x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

After a long absence, Medina still means many things to me

Medina will always have a special place in my heart for many reasons, one of which is an eight-legged desert dweller that shocked my legs into action.

Oh, the white full moon rose over us, from the valley of Al Wadaa, And we owe it to show gratefulness


These are the first three lines of the nasheed, or song, Tala'a Al Badru that as children we memorised and sang during morning assemblies at our schools and on special occasions in our homes in Saudi Arabia.

As one of the oldest Islamic songs - almost 1,400 years old - this nasheed was sang to Prophet Mohammed and his followers upon their arrival in Medina after the hijra from Mecca in 622. This emigration marked the beginning of the Islamic calender.

"Welcome best caller to righteousness or Allah's way" is my favourite line and captures the warm welcome and generous nature of the families of Medina, a spirit that has lasted to this day.

I was lucky to have lived for two years in Medina when I was a child in a traditional home with the open desert as our garden. Like many expatriate families, we moved with our fathers' jobs across Saudi Arabia, sometimes to its most challenging terrain.

My memories of Medina are two-fold, both of happiness and dread. That is one of the reasons that kept me away from visiting it again until this year.

Medina, known by many names such as Al Madinah Al Munawara (the radiant city), Yathrib and Dar Al Hijra, is the second holiest city in the Muslim world. It is home to the Masjid Al Nabawi, the Prophet's mosque, which is the site of his final resting place. Up until the 1970s, visitors were allowed to see the Prophet's tomb, but today a golden gate prevents worshippers from entering.

On a school trip to Masjid Al Nabawi, which was the second mosque built, our teacher explained to us why the Prophet's tomb was cordoned off. "To prevent bidaa [religious practices that are not grounded in Islamic tenets] that are not in harmony with religion, such as people touching and praying to or at the tomb," she said.

It is this fear of bidaa by the religious authorities in Saudi Arabia that has led to the demolition of many historic homes and sites, including Prophet Mohammed's own home.

Now visitors are greeted with towers and modern buildings, similar to those in Mecca, to accommodate pilgrims who often take a detour to Medina during the annual Haj. Personally, I dislike those towers, often built in place of beautiful traditional homes, which cast their shadows over the city of light.

On my recent visit, I couldn't help but tense up as I approached Medina. My hesitance about the city stems largely from a single hospital visit for a vaccine.

What followed remains my most difficult memory. After the injection I couldn't move either of my legs, although one was worse than the other. There were several other cases at the time that showed similar symptoms and about 15 years later, I interviewed a Saudi woman in a wheelchair who had been paralysed since childhood because of a vaccination. It remains a health care issue that needs to be further investigated.

My parents were devastated and do not like to talk about the incident to this day. At the time the nurse said it would be OK after a few days, and that perhaps she had hit the "wrong spot".

A month and a half later and I was still incapacitated, lacking mobility and unable to join other children in play. Then one day while I was sitting on a chair outside the house, a large, hairy desert spider crawled towards me. The next thing I knew, I had jumped out of the chair and ran for my life. For the next few days I limped, but I was OK.

Some Muslims may refrain from crushing spiders, remembering the spiderweb that concealed Prophet Mohammed from his enemies. And after that experience, I had another reason.

Medina will always have a special place in my heart for many reasons, one of which is still that eight-legged desert dweller that shocked my legs back into action.