x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

My breath is taken away as a sob escapes

Standing back and watching the pilgrims, alone yet very much a part of this sea of humanity, I felt a total sense of wonder.

Hagga, the title used for women who have performed the Haj, is also used as a term of respect for older women. The assumption is, I suppose, that if they have reached a certain age they will have performed the rite. Sometimes people, trying to be humorous, will call me hagga and it has always bothered me. I'm nowhere near "hagga" age and, until now, I hadn't performed the pilgrimage. So I would tell them quite firmly: "Don't call me hagga!"

Having travelled to Mecca, my pilgrimage began on Mount Arafat where more than two million Muslims had gathered on the wide hill to mark the first day of Haj. While many Muslims around the world spent the day fasting, pilgrims were busy pitching tents, settling into camps, and praying. Many climbed Jabal al Rahma - the Mountain of Mercy - where they stood hands in the air and tears streaming down their faces as they asked in loud voices for forgiveness, strength, and the Lord's favour.

From far away the mountain appeared to be covered in cotton wool balls as the white clothing of the Haj pilgrims appeared as small white dots. I was curious to go to the mountain and sit there for a while in reflection and so I set off walking a few miles in the sun. Along the way I crossed several makeshift camps with people sprawled on straw mats and blankets, either praying in groups, sleeping or eating food obviously prepared at home and packed for the trip.

After spending some quiet time on the mount, I decided to return to my compound. And it was then I got lost - completely and utterly lost for at least two hours. While I was on the mountain, more pilgrims - hundreds and hundreds more - had arrived and their buses and trucks had overrun the road I was meant to walk back along. Throw my terrible sense of direction into the equation and panic began to set in. I found myself in the midst of a swirling mass, with people zig-zagging through the buses.

Pilgrims were shoving and pushing and the atmosphere was becoming quite tense. Some were getting impatient and I could see how easily a stampede could occur, as has happened so tragically in previous years. At last I got my bearings. The highlight of my pilgrimage was finally seeing the Kabah. It was very early on Thursday morning when I walked into the pristine Grand Mosque of Mecca. I didn't realise how quickly the stone structure would materialise before my eyes.

There it was, a solid cubic mass dressed in a new black and gold covering and standing in the midst of the thin crowd of people who were circling it. The marble shone at the feet of the Kabah and the mosque's minarets high above the main prayer area overlooked the worshippers as though protecting them and the Kabah. This was it, the structure I grew up watching on television as my mother cooked and listened to the Friday sermons from Mecca, the cube I only really knew from Islamic-themed calendars and long ago stories from Islamic history. As I walked closer, I felt my breath being taken away as a sob escaped my mouth.

As I joined the pilgrims in circumumbulation I expected to be overcome with emotion but instead felt awe and amazement. I looked up at the black structure, and my brain seemed to ask, "Am I really here?" Around me, men protected their wives from the crowd as they walked. Younger men broke into a light jog while older people walked at a slower pace, linking arms with their children. Despite the crowd everyone seemed to be alone in their own space, trying to be as sincere as possible.

Some sobbed loudly, others screwed their faces in seriousness, and many smiled joyfully as they reach the Kabah and touched it with their fingertips. Later, standing back and watching the pilgrims, alone yet very much a part of this sea of humanity, I felt a total sense of wonder. Looking at them helped me focus on my own reflection as I drew inspiration from the devotion and spirituality in their faces.

After leaving the Grand Mosque the first thing I wanted to do was to ring my family and share my feelings. As I finished the conversation, I told them: "You can call me hagga now." Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo