The Hajj draws hundreds of thousands at a time to Mecca's Grand Mosque and the Kaaba stone.

The Hajj draws hundreds of thousands at a time to Mecca’s Grand Mosque and the Kaaba stone.

 

Hajji Mustafa is the pseudonym of a British Arabist, or one who studies Arab language and civilization. He posed as a Muslim to experience first-hand the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. WND agreed to run this article without his real name, as doing so would put his life in danger. PART 1 of the series can be read here:

“No more than fifteen Christian-born Europeans have thus far succeeded in seeing the two holy cities and escaping with their lives. ”
Philip Hitti, “The History of the Arabs”

 

By “Hajji Mustafa”

Mecca served as an important religious sanctuary even before Islam. Indeed, Muhammad initially met opposition from Meccans who feared that the new religion would damage their livelihood by calling pagan Arabian beliefs into question. To make his new faith less disruptive, Muhammad allowed Mecca to remain a holy city and the geographic center of man’s religious history. Thus, Muslims face Mecca when they pray. Then, to add the pedigree of Judeo-Christian monotheism, the Koran relocated biblical events from Jerusalem to Mecca. For these reasons, many of the once-pagan hajj ceremonies are now connected to Abraham, his concubine Hagar, and his son Ishmael. Muslims believe, for example, that Abraham lived in Mecca, that he built the Kaaba, and that he came close to sacrificing his son Ishmael where the Kaaba stands.

We entered Mecca at dusk, chanting hundreds of times the prayer every pilgrim has on his lips: Labayka Allahuma Labayka, “Here I am at Your service, Lord, here I am at Your service.” The city teems with humanity, dissimilar in color and stature, identical in clothing, an odd mix of disorder and conformity. Our taxi inched through the packed streets nearly bumping into pedestrians, shouted at by the police, rocking to the sounds of Labayka Allahuma labayka. It ground to a halt when pedestrians no longer made way for the car. At that point we abandoned the driver and carried our bags to the hostel assigned to us at the border. Fortunately, the Turks know their way around Mecca; although the office of our mutawwif (guide) was unmarked, they found it without trouble. His quarters consist of a bleak dark hall furnished with only a desk, hard benches, and a filthy lavatory; upstairs are dormitory rooms, segregated by sex. We dropped off our bags and, accompanied by a boy from the mutawwif’s office, ran off to the House of Allah, the Grand Mosque of Mecca, for the sunset prayers.

The Grand Mosque is one of the world’s largest, most important and least-known religious edifices. Built perhaps as early as the second century A.D., it underwent many reconstructions and enlargements, most notably since 1955, when oil revenues have financed four overhauls and enlargements. Despite these repeated alterations, the mosque retains an early Islamic style, with an asymmetrical floor plan, traditional Arabian building materials (such as limestone and marble), and Islamic decorations (including arabesques, vegetal patterns, and subdued colors). It is huge, enclosing 400,000 square meters, 10 meters high, a capacious mezzanine, and a vast inner courtyard. It is the only mosque with nine minarets.

We approached the Grand Mosque just as sunset prayers began but got no closer than a distant pavement, for, large as it is, the mosque was filled to capacity by some 1.5 million pilgrims. The Turks and I kneeled on the street’s concrete surface alongside with more than a million other believers, not just the obligatory prayers but also additional ones lasting a quarter hour, thanking Allah for having reached Mecca.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims perform Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

Hundreds of thousands of Muslims perform Friday prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

With our young guide, we then entered the mosque, Islam’s sacred precinct and the most forbidden spot on the earth. On entering it, my companions and I shared a sense of excitement. But, as Richard Burton put it many years earlier, “theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride.”

Carrying our shoes, we emerged into the courtyard, directly facing the Kaaba, the cube-like building-within-a-building at the center of the mosque. Thirteen meters high, its sides measure 13 and 11 meters. It is windowless and covered with an elaborately black curtain embroidered with Koranic verses. The Kaaba houses a small sanctuary entered through a single door, two meters above the ground. The key to this door is said to be, in accordance with Muhammad’s express orders, still in the possession of the same family, the Bani Shayba, who guarded it as a pagan shrine. I have also heard that only a single key exists, which the doorkeeper always carries on his person.

In the interior, three wooden pillars support the roof; the only furnishings are hanging lamps made of silver and gold. Arabic inscriptions cover the inside walls. Once a year during the hajj, the common pilgrims are pushed back, a wooden staircase is wheeled up, and the ruler of Mecca (now the Saudi king) enters, accompanied by dignitaries. Working by candlelight, they clean the floor with water from the Zamzam well using a broom made of palm leaves. Before leaving, they sprinkle the interior with rosewater and perfume. Outside, the king throws the palm leaf broom into the crowd and spectators scramble for a piece of it.

The pilgrim has three religious duties in Mecca: to circumambulate the Kaaba (tawaf), pray at the Station of Abraham, and run between the rocks of Marwa and Safa.

We began by circling the Kaaba seven times. Regulations call for this to be done at the greatest possible speed, and the effect is near-pandemonium. A barefooted crowd pushes and stumbles over itself so fast that no one fully controls his own movements. I felt at times swept up and carried off by the swirl of motion. Burly Nigerians stormed ahead, diminutive Bengalis surrendered the way, Egyptians formed tight groups to protect their women, Turks chanted the prayers lustily, and Saudis gave an impression of finding the whole procedure – which most of them had participated in many times before – a bit de trop.

Despite the supreme sanctity of the spot and the strong feelings of Muslim brotherhood, exasperation surfaced. In the midst of Islam’s holiest ritual, multinational arguments flared. Along with prayers, polyglot epithets went up to heaven. Everyone had sore feet and bruised ribs; the pushing and shoving brought out much annoyance. Even my zealous companions displayed signs of stress after a few turns. For me, the physical discomfort precluded any possibility of a spiritual experience.

Only the very young, the lame, the aged, the sick, and the dead circle around the Kaaba in comfort, carried in open coffin-like boxes by two hefty porters with raised arms. Corpses come from distant lands for this final rite. (As do weapons: the terrorists who captured the Grand Mosque in November 1979 smuggled Soviet arms in closed caskets intended to be carried around the Kaaba.)

During the seventh and last turn around the Kaaba, we tried to touch the Black Stone. Embedded in the eastern corner and encased in silver, this reddish-black rock 20 centimeters high and 16 centimeters wide remains mysterious (a meteorite? lava?) because scientists have not been allowed to study it. Although Wahhabis prohibit the veneration of tombs, they do permit the (to my mind, animistic) stroking and kissing of this stone; the exception is made because Muhammad himself did so, setting a precedent for other Muslims.

A Saudi soldier perched on the lintel of the Kaaba’s raised door, wielding a knotted cloth whip against pilgrims who lingered by the stone; nonetheless, the mob by the stone was almost immobile. The pushing at the Black Stone being so intense, our efforts to get near it ended with a complete lack of success. So we did the next best thing and pointed a finger at the holy stone while singing the praises of Allah.

By now, my apprehensions about being an imposter in Mecca had disappeared. At the very heart of Islam, no one imagined less than true faith. Other Europeans had a similar sensation on reaching the Kaaba. John Keane put it most colorfully, reporting in the late 1870s that “the Archbishop of Canterbury doing the tawaf in his miter and robes would not occasion a passing remark.”

Following the circumambulations, each of us performed two prayer prostrations at the Station of Abraham. This is a spot about 20 meters from the Kaaba where Abraham thanked the Lord for not having to carry through with the sacrifice of Ishmael. To avoid getting trampled by the swirling mob, we took turns; as one of us went through the ritual prostrations the others protected him by standing at his front, at his back, and on both sides.

Then we went for a drink of water from the Zamzam well, about 50 meters from the Kaaba, a voluntary ritual but one nearly always performed. In the deserts of Arabia, discovery of water has always been a momentous event; in a holy city such as Mecca, it often has religious overtones. Already sacred in pagan times, Muhammad endowed the Zamzam with a biblical pedigree. It became the place where Abraham’s concubine Hagar found water after wandering through the desert with her infant Ishmael. Muslims believe Zamzam waters so pure, they heal, strengthen, and make fecund.

For easier access, the Saudis have constructed a wide ramp leading down to a subterranean court lined with taps dispensing Zamzam’s bounty. Holy water runs freely here, splashing to the marble floor, making the tiles muddy and slippery, soaking everything.

Undaunted, the faithful jostle each other for access to the taps. We took the easy way out and bought cups of Zamzam water from a vendor. I hesitated before drinking from a dirty pitcher and communal cups, but Hasan looked at me quizzically. Trying to look thrilled, I downed a whole cupful of the heavy, mineral-laden water. We then doused our heads and splashed our faces with the stuff. The vendor demanded the equivalent of £3 per person – for water available gratis at taps a few meters away. We offered 5 pence and eventually paid 10.

Zamzam well supposedly is the same well Hagar used for life-sustaining water while wondering in the desert with Ishmael. It is about 50 meters from the Kaaba stone.

Zamzam well supposedly is the same well Hagar used for life-sustaining water while wondering in the desert with Ishmael. It is about 50 meters from the Kaaba stone.

Less invigorated by Zamzam water than my companions, I trailed them to the third ritual, the run between Marwa and Safa. This event also commemorates the plight of Hagar and Ishmael: before Hagar found Zamzam, she ran seven times the 500 meters between the two rocks, fooled by mirages of water at either end. Today, the passage between Marwa and Safa is built up, resembling a double-decker divided main road: the slow stay to the right, the aged go upstairs, and local boys push the infirm in wheelchairs through a medial lane. Two green lights divide the course into thirds: adult male pilgrims run the middle third and walk the outer portions, while others walk the entire distance. (Odd that only men run when the ritual commemorates running by a woman.) Though congested, this exercise was pleasant after the Kaaba’s rigors.

Running between Marwa and Safa ended our ritual obligations for the day. We ate dinner at a restaurant and discussed accommodations. All of us preferred sleeping in the House of Allah to the cramped and dirty hostel. It is cleaner, quieter, and I liked the idea of spending the night within sight of the Kaaba. I had come on the hajj completely unprepared to lie on marble floors, so the Turks offered to share their mats and blankets. My lack of bedding pointed up a key difference; every hajji but the richest came prepared for camping conditions except me, for I alone lacked neighbors, relatives, and friends to advise about the trip ahead.

We moved our bags to the Grand Mosque at 9 o’clock and looked for space to sleep on the mezzanine; after a long search, we found 4 or 5 square meters near a railing looking over the courtyard. The Turks left me to guard their belongings and went off to find fellow pilgrims from Istanbul. Sitting alone, I contemplated the magnitude of the hajj. A steady roar came from the crowds below; around me lay tens of thousands of sleeping forms; above me the rafters of an immense mosque . . . my reverie was interrupted by a beggar touching me on the shoulder and soliciting money. His presence reminded me of the dangers of hajj-time thievery. I put myself to sleep using a suitcase as a pillow, its handles secured to my wrists by the strap of the money bag, and the money bag itself tucked under my ihram, hoping that this ingenuity would allow me to retain my possessions through the night.

The rituals we did today are performed by all pilgrims to Mecca, regardless of time of year; tomorrow we begin a five-day cycle of ceremonies that occurs only once a year, during the hajj, from the 8th to the 12th of Dhu’l-Hijja. I learned today that most hajj ceremonies do not take place in Mecca itself but at three sites several kilometers away, Muna, Arafat and Muzdalifa. The hajj starts and ends in Mecca, but the events that distinguish it from a visit to Mecca at any other time of year (called the ‘umra) actually take place outside the city.

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8 Dhu’l-Hijja. Waking at 4 a.m., I looked down into the courtyard to see if the Black Stone was accessible, thinking that if it was, I would go down. Far from it: the Kaaba was nearly as crowded at this hour as during the daytime, so I turned over and went back to sleep. Muhammad once said that circumambulating the Kaaba on one’s own confers special blessings – and thousands of pilgrims apparently remembered this adage at about the same moment in the middle of the night.

A thundering, warbling chant woke me up an hour or so later, announcing “Allahu Akbar,” marking the start of the call to prayer. Getting up and looking around, I saw what I expected: the Turks already immersed in the first of the day’s devotions. I rose and left the mosque to find lavatory facilities and water. Finding impossibly long and chaotic lines at the few public lavatories near the Grand Mosque, I wondered about until I found some pilgrims going up the back stairs of an apartment building. They located an unlocked lavatory in the servants’ quarters on the fifth floor and were freely making use of it. By the time I got there, it was already full with other mosque-sleeping vagrants.

After morning prayers, the Turks told me that they had located a large group of pilgrims from Istanbul the previous evening. They were invited to join these people’s mutawwif, which they accepted. (Having come on our own and not as part of a group, we were assigned a mutawwif who dealt mostly with Africans; and proximity to Africans, I later understood, did not please my companions.) We took our belongings out of the mosque and moved them to the Turks’ hostel. I left everything there, save my money, passport, a toothbrush and the Dickens novel.

The four of us hopped on the roof of a bright red school bus standing outside the hostel. Like every other vehicle this morning, the bus was heading for the valley of Mina, eight kilometers away. Sitting on the bus roof, I had a superb view of the massive, slow exodus from Mecca. Traffic in every lane of all four roads connecting Mina to Mecca went in the same direction. Still, the vehicles barely moved. Cars, buses and trucks filled the roads completely and pedestrians walked the distance in long straggling columns (but I saw no animals used for transport). Traffic moved so slowly that pedestrians laden with bags, blankets, rugs, cooking pots and other possessions kept pace with the vehicles. The most curious sight was the topless buses – ordinary buses with their roofs removed to satisfy literal-minded Shi‘ites following the command not to cover their heads during the hajj.

Mina and the three devils

On approaching Mina, everyone chanted in unison a prayer like the one recited on entering Mecca. Getting down from the roof, I found the bus to be full of elderly Turks, many of whom greeted me warmly; evidently, word had got round about me, the British convert. When they invited Hasan, Niyazi, and Fawzi to stay in their hostel in Mina, they asked for me to come too. I felt like a mascot.

Mina is a singular place. No one lives there on a regular basis but millions descend on it for four days each year. Saudi merchants and government personnel now present here normally reside elsewhere. Muna has one street with permanent structures; municipal institutions (the post office, clinic, bureau of death records, etc.) stand on this street, along with some stores and a few hostels. Otherwise, tents filling the narrow valley in every direction are put up for the pilgrims before hajj season.

Our hostel happens to be located on that street. Typical of its kind, it consists of bare rooms, some with earth floors, others of cement. Sanitary facilities consist of cubicles with a hole in the ground (serving as drain and lavatory), a low tap (the sink), and a high tap (the shower). Sexual relations being prohibited during the hajj, all men and women, even married couples, are separated into dormitories. I share a room here with about 20 Turkish men; Hasan offered to let me sleep on half of his blanket, and I accepted.

After a restaurant luncheon of chicken and bread, Niyazi and Fawzi took me off to visit the Muna mosque. Sitting under a small parasol in the hot mosque courtyard, I joined in the prayers and endured yet another of Hasan’s sermons delivered in painfully fractured Arabic.

How small the world of believers. Fawzi recognized an acquaintance from Algeria going by and we all chatted. No less fervent or pious than the Turks, this man interpreted my conversion from Christianity to Islam as a portent of major changes in Europe; to speed this process, he too made me promise to devote my career to spreading Allah’s word in Britain.

Hasan thought I should meet the mufti (chief religious official) of Istanbul, thinking that he too would be interested in my conversion. We searched for him in tent after tent, but no one quite knew where he was. Hasan eventually gave up when he came across an acquaintance, a Turkish religious teacher who speaks tolerable Arabic. This man inquired about my conversion to Islam and asked probing questions about my motives. Before I could answer, he demanded the attention of everyone in the room and translated my words into Turkish for them. Thus did a hostel-full of pious Turks hear details about my bogus search for faith. I embellished it for them by explaining that I sought a more rigorous monotheism, that the Christian notion of the Trinity did not satisfy me. Given that Muslims view Christianity as not truly monotheistic, everyone knowingly understood my dilemma.

Then Hasan took me off to meet a Pakistani who teaches in Paris. I tried to avoid this. a Muslim living in France and knowledgeable about Westerners might see through my act as a pilgrim. Worse, we might know people in common whom he would tell about meeting me in Mecca. I argued with Hasan that the Pakistani would talk to me in English and I had resolved to speak only the holy language, Arabic, during the hajj. Hasan brushed this objection aside by observing that I first learned about Islam in English and should not mind using it now. Fortunately, the Pakistani scholar was as elusive as the Istanbul mufti. So Hasan and I gave him up and instead inspected the nearest devil.

Mina has three “devils,” 4-foot columns of brick encircled by low stone walls. They stand about 50 meters apart in the middle of the main street. Muslims believe that devils at these exact spots tempted Ishmael to disobey Allah and escape from being sacrificed by his father Abraham; but Ishmael repulsed them with pebbles, blinding them. Pilgrims celebrate Ishmael’s act by casting stones at these columns. (Curious how so much of the hajj recounts a version of biblical tales.)

Although the columns and walls are free-standing today, I am told they are completely submerged in pebbles at the end of the hajj. To accommodate up to 2.5 million hajjis trying to stone these devils, the Saudis built a second ramp on the main street with holes cut out above the devils, giving pilgrims two levels from which to throw pebbles. Despite these precautions, 270 pilgrims (more by unofficial count) lost their lives at the devils in 1994 due to a stampede caused by hajjis pushing too hard to approach the columns.

This afternoon I skipped my first prayer since joining the Turks in Amman three days ago. Feeling Western and free, I hiked in the hills surrounding Mina. Pilgrims literally occupy every square meter of these incline – including rocks and ravines – with the exception only of the footpaths. Streams of urine trickle down the paths, giving off powerful smells.

The view of a stark desert valley covered with tents reminded me of the power of religion. The fact that no one lives in Mina at other times of the year makes this intense crowdedness all the more dramatic. What else could cause two million persons to come every year from around the world and assemble in an empty desert spot to carry out rituals? One Muslim writer, Ninie G. Syarikin, calls it the “the greatest gathering of people in one place, at one time, and for one purpose, the world has ever seen.” (She’s wrong: this honor belongs to the annual Arbaeen commemoration in Karbala, Iraq which in 2013 was attended by some 17-18 million pilgrims.)

I also marveled at the economics of Mina. Merchants bring not only food but also elaborate consumer items such as rugs and electronic equipment, all for only a few days’ business a year; some businessmen own buildings in Muna for this purpose. Food is expensive; soft drinks double during the hajj season. Prices are high but not outrageously so, and I feel assured by the presence of a plenitude of goods.

A “newspaper” came out today. It contains no hard news at all, only information about the hajj: names of prominent pilgrims, pictures of holy places, eulogies of Muhammad, and explanations of rituals. Excluding the outside world confirms the separateness of the pilgrimage and the sanctity of its concerns.

9 Dhu’l-Hijja. The hajj climaxes today at an afternoon ceremony at Arafat, a plain nine kilometers from Muna. That’s the site of the Hill of Mercy where, according to Islamic doctrine, Allah first communicated with Adam – another sleight of hand moving a biblical site to western Arabia. Indeed, other than the Kaaba, Islam knows no holier spot than the Hill of Mercy. Only those present at Arafat this afternoon may adopt the honorific title “al-Hajj” or “Hajji.” Anyone not there is merely a “visitor” (mu’tamir) to the holy places.

Arafat and the ‘Hill of Mercy’

Arafat is connected to Mina by five parallel roads so crowded that my bus took one and a half hours to traverse those nine kilometers. I enjoyed the journey, perched on folded bedrolls atop our bus, observing the slowly moving panorama. At Arafat, tents cover the entire plain. Here, unlike Mina, there are no permanent structures at all. The bus took us to the tent compound belonging to the guide we attached ourselves to.

Shortly after arriving, at about 10 a.m., Hasan, Fawzi, and I walked to the Hill of Mercy. We had a difficult time finding the hill, which is only 70 meters high and gets obscured by the many tents and trucks. We wound aimlessly through compounds for a while, unsure of our way; there are no signs to guide us, so the only indication that we were going in the right direction were the ever-bigger crowds heading in the same direction.

Conscious of the extraordinary sanctity of this spot, I was taken aback to see that pilgrims relieve themselves at the foot of the Hill of Mercy. They buy pitchers of water, negotiate their way through piles of feces, lift their garments, and excrete in full view of the milling crowds. To my Western sensibilities, this was incomprehensible – something like using St Peter’s Square as a lavatory. How can believers turn the base of their sacred mount into a cesspool? Outhouses are ubiquitous, so it is not even necessary. The guards who so carefully prevent kissing at tombs pay no attention to this seeming act of desecration.

The Hill of Mercy has wide stone steps leading to the peak. Out of piety, Hasan and Fawzi resolved to climb to the top, to the spot where Adam heard the voice of Allah, and where today the small Namra Mosque is located; wanting the view of the vast encampment, I shared their resolve. We pushed our way toward the bottom of the hill, where police regulated traffic by forming a cordon to hold back the crowd. Every few minutes they withdrew to let a new group through, then linked up again to stop the flow. Assuming an equal number of pilgrims left the hill on the other side, the hill would remain passable, but no one coordinated the inflow with the outflow, and the hill became increasingly crowded.

By the time we reached the line of police at the steps it no longer seemed possible for us to get on to the hill. When the cordon was moved aside, however, a surging mob carried us forward. I lost control over my movements as the crowd carried me up several of the stairs. The steps then narrowed and the pressure increased. Finally, the crowd above was so densely packed that even the shoving from below failed to move us further ahead. We came to a dead stop. Surrounded by hot, pushing bodies, I strained to maintain minimum control over my movements. I stood still for a while, not able to move forward or back. But lateral motion was possible and I motioned my companions to follow me. They did and we extricated ourselves by climbing sideways off the steps and on to nearby rocks. For the first time in four days I had taken the initiative, and not merely followed the Turks! Not surprisingly, it removed us from a pious duty.

Standing precariously on a rock, we faced the Kaaba and chanted one brief prayer about a hundred and fifty times. I heard it over and over, but the Turks’ strong accent in Arabic prevented me from catching the words, so I mumbled vague sounds in unison with them. They cried on cue as at Muhammad’s tomb and, again, I could not imitate them. During these prayers, my attention was distracted by the pilgrims pushing each other on the steps. As at the Kaaba, it is the Africans who show special aggressiveness; they combine into groups, hold each other tightly, push together, and force everyone else out of the way.

On the way down, Fawzi was separated from us and got lost; we did not see him again at Arafat. No doubt he found some Turks and will stay with them until we return to Mina, where our hostel is easy to find. Thousands of pilgrims get lost at Arafat each hajj season (indeed, there is now an app to get them safely to their residences). Finding a tent on the plain of Arafat reminds me of searching for a car in a gigantic parking lot; but instead of memorizing “two rows past the green Ford, left at the red Volkswagen,” it is “past the Indian tent with banners, right at the Indonesians with a truck parked in front.”

Walking by a compound of black Africans, Hasan looked at them and mocked them, indicating to me with gestures how primitive and uncultured they are. Then, using expressive motions, he explained to me that all Christians are homosexual and that Jews engage in heterosexual sodomy. Because the French eat pork, he held his nose in disgust when describing French food.

Afternoon rituals at Arafat are not strenuous: a sermon by a leading Saudi sheikh, followed by a feast. For the feast, I was invited to join the mutawwif of my adopted hostel; he too, apparently, was curious to learn more about the British Muslim. This meal was indeed very good, the best of the trip. It consisted of traditional Arabian fare: long-grain rice (never mind that it was Uncle Ben’s from Texas) cooked in a spicy meat sauce, mutton from an animal whose innards lay on the ground a few meters away, and several hot condiments. Following my hosts, I cupped my right hand and used it instead of fork and knife. Canned pineapple for dessert added a non-Arabian touch; and the tea was excellent, for once neither too strong nor too sweet. After eating, we washed our hands in small saucers.

At about two in the afternoon, I went off to bear the sermon delivered from a pulpit at the 60th step of the Hill of Mercy. This is the climax of the hajj, the only activity at which all pilgrims participate simultaneously. So many people went early to get close to the preacher that I had to sit about 500 meters away from him. The loudspeaker system hardly worked; unable to see the preacher or hear him, I dozed off on the corner of an Afghan family’s blanket. The sermon ended in time for everyone to get up together and perform the sunset prayers.

Strolling back to the tent after prayers, I was reminded of an international scouting jamboree. Mutawwifs specialize in one or two nationalities and put up colorful banners in the relevant languages. Each compound has a couple of tents, an outhouse, and innumerable people milling about, patiently waiting for the next event. Open ditches separate the compounds from the streets. Commercial life at Arafat resembles that at Mina, though there are very few shops here and they sell only (expensive) food.

In the evening, I read Dombey and Son by lantern light in a corner of the tent. This book gives me pleasure at odd moments, allowing me to trade the alien world of pious Muslims for the familiar antics of British family life. But I am careful about reading, for my habit of pulling out a book attracts attention, maybe even suspicion. If other pilgrims read, the subject matter is either a guide to the hajj ceremonies, the Koran, or some other religious book; what is it that I so often read in English? Fortunately, none of the Turks knows enough English to realize that this is a novel. They certainly would not appreciate this parody of the Islamic assertion of faith (“There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet’) that I came across today: “there is no What’s-his-Name but Thingummy, and What-you-may-call-it is his prophet!”

The fact that I read novels highlights a difference between myself and other pilgrims; religion dominates the lives of these traditional Muslims to an extent hardly known in the West. The cosmopolitan, secular life we lead is so unfamiliar to them that they seem incapable even of imagining that I might be an impostor; I doubt if they could comprehend the motives of adventure and curiosity that prompted me to pretend to be a Muslim and visit Mecca.

After the last prayer of the day, I could call myself a hajji. I also had a surprise; we are not spending the night at Arafat. All these tents are just to keep us in the shade, not for sleeping in. We climbed back on the bus, which took us to Muzdalifa, an uninhabited spot three kilometers outside Arafat where Ishmael picked up the stones he later threw at the devils in Mina. Pilgrims commemorate this event by collecting pebbles to throw at the rock devils.

END OF PART 2. Final part in the series to be posted Tuesday night as Hajji returns to Mecca for final rituals and experiences a series of strange encounters.

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