x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

With Mecca in sight, pilgrims bonded by common goal

Haj diary In the midst of the inflight entertainment and the clatter of tables being lowered for meal trays, the pilot breaks in with a long-awaited announcement: "We will be reaching Meeqat in 30 minutes."

In the midst of the inflight entertainment and the clatter of tables being lowered for meal trays, the pilot breaks in with a long-awaited announcement: "We will be reaching Meeqat in 30 minutes." Instantly, a handful of passengers are out of their seats and reaching for bags tightly packed with their special Ihram clothes. They form a queue for the lavatories so they can change in preparation for Ihram, a state of haj-related sacredness where pilgrims dress in their prescribed clothes and declare their intention to make haj on reaching Meeqat.

Meeqat is a geographical area, specified by the Prophet Mohammed, where the pilgrim, or haji, enters a sanctified state of Ihram. Every plane carrying pilgrims, regardless of the airline or time of the flight, will witness the same unfolding of events. With one announcement, everything inside the plane changes. It is the same, give or take the odd detail, for those heading to haj by land. The specifics are not so important. All the pilgrims care about as they approach their destination is the need to wash and then change into the pilgrim's special garb.

Men enter the aircraft lavatories wearing suits or kanduras, but soon emerge clothed in identical white towels, one around the waist and a second slung over the left shoulder, leaving the right shoulder exposed. The pilgrims also emerge with a new attitude. They smile and chat with everyone who crosses their path as they return to their seats. The women tend to remain seated; most are already wearing Islamic clothing of black abaya and a scarf on the head, later to be replaced by a white abaya and scarf once in Mecca.

"Brother, may I borrow a pen," one pilgrim asks as he fills in official customs forms distributed by the flight attendants, as required by the Saudi authorities. Non-pilgrims are given different papers. The same pen is passed down many rows of passengers, with pilgrims blessing non-pilgrim passengers sitting beside or behind them. After that one announcement by the pilot, everyone becomes a "brother" or a "sister".

Forgotten are the gruelling hours of delays and frustrations faced by many of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims as they gather from the farthest corners of the world to heed the call to one of Islam's fundamental pillars. Visa problems, flight delays, lost luggage or threats of deportations, none of the irritations of travel seem to matter as the pilgrims reach Jeddah, before their onward journey to one of Islam's holiest cities, Mecca.

The pilgrims are now separated from the regular masses and taken by special buses to the airport's haj terminal. Hundreds of pilgrims are napping on the floors of the airport while awaiting transport. "The harder the journey to Mecca, the cleaner the slate of your life will be," said Nasser al Shamsi, an elderly Emirati pilgrim confined to a wheelchair. Pilgrims and non-pilgrims help him as he boards the bus.

Whatever their backgrounds and stories, the pilgrims are heading to Mecca in high spirits, despite their tiring journey, even before the actual haj - which translates literally as "to set out for a place" - has begun. The haj commences on the eighth day of Dhul-Hijja, tomorrow, and lasts for as long as five days. Rym Ghazal, a correspondent for The National, will be writing a regular diary throughout the haj.

rghazal@thenational.ae