With summer coming to an end, I decided it was an absolute must to make a pit stop in Abu Dhabi to see my family, because I hadn't had the chance to experience Ramadan in the Emirates for nine years. Before I got back, my mother called, asking if I would be interested in going to Umrah after visiting the family. So, with the same sense of anticipation with which I had trekked off to Barcelona and Venice in recent weeks, I packed up my all-too-travel-ready bag and braced myself for my first trip to Mecca. The Umrah is a pilgrimage that, unlike Haj, can be undertaken any time of the year; it is not compulsory but highly recommended. The pilgrim (mu'tamir), sometimes referred to as a Haji, performs a series of rituals symbolising the lives of the prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his wife Hagar (Hajar) and demonstrating solidarity with Muslims worldwide. These acts of faith include performing the following:
Tawaf, which consists of circling the Kaaba seven times in a anticlockwise direction; Sa'i, which means rapidly walking seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah, in a re-enactment of Hagar's frantic search for water before the Zamzam Well was revealed to her by God; Halq or taqsir, meaning cutting the hair, ranging from cutting off a snippet to shaving the head (an option for men).
At 4.30am, when I walked with my family through the mosque towards the Kaaba, I was filled with such emotion that I struggled to hold back tears. I was so used to seeing the familiar black cube on television, but seeing it surrounded by thousands of pilgrims all united in prayer was overwhelming. On my first night, I overheard people speaking in Turkish, French, Arabic, English and Farsi. Oddly enough, it made me think of New York and how the city is made up of a mass of people from all parts of the world. The Big Apple's multinational population can reinforce people's individualism, but in Mecca, the atmosphere is much more conducive to creating a sense of community. You couldn't help but feel at home as people shared their food to break fast and tried to accommodate one another's space during prayer, despite the crowds.
In a study last year, American researchers surveyed 1,600 Pakistanis to see whether doing Haj made them more "moderate" (consistent with the favourite American pastime in recent years, which has been to speculate that any Muslim gathering could be a potential breeding ground for fanatical extremism). Half of those surveyed performed Haj, and the other half wanted to go but didn't get visas to go.
The researchers concluded that those who went came back with more moderate views on a range of issues, both religious and non-religious. Not surprising: after all, wasn't going to Mecca the experience that transformed the racial perspective of Malcolm X, when he saw that people of all skin colours could be Muslims? How could standing for hours during taraweeh prayer among thousands of people not help promote tolerance and understanding?
I am not proposing that mass prayers be organised in New York City, but I think the one thing it and Mecca have in common is exposure to different cultures, which is so essential to tolerance. So while New York has exposed me to all races, religions and nationalities, Mecca showed me that all these different people can come together as one.