Friday, November 30

Umrah 2019, Day Eleven: Tolerance

We've reached the point of the trip where my ability to tolerate is running thin. If you smell like you've not has a shower for a few days, then I'm going to move away. If your cough sounds infectious, then I'm going to move away. If your beautiful but loud and distracting Quran recitation is obnoxiously stopping me from reading my own, then I'm going to move away.

Of course the problem here is that you'll find these annoyances in every corner of the mosque. In short... it's time for me to go home. After all, there's only so much space in the Haram to hide from the great unwashed.

On the other hand my photobomb game is strong. Selfies and videocalls be damned.

Thursday, November 29

Umrah 2019, Day Ten: A Lack of Ziyarat

I just realised that we skipped any ziyarat in Madinah and will probably skip it here in Makkah too.

Missing out on Masjid Quba is unfortunate but I don't feel that we missed out on any of the others.

Wednesday, November 28

Umrah 2019, Day Nine: More Maldivians

Looking at demographics, there does seem to be many more Maldivians visiting than I've noticed before. Many complain about the development/numbers management going on in the two holy cities but if it makes it more accessible for those who wouldn't even consider the idea of visiting then I'm all for it. And hey, if you really want to come multiple times a year you can always pay the penalty anyway.

Tuesday, November 27

Umrah 2019, Day Eight: Koshari

Today we discovered Koshari, the Egyptian street food. It's cheap, clean, vegetarian and tasted decent enough.

I'm not sure if it's a new addition to the Saudi fast food scene or if it was just dismissed by us previously, but thanks to our new friends we have been introduced to what I can honestly see as our staple going forward.

Monday, November 26

Umrah 2019, Day Seven: More Changes

Another (perhaps more welcome) change: I don't notice as many designer hijabs anymore and yet I'm not sure when the fad was finally killed off. Gone are the days when you'd see Louis Vuitton and Gucci embossed headscarves, and it's a good example of how not all changes are for the worse.

Sunday, November 25

Umrah 2019, Day Six: Expansions

Today I completed what might have been my fifteenth Umrah.

No place in my travels changes so much on a visit by visit basis than Makkah does. For example the clocktower is now ten years old, yet memories of its building are still vivid. It also broke my heart when the public access to the Zamzam pump was taken away.

The more recent work being done is in the Mataaf, with us witnessing its various inconvenient states during at least the last two visits. However now that the work is more or less structurally complete the value is clear and it's a pretty good job. The main casualty is that the direct walk from the main gates to the Kaba is now but a memory. That makes me sad as no matter how needed it is, its yet another reduction in intimacy.

Saturday, November 24

Umrah 2019, Day Five: Optimisation

It's always fun to see the novel ways pilgrims express their devotion to their belief. From Zamzam acquisition to finding the perfect place to pray everyone has their own little strategies and tricks. It's only a matter of time before they learn how to siphon Zamzam from the water buckets.

One habit we picked up during this stay is to get into the Green Dome hall for a congregation (easy enough if you either wait for the Riadhul Jannah partitions to come down or if you use the Abu Bakr Siddiq Gate early). After congregational (as well as any janazah) prayers have concluded you should easily be able to send your salutations to The Prophet with ease while the organisers busy themselves with setting up the cordons for the Riadhul Jannah again.

Umrah 2019, Day Four: Well, That Didn't Last Long

It seems that my FOMO is strong, as we subjected ourselves to a 90 minutes queue for the Riadhul Jannah. Of course it would be criminal to say that it wasn't worth it, but at least I completed a juz of the Quran while I was waiting.

My personal lack of discipline aside it does seem like the mosque authorities are doing a good job with crowd management. Aside from minor "devotional" pushing and shoving the queuing system (which was usually established between prayers) was well organised and a generous amount of time was given to those who participated.

Thursday, November 22

Umrah 2019, Day Three: Here Comes The Rain

Another first for me I think: rain in Madinah. A blessing, of course.

Wednesday, November 21

Umrah 2019, Day Two: The Fast Track

Continuing on from yesterday's theme, I seem to have successfully let go of some of the things which I've previously had the opportunity to do under more ideal (read: less busy) conditions. These are things that not only seem just plain too difficult (if not impossible) now, but could even be seen as me taking away the chance for someone else to do the same[1].

In the case of the mosque here in Madinah, we've had chances to pray in the Riadhul Jannah a fair few times with no contention - these were the times when a congregation wouldn't even be big enough to fill up the green dome part of the complex. Similarly I fondly remember being able to pass by the resting place of The Prophet in comfort as a family (ie with both of my parents) and spending as much time as we liked there. It's safe to say that those days are now over.

So spiritually there seems less profit in queuing up in the mad rush for the Riadhul Jannah and the immediate opportunity afterwards to pass salaam to our Prophet within an arms distance, when we could instead just stick to the much more effective and pleasurable fast track just 2-3m away instead. So my tip of the day is to just head to the Salaam Gate and pass your salutations in comfort and peace.

A part of me laments probably never being able to do these particulars again, but it's also liberating and perhaps even more pure of thought and intent to let go of ritual practice and find comfort in the, perhaps more genuine, pragmatic. And of course I'm ever thankful for being in the position where these things can even be considered optional to do.

[1] Disingenuous, I know.

Tuesday, November 20

Umrah 2019, Day One: So Many Flies

I don't think I've ever seen so many flies during a stay here. We've been told that it's seasonal but I can't recall that so perhaps I've just simply not visited the holy lands this late in November.

Madinah-then-Makkah seems to be our preferred itinerary now, which implies a single Umrah (as we don't subscribe to the whole Masjid Aisha thing). I think I'm okay with that considering the opportunities I've previously been blessed with (this is perhaps my seventh or eight visit and my Umrah count should hit around 15 or so). That said, the 1:30am flight from Jeddah to Madinah was a killer, even though it did mean getting settled in in time for the Fajr congregation.

I've written before that I'm no longer surprised by meeting people I know while travelling. Umrah especially: I can't remember a trip where I've not randomly bumped into people I already know. That's sort of a miracle in itself considering the scale of the place.

This trip was no different as we met and became acquainted with the cousin of a friend. Not only that but it turns out we're also travelling to Makkah on the same day where we'll be staying in the same hotel. I should be surprised... but I'm not.

Friday, November 16

Food: Tipu Sultan Click for more info

Despite its poncy stature Tipu Sultan really is as down to earth as any other balti can be. The food is solid, the pricing accessible and all this with decent decor, service and the quality you'd expect paying twice the price.

They really have managed to achieve the impossible, and the exercise of exactly how they did this is left to the reader. In the meantime it's become my to-go place when I fancy a curry in Birmingham.

Tuesday, November 13

Film: Thugs of Hindostan Click for more info

There was a few years when having Aamir Khan on a ticket would mean a film was a must-see. By releasing only a selection of films (and most of the time just the one) a year gave a sense of quality and discretion that you wouldn't normally find elsewhere in Bollywood. But I guess there's always going to be exceptions and unfortunately in this case Thugs is it.

It's not that it's a bad film. Aamir Khan himself does a pretty decent job as a Johnny Depp knock off, and the plot wasn't all that bad. It was overly long though, but the main problem was the scope and ambition of the movie - it wanted to be an epic but just didn't have the quality to hold it up.

If it was an hour shorter it'd probably get a recommendation but as it stands Thugs is probably one to skip for now.

Friday, November 9

Book: The Dark Forest, Cixin Liu, Joel Martinsen Click for more info

Book two in what is often described as The Three Body Series accelerates the story of the Trisolarians apparent invasion of Earth, covering the response of the latter over a range of centuries after the crisis first began. The real novelty here is the use of time - the distances being so great allows the author to play with time. This also allowed a bit more liberty taking than I liked, but the book's story was strong enough to see it through. Criticisms are easy to spot in the characters, but then it seems that Three Body was never about individuals but more about societies - and those spanning galaxies.

The ending was also problematic in its terseness and rushing, which really cheapened and undermined the rest of the book for me. On the positive side the volume did manage to stand on its own two feet - this is a genuine trilogy and not a single book split into three parts.

There was just enough to keep me going here, and so on we go to book three.

Tuesday, November 6

Film: Widows Click for more info

Widows is most probably the best put together movie I have seen in the last two or three years. It's such a tightly told story, and the production so clean, that it's even more of a shame that it falls so short of being a classic.

The performances are great, some of the camera shots magnificent and all this while not being bogged down in its own art. As a demonstration of what can be achieved if you stick to tried and tested film-making techniques Widows is a masterclass.

But it's the lack of depth that made the film so easy to build, and also what ultimately breaks it. Nothing really happens, and the characters aren't strong enough to carry what should have been a plot heavy film. As such Widows ends up being pretty forgettable and one of the biggest lost opportunities of this year.