This week, the Cut is featuring Escapades, a series of journeys by adventurous women.
I keep my head down while we jostle our way through the crowds to the open-air atrium in the center of the great structure. There are thousands of pilgrims rushing around. “Okay, look up now!” I hear someone yell. I lift my face to see the Kaaba looming before me. Surrounded by circular paths and elevated walkways full of perpetual movement, this solid structure seemed to emanate life. The black cube I’d seen so many times in photos was bigger than I’d imagined and magnificent in its simplicity. Everyone around me was taking spiritual sustenance from it. After years of turning my face toward Mecca in daily prayer, I was finally here, in the center of Islam’s most sacred site, the Al-Masjid al-Haram mosque in Saudi Arabia. If there was a center of the universe, I’d found it.
Leading up to that moment, I was your garden-variety millennial yuppie, working the archetypal creative job in L.A. I consider myself an observant Muslim. One of the things required of all Muslims, if they can afford it, is making the hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their life. Many American Muslims don’t go until they are middle-aged, when their children are teens or older, but my husband and I wanted to do it now, while we are still young and don’t have the responsibilities of a family.
The trip was incredibly expensive — we took a fairly cheap package, and it still cost about $7,000 each. Plus, we needed to take two weeks off of work. My HR request was granted, but I was hesitant when my co-workers asked where I was going. They knew I was practicing — I fast during Ramadan, for example — but I kept the more nuanced, esoteric points of my spiritual life private. Now I was trying to explain that I was embarking on the bucket-list trip of all time: a major, life-affirming, once-in-a-lifetime journey.
“It’s like a spiritual retreat,” I sheepishly offered. “You know, lots of praying and meditation.”
“I really want to do something like that, like just go on a yoga retreat in Bali,” one of them replied. She seemed to think that it was going to be something like Eat, Pray, Love, and I didn’t really have the energy to explain otherwise. Discussing the centuries-old tradition of hajj in a secular, professional setting felt strangely jarring and out of place.
The truth is, I didn’t know what to expect. I knew that the hajj would be a physically taxing journey, with long transit times, huge crowds, and potentially dangerous situations. But, despite the obstacles, I still thought it would be relatively easy to experience the inspiring moments of peace and reflection that so many hajj veterans report having. I’d taken classes to prepare myself, and I knew I was going to experience something — I just wasn’t sure what.
Our tour group arrived in Mecca at daybreak, after a 14-hour bus ride. There were 2 million other pilgrims from every corner of the globe thronging the city in desert temperatures of 109 degrees — but it was our first time there and we were eager to see the Kaaba, so we headed straight for the mosque. People say prayers made during your first glance of the Kaaba are most likely to be accepted. All around me I heard people weeping and pleading with God for mercy. Prayers for the health of their parents. The success of their children. Recovery from life-threatening ailments. I tried to zone in and think about what I wanted to ask of God.
Next we performed tawaf, the circumambulation of the Kaaba seven times. But it’s not as simple as walking around in circles. Some read passages from the Quran. Others spoke from the heart with their palms facing the heavens. Sometimes I had to quicken my pace to avoid getting stepped on; other times I was smashed up against the person in front of me.
I tried to game-plan what to pray for during each round, racking my memory for what I had written down in my notebook. Years of daily prayers in quiet, secluded spaces hadn’t prepared me for this sensory overload. I was disappointed in myself. This was Mecca, for God’s sake, and I couldn’t get it together. I was frustrated that I was letting the crowds, heat, and jet lag prevent me from focusing on my purpose.
Every day there is a different activity, and we moved from place to place throughout our time in Mecca. From our hotel in the main city, we were whisked to a valley east of Mecca where thousands of tents populate the barren landscape. Each tent bore a different country’s name: Azerbaijan, Australia, Nigeria, Indonesia, and hundreds more. All of these people were there in the same place as I was, in the same moment, for the same purpose. I felt a strange connectedness to something larger that I had never experienced before in L.A., where the Muslim community is geographically and socially dispersed. Sleeping inches away from the 25 other women in my tent, none of whom I had ever met before, will also do that to you. My husband was in the same tent — but the men and the women were separated by a sheet.
On the day of Arafah, the second day and the most important part of the hajj, we traveled to a great plain near Mount Arafat. On this day, your only job is to pray from noon to sunset. You literally hold your palms up to the heavens and have an intimate conversation with the Almighty. You reflect on your past, pray for your present, and hope for your future. My brain stretched as I tried to envision my life that far out and then beyond that — what would happen after I’m gone.
That night, there were no tents. We slept in the desert, with just the stars above us and a thin pillow below us. I’d never even been camping before. I settled in next to the other women from my group, who felt like aunts and sisters at this point, and fell into the most contented slumber of my life.
The rest of the journey was a whirlwind of emotions. Some moments were beautiful. Some were frightening. All pushed me beyond what I thought were my limits. One afternoon, after finishing the rituals for the day, we were making our way back to the camps through a pedestrian tunnel. We opted to skip the airport-style moving walkway and walk alongside it instead. Suddenly, a commotion at the front started a domino effect through the whole line. Pandemonium ensued — some started running backwards to get off the walkway, while those in the middle desperately threw themselves over the handrails to escape. The chaos seemed to be coming at us and we backed up against the wall. Medics arrived and we discovered someone had fainted at the front of the line, setting off a chain reaction.
After another long plane ride, the trip of a lifetime ended. Two days later, I was back at work, nursing jet lag and catching up on emails. My co-workers were curious about my experience. “Did you come back all holy and insightful?” one of them asked.
They had expected me to return enlightened and “cleansed,” as if I’d gone on a tranquility retreat where I drank green juice every day. In reality, I’d spent the last two weeks in a sweaty mosh pit with millions of people in the middle of a blazing desert city where guzzling chilled Cokes all day was the best way to stay cool and sane. I didn’t always feel spiritually alive. At times I felt distracted, upset, or just hangry. The limitations of my humanness didn’t cease just because I was in a holy place. And actually, that was kind of the point.
My biggest takeaway from the hajj was learning how to find peace in the face of difficulty and treasuring those moments because of how rare they really are. And while it doesn’t make for the most gloriously inspiring hajj story, it’s the lesson I come back to repeatedly, now a year later, when the inevitable stress of deadlines, family issues, and life, in general, start getting to me. In it all you have to find your own peace.