Hajj Chronicles Part 14: Melting pot
Posted by Yacoob on March 4, 2013
Previous posts in this series: Parts 1 to 13
The contrast between Madinah and Makkah is instantly noticeable: whereas Madinah is calm, peaceful, and a place for solitude – even despite large crowds, Makkah is quite the opposite. It’s very urban – very much a big city: fast-paced, always busy, dirty, taxis hooting, and some really crazy driving (I didn’t see any traffic lights, but did see people relying heavily on their brakes ;)
The days are busy, but so are the nights. In such tremendous daytime heat, people seem to rest in in the day and then come out at night when they have more energy. It’s incredible to see so many people out late at night. Even babies and toddlers are out beyond midnight. Given the crime we have in South Africa, such a practice can never be normal back home. But here – in this different world of Makkah – it’s absolutely normal.
Also different is the attitude of the people (both the locals and the visitors). Some people seem more aggressive and stressed out. It’s not uncommon to see people becoming angry – even inside the masjid. One of our teachers back home had warned us that ‘shaytaan is strong in Makkah’, and many of our experiences there bear testimony to this.
The shops are another story too. In Madinah, we got used to most shopkeepers being very warm, welcoming, and friendly. In Makkah, many of them just ignored us – as if they didn’t need our business, and their own conversations and activities were more important than the potential customers.
And when it comes to queues, I was really caught off guard by what I initially perceived to be tremendous rudeness. In South Africa (and other parts of the world), we value fairness – waiting in line for your turn. But in Makkah, some people just didn’t seem to understand that concept. At the till, they impatiently pushed their way forward and held their item over your shoulder – presenting it to the teller, who they’d expect to instantly ring it up on the till.
Naturally, we’d find such behaviour very rude – but I realised that maybe it wasn’t intentional. Maybe, in the places where these people come from, it’s normal – it’s just the way they operate back home – due to poverty or circumstances they face. Maybe they have to be that way to survive – or else others will just walk over them.
But then they leave home and come here – to this melting pot of cultures – and they bring that mentality with them. It’s easy for us to be quick to judge them – without understanding the situations they’re coming from. We just expect that our standards of etiquette are universal, and everyone that doesn’t follow is just rude or uncultured. Yet that’s not the case for those whose everyday lives follow different norms and rules.
So my lesson was to never judge others based on my own cultural expectations, because their own norms may be very different.
On this journey, it’s a given that you’ll meet people from many different countries. We – in the Western world – regard English as the most universal language in the world. Perhaps it’s the most geographically widespread, but on Hajj, you see that it’s by no means the most popular. On this journey, most people do not speak English – or if they do, not very comfortably at all.
Many times, communication occurs through broken English and whatever bits of Arabic each of you know. It’s a reminder that – despite our differences – Arabic is the language of Islam, and is the unifying language between all Muslims – regardless of their nation or culture. Yet many (myself included) just don’t prioritise learning it.
But despite the language barrier, it’s amazing to interact with such diverse people. I don’t consider myself naturally social, but in both Madinah and Makkah I ended up speaking to quite a number of people from different countries. Common themes included logistical issues (how long you’d been there, when you’d be leaving, etc) and basic family info, but in some cases – where the other person was fluent in English – deeper conversations were possible.
It was also good to speak to elderly people and those with very different life experiences. For example, twice in one day, I sat next to a Pakistani man who’d lived in London since the 1970s. He was a postal worker, and his son worked in IT in the local government.
One thing he did – which was a common theme – is to ask me to make dua for him. It’s something that happened a lot from seemingly-random people – especially from those of Indian sub-continental background. It must be an Indian thing, because it happens with Indians back in South Africa too…
In terms of nationalities, like Madinah, there was a wide variety present: Malaysians, Indonesians, Thailanders, Chinese, Turks, Africans (both North and other parts), and even people from Kyrgyzstan. Interestingly, North Americans and Europeans were very rare.
But unlike Madinah, in Makkah it seemed that one particular group dominated the numbers. Personally, it felt like 90% of the people I saw were from the Indian sub-continent (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or Sri Lankan). Because of my own ancestral background, a lot of the times people assumed I was Pakistani – though one time an Arab thought I was Arab, and seemed very pleased at that :).
In all honesty, I really didn’t take to Makkah at first. It was too full, too noisy, and physically, more demanding than Madinah. And it was sometimes difficult to remember the sacredness of the place when so many people would just openly spit on the road – complete with the build-up noise. (If you’re looking for a game on the Makkan streets, try avoiding those spit-puddles ;).
The external environment is bound to affect the internal state of being, and I found the environment just wasn’t conducive to inner peace. In Madinah, I immediately felt at ease, but Makkah was quite the opposite.
Both are tremendously holy cities, but it took me a while to realise that I just couldn’t treat them the same in terms of my expectations and efforts. If I wanted to feel spirituality in Makkah, I needed to adapt to the situation and put in the effort to make it happen. I needed to make internal changes to my thinking, attitude, schedule, and actions – or I’d just stay in this cycle of frustration and disappointment.
In Makkah, you have to adjust to people pushing or knocking you even when there’s no need. You have to rise above the natural reaction of wanting to fight back. You have to ignore the many irritating things people will do in tawaaf – such as making group duas loudly, talking on mobile phones, walking in human chains that demolish everything in their path, and pushing their stinky, sweaty bodies against you.
It’s so easy to complain and focus on the negative. It’s so easy to be disappointed that you’re here at the Kabah, yet you’re not feeling the spiritual ecstasy you thought you’d find. But such feelings – though natural – are a trap of shaytaan. And as a wise Muslim, you have to make an effort to not only be conscious of these pitfalls, but also rise above them.
You’ll always get external distractions and disturbances. Such things cannot be avoided – especially in such a densely-populated circumstance. But you have to stay focused on yourself and your relationship with Allah. If you can focus your heart on Allah and your own purpose there, insha-Allah you can block out the environmental challenges and other people’s shortcomings, and end up with the greatest of spiritual experiences.
Once again, you’ll need to draw on that sabr everyone says is so important for Hajj. Once again, you’ll need to make sacrifices and do things your nafs won’t like. But therein lies the benefit and reward. The build-up to Hajj can act as a classroom and a means of internal purification, so consider these experiences – and the way you handle them – as the best preparation you can get for Hajj.
Coming up next, insha-Allah: More from Makkah.
- Shaytaan is strong in Makkah, so beware of increased irritation and aggression – in other people and yourself. Control your anger and beware of you speech at all times.
- Never impose your own ways – be it social etiquettes, language, or other – on other people, even if they look similar to you, or share common attributes such as religion. The Earth is a vast, extremely varied place, and it’s rather self-centred to hold an attitude that your way is the “right” way – whether you consciously adopt that attitude, or it just comes in because you’ve always been surrounded by people like yourself.
- If you don’t know Arabic, make an effort to learn some – aside from a long-term intention to learn the full language. Arabic is the common language between Muslims from all parts of the world, so in the worldly sense, it’s very beneficial on this journey. (Of course, the spiritual benefits are even greater – since you’ll understand the language of the Quran.)
- Hajj is by far the largest gathering of people from all different walks of life. At no other time, and in no other place, will you see and be among such a wide variety of people, so use the opportunity to broaden your horizons. Speak to people (of your own gender, of course!) from far-away lands and different age groups, and try to learn about their lives and draw from their wisdom, while also passing on your own positive messages to them. Despite our differences, we’re all brothers and sisters in Islam, and this is by far the greatest opportunity to feel that unity and experience the variety within the ummah.
- As a general rule, change demands change: Every external change you face requires individual, internal change – to adapt to the situation. If you fail to do that, you can end up being frustrated and having a negative perception of what could otherwise be a wonderful experience.
- The above is especially true about the adjustment between Madinah and Makkah. If you want to feel spirituality and really enjoy Makkah, you’ll need tremendous sabr (both in action and in holding your tongue) and the ability to mentally detach yourself from circumstances that would otherwise get you worked up. Focus on your own purpose there, and your own relationship with Allah; and take all the challenges as means of self-purification – seeking Allah’s help and reward through the difficulties.
What happened next?
Later parts in this series will be added at this link, insha-Allah.