This is the first of a three-part series by Hajji Mustafa, 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 endanger his life.
"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"
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By Hajji Mustafa
The Muslim has an exclusive spirit, a deep wariness of all infidels and especially of the Westerners who study him, the perfidious Orientalists. As an Arabist, I some years ago had occasion to live in an Arab country, learn the language, absorb the culture, and enter into the routines of daily life.
But the Muslim distrust of outsiders often got in my way and so I found it advantageous to claim – falsely – that I had converted to the Islamic faith.
It was an easy claim to make, for Muslims readily believe that anyone who studies Islam and the Arabic language is on the way to becoming Muslim. To play the part, I learned the Islamic ritual devotions, memorized sections of the Koran, and adopted some of the habits of the observant Muslim, such as abstention from pork and alcohol. I also grew a beard. As a result, barriers came down. I won a greater acceptance into the Arab society, learning about fears and hopes that otherwise would have remained hidden.
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Eventually it became clear that I would not witness the full range of Muslim life unless I joined the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is there, when the faithful are gathered together away from the world of unbelievers, that Muslims give the fullest expression to their religious feelings.
An infidel does not easily trespass on the pilgrimage, however. The Saudi authorities prohibit non-Muslims from venturing within 15 kilometers of Mecca or the other holy city, Medina. Infidels who are discovered in the sacred precincts can expect severe punishment. Through the centuries, only a handful of Westerners have breached these regulations and attended the pilgrimage ceremonies without genuinely becoming Muslim. Most famous of them were the Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt in 1814-15 and the British explorer Sir Richard Burton in 1853.
Knowing how few Europeans had made it to Mecca, I expected difficulty in getting there myself. But times have changed. Burckhardt and Burton both pretended to be Indians but travel is now regulated; even if I could pass as an Easterner, my passport would give me away. Also, the Muslim authorities back then disbelieved the truthfulness of Europeans who converted to Islam. Now, no one doubts the sincerity of conversions by Westerners, which are commonplace. For these reasons, I did not attempt to hide my British nationality.
To obtain a visa for the hajj, I first had to convert to Islam. This proved easy. I went to a nearby mosque and repeated after a religious official, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet," the words that indicate acceptance of the Islamic faith. Then that official filled out a lengthy certificate of conversion for me and asked me my new, Muslim name. "Mustafa," I replied, Arabic for the chosen one. To my surprise, the sheikh neither probed the sincerity of my intentions, nor did he ask about my being circumcised – much less did he check me physically. The whole procedure took 10 minutes.
With a certificate of conversion in hand, I went directly to the Saudi consulate and applied for a pilgrimage visa. That a freshly minted Muslim should apply the same day to go on the hajj did raise eyebrows, but no one doubted my sincerity. Islam gives converts equal status; having joined the faith that morning, I was treated as a full-fledged believer in the afternoon.
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A day later, I received the visa and permission to travel to Medina and Mecca to participate in the hajj. My papers being in order, I expected a safe trip; but what would happen if I were discovered as an impostor? If I met someone who knew me and denounced me? Or if someone became curious about me and checked into my background?
In recent years, most pilgrims travel to the holy cities by flying to Jidda, Mecca's port, but I preferred to go by land, following the traditional caravan route from Damascus down the coast of the Red Sea. For me, the pilgrimage began in Amman, Jordan, so I begin quoting from my journal there. The following account is dated by the Islamic calendar which determines the hajj schedule. Dhu’l-Hijja is the last month of the Islamic year.
4 Dhu’l-Hijja. It seems premature, but I am already addressed as "pilgrim" (al-hajj or hajji) as I search Amman for transport to Medina. I am a few days late; most pilgrims already left.
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I went to every taxi office and bus company in central Amman, inquiring about immediate passage to Medina. The only space I found is in a taxi that leaves tomorrow morning and provides transport throughout the pilgrimage, including the return trip to Amman. How dull that sounds though, almost like a package tour.
5 Dhu’l-Hijja. A little initiative this morning led to unexpected success. As I sat in the seedy and nearly moribund offices of an inter-city taxi line, waiting for the package tour to leave, a bearded man in full-length robes came in and asked about fares to Medina. The prices he heard sent him rushing back out the door. This had been my initial response too, so, on a hunch, I grabbed my suitcase and followed him down the street. Catching up, I told him I was also looking to get to Medina inexpensively. Could he help? He nodded in assent and motioned me to walk with him.
I followed him to a minibus where a bearded man sat in the driver's seat and three bearded passengers lay in the back among the bags. Their five beards and my own made an instant success of the encounter. When they learned that I too was going on the pilgrimage, they invited me to join them.
The car took off and within minutes stopped at a mosque for prayers. Given that a pious Muslim prays five times a day, during which he 17 times goes through the cycles of standing, kneeling, prostrating, and standing again, it must have been unimaginable to others in the mosque that today's prayers were my first ever in public. Fear of making a wrong move kept me nervous throughout the quarter hour of devotions, but no one noted my awkwardness. I had passed the first of many tests.
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After leaving the mosque, my companions found a taxi to Tabuk, the closest city in Saudi Arabia, and we took off at 2 p.m.
Speeding through the flat desert, I learned something about the group of four pilgrims I had joined. The man who entered the taxi office is a Jordanian, a preacher, and the other three are Turks from Istanbul, holy men. All of them have just returned from a missionary tour through Europe and North Africa. I wondered how an Arab who speaks no Turkish and three Turks knowing only a smattering of liturgical Arabic had joined together and how they communicated.
Also, how had they financed a trip through Europe and how did they cope there without a single one of them knowing a European language? I saw West European visa stamps in a passport, proving the veracity of this story, but before I could find out more, the Jordanian preacher suddenly had the car stop at a blank spot in the desert, he then bade us goodbye, and walked off. That was the last I saw of him.
Not knowing Turkish, my questions went unanswered. I soon learned, however, that all three Turks are masters at sign language. The three of them, speaking in turns, lectured me on the satisfactions of a pious life and of the evil of Muslims who loudly profess their faith but do not live up to Islam’s requirements. They repeated this message over and over, unembarrassed by their faulty Arabic, at once ungrammatical and archaic. I could not help but understand their point eventually and agreed with all the enthusiasm I could muster.
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Approaching the border of Saudi Arabia at about 10 p.m., we passed a long queue of cars, vans and trucks, their engines turned off, piled high with bags and stuffed with as many as 60 poor would-be pilgrims, sitting atop their belongings. While waiting for clearance, many of them climbed down and had settled on the ground by the customs shed, where they talked, cooked and slept. As I – who even here looks irredeemably Western – approached, many of the pilgrims took notice and began begging. I expect this crowded and noisy border scene to be a foretaste of pilgrim life in the holy cities.
To prove that they are not going on the hajj as a way to get into Saudi Arabia and look for work, pilgrims must demonstrate that they have funds to cover their expenses, as well as a return ticket. With few exceptions, such as ourselves, everyone who can afford to do so, flies. The Turks and I had all these documents and got through in less than two hours. Customs officials inspected our possessions in minute detail; they not only checked the titles of my books against a blacklist, but they skimmed through the books to make sure we had not slipped a forbidden text (anti-Islam? pro-Israel?) between under covers. Each pilgrim also pays a fee at the border for a mutawwif, the agent who provides shelter, transport, translation, guide services, and other assistance in Mecca.
Searched and stamped, we left customs at midnight, expecting to reach Tabuk within the hour and to get rooms for the night there. But a soldier standing not 200 meters from the border stopped us. The internal Saudi checkpoint he guarded had closed for the night and we were obliged to wait for it to open again at 7 a.m. There was no choice but to stay there; we could neither go further into Saudi Arabia nor could we return to Jordan. The border post itself offered no accommodation, so we slept there in the car. Sitting upright in the front passenger's seat, my head on the window, my knees cramped against the dashboard, I tried to rest. Thus passed six long hours.
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6 Dhu’l-Hijja. The Turks woke the driver and me at sunrise to prepare for the dawn prayers. I was sleepy and cold and hoped to stay in the car but they bounded outside to find water for the prayer ablutions and insisted I join them. They found a faucet and merrily splashed themselves clean but I of little faith was miserable. I envied the Turks for their zeal; they seemed hardly to notice physical discomfort. At that moment, my pretense at being a Muslim felt especially hollow; how could someone so obviously lacking in Islamic motivation fool ardent believers?
More small trials followed. To the Turks’ great annoyance, our driver had neither washed nor prayed; by way of compensation, he played a recitation of the Koran on the car’s cassette recorder as we sat waiting for the checkpoint to open. I listened briefly, then took out my novel, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens. As I opened the book, one of the Turks pointed to it and asked, “Koran?” My companions not only know the Latin alphabet; they also have memorized the Koran, so it would have been unwise for me to claim that this tale of British domestic strife was the Divine Word. I said it was a commentary on the Koran. Not good enough; he insisted that I put it away and read nothing but the Koran itself during a recitation. Abashed, I did as instructed, again feeling obviously false.
The Saudi police appeared at the checkpoint almost on time and ruffled through the very same papers that border guards had checked some meters away. Before the day was over, we underwent many more patrols, for the Saudi government keeps careful records on all internal movement. The police keep track of traffic along main roads and at the outskirts of cities, something often overlooked by those concerned with the regime’s survival.
Leaving for Tabuk, we celebrated our arrival in the holy land of Arabia by reciting the Koran’s opening chapter –fortunately, one I know by heart. After a short ride, we arrived at Tabuk at 8 o’clock and bought breakfast. The food market made the economics of an oil-rich country quickly apparent: almost everything in the market – fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, dry goods, tins – comes from abroad. Tabuk seems only to make its own bread, and I enjoyed watching its baking in an out-of-door oven. Round pieces of dough are beaten flat, thrown hard against the sides of an upright oven, and baked quickly at searing temperatures. The finished product, pulled out of the oven with two sticks, is too hot to handle for several minutes. This flat bread has a wonderful taste and texture when fresh but dries out and hardens minutes after cooling.
After breakfast, we took a bus from Tabuk to Medina. The road between these cities runs straight and flat through monotonous desert with a gravel-like surface and almost no vegetation. The unchanging scenery put me to sleep, making up for last night’s fitful hours in the car. Frequent breaks interrupted the trip, including some four stops for prayers, three for police checks, one to pick up the nearly hysterical passengers from a broken-down Syrian bus, and one to rest in a cafe at the isolated oasis of Taima. To my amusement, though fewer than 10 vehicles passed during the space of an hour, Taima’s main street has a uniformed policeman directing traffic from a high platform in its middle.
By the time we approached Medina, my Turkish companions, Hasan, Fawzi, and Niyazi, had acquired distinct personalities. Hasan is the largest, tall and portly, the calmest, and the most practical. Fawzi, of medium height, invariably initiates the preaching and then gets the most carried away with religious fervor. Niyazi, the smallest, is also the quietest and the least likely to break into sermon. All three are manual laborers from Istanbul and close friends. (I later visited Hasan in Istanbul and watched him at work in an antiquated steel factory.) Before their recent trip to Europe, the three men had journeyed together on the hajj and on a preaching tour. More than tourists, they are less than travelers; their interest in a country extends no further than gauging its piety. In their view, Morocco and Pakistan are the most pious Muslim countries and therefore the most excellent. They worry, however, about their own country, Turkey, where they say people are forgetting Allah.
We reached Medina, the second city of Islam, in the early evening. Muhammad fled from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622 after encountering strong opposition to his preaching Islam. Under his leadership, the original community of the Faithful developed in Medina, giving Islam a firm base as a religion and a polity. For these reasons and because Medina contains Muhammad's tomb, Muslims consider Medina the city of the Prophet. (Mecca is the city of Allah.)
Entry to Medina is prohibited to infidels. To ensure they stay out, the Saudi government strictly controls entry into the city. We were subjected to one visa review after another. I became agitated as we went through these checkpoints and let my nervousness show by pacing along the bus each time we stopped, afraid of disruption, impatient to arrive. Expecting suspicions, I found that my documents went unquestioned, though everyone, including the guards, ogled at the British Muslim with a non-Muslim name in the passport. At one checkpoint the police called me into their tent. I was of course nervous, but they only asked me about the state of Islam in the United Kingdom and extracted a promise from me to spread Islam on my return.
When the lights of Medina, a city of about 100,000, first appeared in the distance, I felt as excited as the most devout pilgrim; leaving the final checkpoint, I silently exulted in having joined a most select group of European travelers.
The bus let us off in a square at the center of town and I was sat in a cafe to watch the bags while the Turks set off to find a hostel they remembered from a previous trip. The cafe, or more exactly, its oversized hookahs, intrigued me. As tall as a man, they have long, snake-like tubes which extend as much as 10 meters to the customer. These hookahs are the glory of Arabian cafes, larger, gaudier, and wore bubbly than anywhere else. Cafe patrons recline on pillows or lie on high, long wicker couches; they can even sleep in them overnight. The couches are grouped in pairs at right angles to each other, about 3 meters apart. Arabian cafes can be very spacious; I saw one by the main road extending 50 meters.
The Turks found the hostel. I found it austere: thin mattresses on floors in cavernous, dimly-lit rooms. As the only guests, however, we four enjoyed the unexpected privacy of one person to each room; most pilgrims have already reached Mecca and are preparing for the hajj ceremonies which begin on the morning of 8 Dhu’l-Hijja. To be part of the hajj, we must reach Mecca by tomorrow afternoon or the police will bar us from entry.
7 Dhu’l-Hijja. It takes over an hour for the prayers that accompany the ceremonial donning of the hajj costume, the ihram, so the Turks woke me long before dawn. According to Islamic law, the pilgrim changes from normal clothing to the ihram on the morning of the day he expects to reach Mecca. He then wears the ihram for four days, through nearly all the hajj ceremonies. It symbolizes a state of sanctification during which many activities are prohibited, including arguments, combat, hunting, sexual relations, bathing, wearing perfume, hair cutting and nail trimming.
For men (there are almost no boys present), the ihram consists of two large, thin white towels, one wrapped around the waist, the other draped on one or both shoulders. Whiteness symbolizes purity and the ihram’s extreme simplicity equates all men before the Lord. Men may wear sandals but nothing that covers the ankle; underpants are allowed but not undershirts; watches and money bags may be worn but no head covering. Women have no special outfit; most wear ordinary clothing, though some put on a long white robe resembling a nun’s habit. Their heads should be covered but their faces may not be veiled. We got into the ihram at the hostel and celebrated the event with a flurry of extra prayers; then left for Muhammad’s tomb in the Mosque of the Prophet.
The Prophet's Mosque, a long rectangular building, consists of three covered sections divided by two courtyards; the tomb lies at the farthest end of the building. Hundreds of ornate columns support the roof, each one with curious little lights inserted half way up – someone’s idea, perhaps, of modern mosque architecture? Along the way to the tomb at the back, I had a first view of pilgrims wearing the ihram: West Africans, Egyptians, Yemenis, Turks, Indians, Indonesians milling about, all wearing identical white towels.
The tomb of Muhammad is so deeply hidden within a metal screen cage I could hardly see it. Peering through the bars I just made out a densely embroidered green cloth covering an oddly shaped box. Then Hasan called me to prayers. Muslims believe that Allah especially favors believers who shed tears as they pray by Muhammad's tomb, so each pilgrim tries to please the Lord by showing the fervor of his emotions. One person weepingly read the prayers and the rest of us repeated his words. Within seconds, all three of my Turkish companions were sobbing with the crowd. I, as usual, felt fraudulent. I did want to cry, but could not. To conceal my unmoved state, I put both hands on my face and bent forward, as though weeping.
After the prescribed prayers, each Muslim adds a private message to Allah. With palms to the sky at shoulder height, eyes earnestly fixed on the heavens, lips moving, I imitated the pilgrims around me. Amid the mumbling and chanting came a sudden scream from my right side: "Allaaaaah." It was Fawzi, who had keeled straight forward and landed flat on the floor; overcome with the awe of being at Muhammad's tomb, he forgot to stay on his feet.
In contrast, I had no trouble remembering where I was. When prayers ended, I went back to the tomb enclosure and peered in at the sepulchre more closely. Along the way I passed uniformed Religious Police, the public morals squad of Saudi Arabia, upholders of the harshest and most strictly fundamentalist school of Islamic thought, the Wahhabi, developed 250 years ago in eastern Arabia by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Wahhabis (or Salafis) look back to the practices of seventh-century Islam for their ideals and try to eliminate almost all subsequent innovations. Also, they control religious activities more tightly than in any other Muslim state. Participation in the Friday mosque services, for example, most everywhere else is a matter of private conscience; in Saudi Arabia, however, adult males are on occasion compelled to attend.
Many Wahhabi practices are anathema to visiting pilgrims, especially the prohibition of worship at tombs; the Saudi authorities consider this widespread practice polytheistic and therefore abhorrent to Islam. The Saudi government vigilantly prevents tomb side worship by pilgrims, especially at the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad. In theory, Muhammad was an ordinary mortal who has no more divine power than any other dead person; in fact, many Muslims see him as just shy of divine. The Religious Police who stand by Muhammad's sepulchre armed with strips of knotted cloth to strike anyone who audibly prays to Muhammad or strokes the bars around his tomb. Undeterred, however, pilgrims silently pray to their prophet and surreptitiously kiss the holy artifacts.
Feeling a little curious and wanting to conform, I too stroked the bars of the tomb and wiped both hands along my face and chest, imitating the other pilgrims. I felt silly spreading the sweaty film from steel grates onto my body—but I felt much sillier yet when a guard struck me with his cloth. My pantomime was taken seriously. My consolation was to know that my pretense again had passed muster.
After visiting the Prophet’s Mosque we hired a long-distance taxi for the trip to Mecca and left about 10 a.m. It was another day of speeding through flat desert. Rushing to reach Mecca by nightfall, we stopped less often than yesterday – only to show passports or to pray (holy spots become more common as the city of Allah approaches).
END OF PART 1
Watch for Part 2 of this three-part series, picking up with Mustafa's entrance into Mecca.