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.