Saturday, February 25

Umrah 2012, Day Thirteen: The End

We were actually on time for Fajr this morning. This is surprising seeing how difficult it was to wake up, our collective zealousness clearly running out on this final morning.

I'm not clear if it's as essential during Umrah as it is on Hajj, but I did my farewell tawaf before Zhur jamaat. I was blessed with a cool breeze that pretty amazingly changed into a brief spell of rain - something I've only been lucky enough to have witnessed once before a long time ago. This rain turned into an all out shower during the congregation itself and it was a sight to see.

The final item to pack was the slipper bag that had become a natural extension of me over the last two weeks, and that was pretty much it for my time in Makkah.

We left early for the airport, my family and I. They were to stay an extra night, so they didn't really have to come except we decided to spend some time in Jeddah too. We briefly toured the sea front and corniche, taking in and enjoying the lovely windy weather.

But the time finally came and we headed to the airport proper. After checking in and saying my goodbyes I settled into the journey home, only to be told that all flights were delayed due to a sandstorm. This only delayed me for an hour though (others had been there all day) so I did manage to get on the way home eventually. I went as I came, alone, with the memories of the past two weeks already starting to fade. I guess that's just another excuse to visit again some day.

Friday, February 24

Book: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins Click for more info

It took this, the second book in The Hunger Games Trilogy, to figure out what I didn't like about the writing style. You see, it turns out that not only have I met Katniss before, but I have done so many times in every blog, tweet, facebook post or even email I've read from an angsty person. Heck, I probably sounded like her myself at times. But I read books to get away from all that, and I guess that's where the irritation lies and judging by the ubiquity of this media, I pray that all literature resists following suit.

Aside from that particular revelation, I didn't actually like Catching Fire as much as the first book. I explained in the previous review that, for me at least, The Hunger Games was all about the situation rather than the plot or characters, and now that that situation had all but expired there really wasn't much else to keep my interest.

But the book is still short and accessible and since I had come this far there wasn't a real or compelling need to bail on it. So although it doesn't really get a full recommendation, it is worth bearing with for completion's sake I suppose.

Umrah 2012, Day Twelve: Counting Down

And so it begins - since I'll be leaving for home tomorrow, my last set of prayers in the mosque begin today, starting with Jummah. Sensibly enough we got in early, and since I had secured my place from 11am I didn't really get a full sense of how busy it got, but I'm sure it was. Asr passed by quietly enough, and we even waited for Maghrib adhaan before leaving our hotel - liberties and complacency is obviously taking over during these final moments.

Between Maghrib and Esha I took a final walk around the mosque. I went to the bottom most floor of Al-Masa'a and took in the better view of the two mountains I used to climb as a child, now fully encased behind glass. Too many people kissing them, I guess.

My final Esha also passed without event.

Thursday, February 23

Umrah 2012, Day Eleven: Romancing The Stone

I guess the underlying theme of this trip is an aspect of the ongoing wider debate regarding bad religion versus bad religiousness. Why does the ultimately correct religion of Islam prompt such bad behaviour in its adherents? The Black Stone in one of the corners of the Kaba is a perfect example of this, and you don't have to spend too much time looking for a crowd of faces full of single-minded determination, tears and pain. So naturally my cousins and I got up at 2:15am, thinking that it was going to be as quiet as it would get at that time.

I've have the opportunity to kiss the black stone more than a few times before, so in hindsight I should have known better really, but I guess there's not a lot of protection from hype and groupthink. I certainly don't believe that I'm in a better position now that I managed to during this trip - it's quite possible that I'm in a worse one. So yes, perhaps it's the bragging or blogging rights that spurred me to even try, since I didn't really savour it (and certainly wasn't that God conscious) at the time and don't really remember much of it now. And most of all - it was hardly the most hygienic thing for me to do during my time here.

They do really need to do something about it though, since self-regulation is never going to work. Have them enforce a queue - or hand out time-limited vouchers even. The current approach of re-education doesn't seem too effective; or since it's possibly only the religiously weak who attempt it perhaps it is? As it stands I don't think I will ever attempt it again under these conditions. In fact I was in two minds even writing about it.

I've been resisting bring up this topic lest it adds to my reputation of women bashing (I love you all really), but I have noticed (ahem) a marked increase in women visiting during Umrah season now. Women only tours are pretty common now, but even in the private groups on average there were a number of women to each man. In our own familial group the ratio was nine women to four men.

The number of ladies sections in the Makkan mosque seem to have increased too - I'd say there's at least twice as many now than there was a decade or so ago. Of course there's nothing wrong with that per se, the more the merrier, but it does cause massive logistical issues, particularly when some women invoke their female privilege to behave antisocially.

It would actually be interesting to see the numbers, especially seeing as how it's a sign of Qiyamat. And while we're at it perhaps we should look at the number of Turks and Indonesians visiting too? That last bit was a joke.

They finally opened access to the roof for regular prayer - there is nothing like offering jamaat under the night sky. Of course the reason why they opened it up at all was due to the constantly increasing numbers pouring in each day. Jummah will be very interesting.

Wednesday, February 22

Umrah 2012, Day Ten: Hitting The Makkan Tourist Trail

Like the Madinan counterpart, the Makkan ziyarat is pretty essential. In no particular order we have:

  • Jabl-e-Saur, the place where the Prophet was said to have sought refuge while escaping from Makkah.
  • Jabl Ar-Rahmah, or Mountain of Mercy, the iconic symbol of the most essential of Hajj rites, that of the stay in Arafat. This used to be a very undeveloped area, pretty much a desert, with a mound and a pillar; but now we have car parks, markets, stairs, camel rides, quad bikes and people queuing up to either sign or rub themselves on the white pillar. I predict the place will be gated off in a few years. The empty camps of Arafat themselves were empty yet distinctly recognisable - as I had skipped the ziyarat the last time I was here, it had been exactly a decade since I last visited this place.
  • The skeletal remains of a dormant Mina, an impressive sight even when vacant. The train stations are shiny new and rather impressive, although personally there's something about walking back to Makkah that a train will never be as charming as.
  • The Jamaraat. Of all the changes, for me this was the most different. Gone are the classic pillars and two level structure of the previous thirty odd years, to be replaced by walls supported by a massive fiver levelled thoroughfare. This is a wonderful improvement, and equally impressive that it had been completed in a year. I'm already less against modernisation than most, but given the stoning of the jamaraat was one of the most physically testing tasks I've had to do (probably topped only when I ran a marathon a few years later), I can't but only fully support it.
  • Al 'Aziziyah. Not really a sight per se, but this was the first time I took notice of it in the context of its growing importance as an overflow during the Hajj period.

After lunch I decided to try a pre-Asr tawaf, the idea being to get one done out of the way while it was quiet. And quick it was too - 18 minutes and a pint of sweat later and I was done. Oh and remember how I mentioned how serendipitous my visits to Saudi usually are? Well, on the way to the mosque I came across the exact same pretty girl I had seen during the Madinan ziyarat 300 miles away. Of course I only mention this because of the coincidence.

In the evening we ventured out again, this time catching Maghrib at Hudaibiya (where that important treaty between Muslims and the people of Makkah was signed), after which headed to the "Exhibition of the Two Holy Mosques Architecture" which was far more enjoyable than it should have been. A few things were noticeably missing (probably since they were loaned out somewhere), but there was still enough for a quick one hour visit; in particular the model of how the mosque in Makkah will look once the construction is finished.

Tuesday, February 21

Umrah 2012, Day Nine: Back to Makkah

Just another regular day in Makkah today. We took the opportunity to explore the other side of the mosque, now unrecognisable in the wake of the massive amount of construction going on for the extension. As I've already mentioned the scope of it is pretty incredible, and it's difficult to imagine the scale of the end result. Still it is taking shape - perhaps it will be completed on my next visit?

A top tip is to make sure you're sound with how to partake in a janazah (funeral) prayer. Across my time in Makkah and Madinah so far, I've counted two of the five daily prayers that did NOT have a janazah immediately following it. My cousin and had a good look after one of them and counted at least ten bodies, which makes fifty a day and a potential 700 over the two weeks I'll be staying here. That's pretty amazing in a morbid way. So yes, it's well worth learning how to do it.

Monday, February 20

Book: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins Click for more info

I really shouldn't have loved this book as much as I did. In fact I feel positively guilty for burning through it in a matter of days. So yes, I guess it gets points for being easy to read, accessible and compelling (if not in a particularly deep way).

Where it loses points is in the lack of originality (I was constantly waiting for Katniss to say "he had to split" throughout) and for having had the most annoying characters in fiction since Bella and Edward.

The writing style was a little irritating too. Short, hanging sentences. Moody and abrupt. You get the idea. Of course this is less an objective criticism, and probably something that I personally didn't like rather than a flaw in the book itself.

In fact it was mainly the world and situation that I enjoyed the most and what the book propped itself on. In that sense The Hunger Games is nothing more than a trashy page-turner, but somewhat forgivably so.

It's a quick enough read so it gets a recommendation for that. My only warning is that this is clearly the first part of a trilogy so expect to be in it for the long haul.

Umrah 2012, Day Eight: Farewell Madinah

Today I finally figured out the one thing that Indonesian tour companies can teach their pilgrims which would increase many fold the well being of everyone on the pilgrimage. And that is how to use lifts. The length of time it takes to get out of a hotel purely because empty lifts are going up and down the building tending to incorrect requests is absurd in this day and age.

There was a distinct dust in the air today, something I took personally as an indication that we were going to leave. As a kind of farewell, I got a good eight rakaats in the al-Riad-ul-Jannah - I'm sure it's bigger than it used to be.

On the way to Makkah a few miles out of Madinah, we stopped off at the Miqaat to don our ihrams for our second umrah on this trip. The Miqaat was busier than I remember it being; in my memory it was a deserted and calm place compared to the transit hub it felt like today.

For me this umrah different mainly because I was now with company, but also because it didn't seem as urgent as it was when I had to do it hours after flying in. It took a little longer but it was much more relaxed. I also realised that the hardest part of the ihram conditions by far for me is to keep my gaze lowered. Yeah, yeah.

Sunday, February 19

Umrah 2012, Day Seven: Common Denominators

I made a few more negative observations today - it seems like a lot of pilgrims need to be constantly reminded not to pray toward the Prophet's grave, while others (quite amusingly to me anyway) walk backwards out of the mosque in order to not point their backs in the direction of the same. Now I know wahabis get a lot of stick from others for being so fundamentalist, but after seeing things like these I think I know who'd I prefer to be guardians of these things. My father reckons it'll only be a matter of time before they have to obscure or even full remove access to these relics and artefacts, and I can't help but agree. It's a shame, but I guess that's what the common denominator does.

The museum in the prophet's mosque is worth a quick peek, but don't go out of your way to visit it. Time is much better spent remembering death in the graveyard of Janat-ul-Baqee adjacent to the Mosque. Make sure you don't miss visiting that.

My discomfort with tour groups grew on schedule today. They remind me of how cattle is herded; photo-tourist cattle, where you're instructed exactly what to do and where to do it, and how you must read pages 3-5 of your complimentary tour dua booklet in the right place. To me it's kind of devoid of any will or spirit and is actually quite cancerous.

One of the best ways to calm down after such a rant is to lie down under one of the open domes of the mosque - they didn't seem to open much during our stay here, but I found one this evening and it was lovely to stare into that window of infinity if only for a while.

On the way back to the hotel, I noticed another slight change with the calling card stalls now replaced with PAYG SIMs and top-up vouchers. Otherwise it's the same people sitting on the same stools selling out of the same perspex boxes.

My final achievement of today was to find out the name of the hot presenter from MBC3. Her name is Dania Shafi. I must look her up when I get back.

Saturday, February 18

Umrah 2012, Day Six: The Ziyaraat Circuit

The ziyaraat circuit is pretty essential, and that possibly moreso in Madinah than Makkah. All the stories Muslims have been brought up on, from both the Quran and Seerah, are suddenly brought to life by visiting the locations in which they happened. It's more striking than it should be, but I guess every person of faith is a romantic of some sort too.

The typical itinerary in Madinah is to start at Quba Mosque (the first, and so oldest, mosque), then move onto Qiblatain Mosque (where the Prophet was commanded to change his direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Makkah), then the location of the battle of the trench and the seven mosques that lie around it and then finally to Mount Uhud (including the climb of the mountains where the archers let the side down).

As usual, the landscape here had changed too. Of course it was busy, but I also found it to be developed too, with major highways now running alongside each location instead of them being perched in isolated outskirts as they used to be. Although it's great that more people are visiting these places, I do miss the peace and quiet. And I'm really starting to dislike organised tours now.

Back in the Prophet's Mosque, it turns out that the Library has now been moved. It's always been an essential visit for us, and is more so now it's in the new, bigger, location. I could spend hours in there, or perhaps just the lull between Maghrib and Esha prayers flicking through the books, and that despite the majority of them being in Arabic.

After hours, Madinah will always mean gold shopping. In contrast to all the changes, this is one thing that I believe will stay the same. At least this time around I had Where's My Water. Phew.

Friday, February 17

Umrah 2012, Day Five: Small Worlds

If I know someone is going on umrah at the same time as I am, or I make friends with someone on the plane to Saudi, I always bid them farewell with a "see you in the Haram". This is usually received as rhetoric; you know, seeing as how unlikely it would be to randomly bump into someone you know under those kind of busy conditions.

And yet each time I say it, I really do mean it. Maybe it's a miracle, or perhaps it's statistical science, but I always bump into people I know while on a pilgrimage. For instance in this trip I've already come across a family I first talked to on the plane (we were doing tawaf on the first floor) and just today in Madinah I met the guy I shared a taxi with from Jeddah airport. And soon after I said goodbye to him, I bumped into an uncle who comes to my mosque back in London. It always happens.

Otherwise today was pretty uneventful. More praying (including Jummah), more crowds, more kissing of doors (of the new extension rather than any older, not that that would make it any better) by random women.

Thursday, February 16

Umrah 2012, Day Four: Madinah

By far the majority of people who I ask say that they prefer Madinah over Makkah. My own reasons for agreeing include the better weather, people and food. Everything there exudes peace and tranquillity, although yes once again it really isn't as calm as it used to be. So changes then? Well Madinah doesn't seem to have changed as much as Makkah really: the mosque has more umbrellas I suppose. Oh and there's a knee high plastic barrier a few feet in front of the Prophet's resting place.

We're staying in the hotel we used during our Hajj trip, and you can imagine how poignant that is. But I do also have strong memories of our previous visits here - the long absent street markets for instance.

Thinking about the peripheral I realised that considering the circumstances under which my last two trips to these places were, I've not really had a chance to chill out in these places for fifteen years or so. I preferred crowd avoidance to savouring all aspects of a visit - I didn't see the point since I had already been lucky enough to have seen and done a lot already.

For instance there was a time when you could leave your room on hearing the adhan and still make the first ten rows of the jamaat in the Prophet's Mosque - more often than not you'd even make the first couple. And you could spend as much time as you liked passing salutations to the Prophet - there were no ladies' time or anything either.

After two trips, I was finally looking forward to enjoying some of these again, but something tells me there won't be a quiet time to go any more. But I'm not sure it's the increase in numbers per se that irritates me; in theory it shouldn't make that much of a difference if everyone behaves in a decent manner. But they don't, and I think that's what I find being the problem.

Although I will always acknowledge the importance of these holy places, it does sometimes feel as if the majority of visitors assign godly attributes to them and the buildings and structures in them. We sometimes forget that the Kaba has actually been built (and rebuilt) by man, and the beautiful mosque in Madinah architectured and constructed by the Saudi Bin Laden group. On the one hand we criticise the clock tower in Makkah, but then in the same moment we allow ourselves to have our breath taken away by a Kiswah that was sewn in a factory a few miles away.

Perhaps as humans we're just designed to worship the tangible, but it's when we use that attitude to justify our fanaticism that it becomes unhelpful and even harmful to others. Yes, it's important to give salutations to the Prophet, but are we really gaining extra benefit by holding up a crowd while we read a whole dua book, take pictures and attempt to wipe the shiny gate that, by incidence, happens to surround him?

Meh. At the very least we should ban cameras from the two mosques.

Wednesday, February 15

Umrah 2012, Day Three: Ban Them All

In some ways the increase of numbers I mentioned yesterday indicate a transference of the "struggle" of pilgrimage from the journey to the destination, and that's probably true whether you believe that such a struggle is an inherent part of the whole thing (incidentally I don't believe in walking on coals myself). That said I do think that there are ways to make the whole thing a little easier without reducing the actual total number (and no, none as extreme as what I suggested last time).

First up, tour groups need to be regulated, and groups larger than ten should be discouraged, particularly if they're uniform in terms of race and gender (believe me, the gangs of women are much scarier than the male equivalent). This also means getting rid of the matching luggage, hand bags, hijabs and badges that you see everywhere in the Haram now. Part of the problem isn't the numbers themselves, but the block manner in which these groups move. It's inefficient and disruptive. Instead pilgrims should be taught how to independently make the most of their time here.

Secondly, we should also ban all books, leaflets, phones and cameras inside the mosque. This is a little extreme, but anything that distracts you from taking care of other people is a bad thing in my opinion and all these things do that. They're even worse than the Blackberry zombies you meet on the Tube.

The hatim and black stone areas should be regulated a little too, either by enforcing a real queue or better still implementing some kind of voucher/timeslot system. I don't think this would be impossible to do, it would just require education and discipline. Okay, maybe it is impossible after all.

The last one might be a little controversial, but I genuinely believe it would be beneficial to have a season where anyone over the age of 65 or under the age of 5 or who needs a wheelchair are discouraged from coming. Yes, that sounds wrong and is probably totally unenforceable but as a practical exercise it would allow many more to enjoy facilities on offer over the course of the year, and the only downside is that overzealous parents won't be able to put up those pictures of their disinterested three year old in an ihram. Bless.

Tuesday, February 14

The Annual Inevitably Cynical "I Hate Valentine's" Post Click for more info

You know, you'd think I'd be able to avoid the whole thing over here but nooooooooo. Damn progressives, how dare you hold hands in the holy sanctuary. Tut.

Umrah 2012, Day Two: The Great Unwashed

As I mentioned before, the last time I came here it was for the middle ten days of a Ramadhan month. The time before that was for Hajj. Naturally both periods were very busy, but since that was to be expected I was kind of geared up for it. The times before those two trips, I had visited during the quiet periods of the year including one trip while Umrah was officially closed to foreigners. As such most of my memories of Saudi were of a relatively relaxing and easy going nature.

Which brings us to the next difference I've noticed. The number of people. It used to be the case that the first couple of weeks of Umrah season were pretty much dead, but that doesn't seem to be the case any more. Of course it still wasn't as busy as Ramadhan or Hajj, but it's clear that the times I enjoyed in the previous decade are long gone now.

The main explanation is related to a recently typical criticism of the Saudi authorities; that of the commodification of the holy lands. There's really not much doubt about it really - at times it seems that the vast majority of pilgrims now belong to a Turkish or Indonesian tour group. Of course it can never be a bad thing for more people to have the opportunity to visit Makkah and Madinah, particularly if they come from a place that was otherwise extremely difficult to journey from before.

A difference I missed yesterday was how Safa was now cordoned off behind glass. This sucks, especially since I remember how we used to climb the mountain for both prayer and adventure. I can totally understand why it had to happen though.

And finally now that I'm out of ihram I've begun to notice my environment in a little more detail (no, nothing seems to have changed much at all). All I can say is that it's at times like these that I wish I had a wingwoman. I'm going to hell, I know.

Monday, February 13

Umrah 2012, Day One: Just Me

Before I begin proper, I want to start with a little bit of a warning. I'm not an Umrah virgin and in fact by some cosmic coincidence this trip actually marks the tenth anniversary to the month since I performed my own Hajj, way back in February of 2002. I've been back once since, for Ramadhan in 2005, a trip that I also blogged about.

The reason why I mention is because a lot of what I write will be in a loosely comparative analysis fashion - in other words there will be a lot of focus on how things have developed and changed over the last 25 years or so and reminiscing about how better things were in the old days.

As such a lot of this may seem a little moany and judgemental. If you want a more gushing and emotionally charged account, then please read many of the blogs and Facebook posts written by recently returning hajjis (here is one if you can't be bothered to search). If on the other hand you want something a little different and hopefully more insightful and objective then stick around. Just don't complain, eh?

The twist in this particular trip was that, due to various scheduling issues, I was to travel to Makkah alone and furthermore reach there half a day before the rest of the party (consisting of my parents and a clutch of my dad's sisters, or phoophis). The main concern here was that I would be performing my entering Umrah on my own. I have to admit I was a little apprehensive of this, mainly because I've always seen pilgrimage as a family thing. I managed to make friends on the plane which made the journey a little more bearable, although we did all split up at the airport. Still it turned out that the lonesome Umrah really wasn't as bad as I thought it would be - in fact I have to admit that I quite enjoyed the solitude.

Still it was a relief once I completed my umrah. After being released from my ihram, I was at liberty to settle into the trip properly. As usual we were staying in the vicinity of my favourite gate, Bab-e-Abdul-Aziz. For some strange reason has traditionally been the gate we lived the closest to and so regularly entered the sanctuary from, and I have a lot of memories associated with it - probably something to do with it being an entrance or the first indication that you're entering a holy site.

Associated with the gate is our usual praying spot, up on the first floor at the top of the Abdul Aziz Stair Number 95 situated to the immediate left of the gate itself. The area here is cool, calm (well, relatively anyway) and offers excellent views of the Kaba. There's a fixed (that is, plumbed) Zamzam spot really close by and for those travelling in a mixed group a ladies section too. The extension serves as a backup plan during the busy periods like Ramadhan and Hajj. So yes, this has pretty much been our spot for the past 15 years or so.

The natural game to play when revisiting a place like this on a regular but sparse basis is to think of what's changed since the last time. The now infamous Clock Tower is the immediate pick this time around - it was being built in 2005 so for me seeing it complete gave a sense of closure and it turns out that I'm not actually that bothered by it - I certainly don't consider it an evil tool of the devil. It's terribly opulent and unnecessary, sure, but only as much as the mosque itself something people sometimes forget is also man made. In fact the major construction happening this time around is that of the extension toward Bab-e-Umrah and Fatah, which in some ways is more ambitious than the clock tower. I guess that will be the change to explore during my next trip.

Other more minor differences I noticed was the new whudhu facility outside of Bab-e-Abdul-Aziz, a more textured Kiswah covering the Kaba and disposable slipper bags being dispensed at most of the entrances (and as an aside we've been using permanent slipper bags for well over a decade and a half now, so will go ahead and stake our claim on that particular idea).

For those of you needing access to wheelchairs, the depot can be found across the way from Bab-e-Salam, perpendicular to Al-Masa'a. They'll require some kind of security so be prepared to give up some identity document (I'd suggest not giving your passport of course).

The evening was spent receiving the rest of my family and assisting them in performing their respective Umrahs. Although the day wasn't too bad, I'm glad to have some company now and for the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, February 4

Film: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn Click for more info

So this is what happens when Spielberg does CGI? Tintin was fast, action packed and lovely to watch, with some of the most amazing virtual imagery I've seen. I thought that I would have been creeped out by how realistic the graphics were, but I was immediately comfortable with it all.

The screenplay was almost perfectly paced, funny when it had to be and dramatic during the rest of it. The voice acting was spot on and the set pieces pretty engaging.

There wasn't much I could fault it on. Recommended.