stop! I told myself. I was doing it all wrong. So, I made a decision. I would withdraw and perform Umrah the next day—from the beginning.

Before I traveled I had received lots of advice. Every Muslim friend had practical tips to share: plan your prayers in advance, keep your shoes with you, avoid taking photos, stay hydrated … etc. etc.

What I failed to hear was this: Start out well-rested. Stay focused. And most important of all: Maintain a positive state of mind.

So, the next day I began anew.

I re-read my Umrah Guide—which finally made sense! I realized there had been a miscommunication. I didn’t have to walk fourteen lengths—but rather half that— seven trips only.

I choose a few Arabic supplications that I could easily remember. I brought prayer beads, a book of English supplications, and acceptable footwear.

Inside the Masjid Al-Haram, we settled our children where they could relax. (They had completed their Umrah the night before). So, with my husband, I circled the Ka’bah another seven times. It was midday, and the sun burned down. The Haram was crowded. Yet none of this bothered me. Not even the bumping. (I realized I was accidently bumping people, too.) My beads and book helped me stay focused and mindful. Moving in unison with the others, I was “in the zone.”

For the next step, I breezed through the seven trips, feeling humble and thankful. Then I concluded my Umrah. What had begun with a rocky start ended smoothly and beautifully. I had a desire to do it all again—correctly the next time.

God-willing, I will have that chance and I will know what to do.

Four Photos of Mecca

April 27th, 2011 3 comments



Heading to Mecca, Thinking of Jerusalem

April 19th, 2011 8 comments

As I prepare for my family’s upcoming Umrah trip, my mind keeps going back to another journey—our last trip as a family to the holy city of Jerusalem. It was April, 2008, and the trip had its own unique set of challenges and circumstances.

As it becomes increasingly difficult for families like ours—with Palestinian roots—to visit Jerusalem, my memories of this trip take on even more significance. Below is something I wrote after I took that trip.


Due to the political conflict, my family had put off a trip to Jerusalem for years. At last, we decided to do it. I would return to the Old City, so magical and meaningful to me, and my husband would visit his family after nearly a decade. Our children (ages 12, 9 and 6 at the time) were excited to see their father’s country, but scared to visit this place so associated with conflict and violence.

They had a rough idea of our family history: their mother, a girl from Washington State, travelled to Palestine and snatched up their father, a boy from Bethlehem. They fell in love and were married in Jerusalem.

Two decades and three kids later, we flew from our home in Dubai to Amman, Jordan and drove to the dreaded border. Living in the Middle East and being half-Palestinian, our children had gleaned the view that Israel was The Enemy. We coached them on how to behave at the border. Stay quiet and keep your political opinions to yourselves.

A soldier questioned us at length but chatted with our children. My nine-year-old daughter asked me if he were Israeli. I told her that he was. Eventually the Israeli soldier allowed us to enter.

As we drove through the Palestinian countryside, my daughter announced, “Some Israelis are nice.” My husband rolled his eyes, but I was secretly glad their first encounter wasn’t scary.

After a tour of Bethlehem, my husband’s hometown, we were impatient to get to Jerusalem. The journey now required passage through a military checkpoint and the infamous Wall of Separation, dividing Israel from the West Bank. I had seen photos, but its vertical cement slabs were much uglier and more daunting in real life.

To cross, we passed through metal detectors and stood in tedious lines in caged corridors. Afterwards, the bus ride to Jerusalem was solemn. When the ancient stone ramparts of the Old City came into view, we all took in its beauty. A wall of a different sort, these ramparts enclose the Old City and its four quarters – Muslim, Jewish, Christian and Armenian.

With the worn cobblestones beneath our feet, we walked amongst the extraordinary mix of people that make up Jerusalem: monks, nuns, orthodox Jews, Muslim and Christian residents, as well as tourists and pilgrims of three faiths.

Our own pilgrimage was to the Dome of the Rock. Covered in intricate blue tiles, it’s the third holiest mosque in Islam. Around it, the Temple Mount is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. We discussed the significance of the mosque. My husband and I reminded our children that the mosque was where we were married, a fact our youngest son wouldn’t accept. “No way!” he said.

Yes, way.

We took multiple trips around Jerusalem that week. We made it to all four quarters and ate kanafe pastry at Al Jaffar & Sons Pasty shop. We toured the Old City, as well as the New City.

Our oldest son, almost 13 at the time, had a bagel and lox at The Holy Bagel, allowing him a tiny taste of the other side of this conflicted country. While walking along Ben Yehuda Street, he asked me, “So, these are the Israelis?”

I told him yes and asked him what he thought.

He said, “They look like us.”