The Arabic term sabr is often translated as ‘patience’, ‘perseverance’, or ‘steadfastness’, and we all know its tremendous importance in Islam. When it comes to Hajj, many people tell you that you’ll need a lot of it – because you’ll inevitably face difficulties and trials, such as waiting in queues, waiting for transport, delays in administrative procedures, food being late, and people pushing and shoving you in the sometimes-insane crowds.
On our stopover in Johannesburg, before leaving for Cairo, my uncle there joined the list of people giving that same advice. The common joke is to pack one bag of your clothes and necessary items, and another bag of sabr. His advice was to take twelve bags of sabr.
In the old days, travelling to Hajj was a big trial – given the fact that people would go by ship, car, or (stinky!) camel, on the way facing extended discomfort and sometimes robbers. Nowadays, transport is much easier, and our challenge is going through all the administrative processes in place for the modern-day Hajj (and the Saudis do an admirable job, given the immense influx of people they have to administer). What’s common between now and then, though, is the attitude we should adopt – which is to assume that we may never return, because death could find us at any moment on the journey (or indeed, at any moment in life).
Having gone through the whole experience, I can confirm that the advice about sabr is absolutely true. Things won’t always go according to the plan; so it’s best to just be patient, relax, not panic, and enjoy the experience – which is a very unusual experience at that. Every time we endure a trial with patience, we help build our own character and spirituality – which will serve us long after the difficulty has passed.
First trials and first stop
Our first trials came even before we boarded our first plane, from Cape Town to Johannesburg: inefficient queues for check-in, followed by the breaking of some hand-luggage (which would make the travels more difficult). Those were relatively minor trials, but it was still disappointing to fail those early tests via complaining.
Of course, saying goodbye to our families – and especially our toddler – was also a trial. She was a little calmer though, and I think she sensed what was going on. I got some extra hugs from her, though, which made it easier.
Trials can also be positive in nature, and one of these was a chance to help someone else. There was an older lady who was travelling alone, and that was a perfect opportunity for my wife to help out and gather some good deeds early on in the trip. One of the important advices we received by one visitor was to ‘help the old people’. With all the paperwork, luggage, and getting to the right places on time, travelling can be difficult enough even for the young. But imagine how difficult it is for an older person – and a single old lady at that. This lady was with us on the whole trip, and alhamdullilah, at various points, we got to help her. Islam places such value on helping others, and caring for the elderly. Opportunities like these are not only a mercy to them, but a means of earning their gratitude and duas for you; and, more importantly, Allah’s pleasure and reward.
The Joburg stopover was about seven hours, and because I had family there, we’d arranged to spend some time with them until our next flight. It was good to meet new additions to the family (cousins’ spouses and kids, who we hadn’t met before), and have the hospitality of family before leaving – without the chaos of all our family (which was the case back home). Also, my aunty and uncle were amazingly helpful at the airport especially – waiting with us, helping with the check-in, and basically being substitute parents.
The flight to Cairo included one amazing moment, in the middle of the night, where we looked outside and saw an abundance of stars. It was really beautiful – being up so high, in this canopy we call a sky, engulfed in all these stars we could see up close. My wife even saw a shooting star.
Also on that flight was a reminder of the importance of being vigilant against shaytaan. The night movie, which plays on all the screens, contained some rather pornographic scenes – nakedness which, by today’s standards, are probably considered ‘normal’ – but for people heading to Hajj, rather shocking. (I didn’t watch…but it’s kind of hard not to notice because it’s right there in your face.)
The waiting game
When you travel with a Hajj group, you usually get a very identifiable symbol to carry with you at all times. In our case, we had green backpacks – so we knew who were our travel companions by that sign. Anyway, so we arrived at Cairo airport early in the morning, and began the first of our waits on this trip. We all congregated and waited for our group leader, who – up till then – hadn’t formally introduced himself, nor told us about the procedures we’d need to follow.
Then began the first of many episodes where we, like sheep, stood around aimlessly – not knowing what was going on (and not being told by the authority figure either), sticking with each other and waiting to do whatever it was we were supposed to do.
Eventually, our passports were processed and we went down to the exit of the airport – where we waited some more. Then onto a bus and to a nearby hotel, where we were to have a few hours to ‘freshen up’ before our afternoon flight to Madinah.
In the hotel, information still wasn’t being communicated too clearly. But we were told to settle in the lobby – which we did. Comfy sofas and air-conditioning were very welcome after the confinement of a long distance flight and the airport. Then we were invited to have some breakfast at the restaurant – but nobody indicated who’d be paying (and most didn’t have Egyptian currency at that point).
I didn’t eat – instead staying instead in the lobby, relaxing, and watching the others. Most were trying to stay calm, but some had already lost patience by then – given the long travel thus far, and the communication issues we were having with our group leader.
Another South African man who’d travelled with us seemed to be taking charge of the situation. He was at reception handing out room keys for people to go and rest in the rooms. We thought he was a group leader (if not for our group, then the other South African Hajj group with us at the time) – but we later found out he was just an ordinary traveller like us.
Again, our actual group leader wasn’t taking charge or communicating the situation to us, so we all went to get our keys from this brother. It turns out that we were booked to stay in this hotel for a few hours, and breakfast – I think – was included in the package. But no one had told us that. So we’d spent probably more than an hour waiting in the lobby and missing out on precious beds that many were desperately in need of.
For whatever reason (unknown to us), our group leader really wasn’t helping the situation much. Maybe he was stressed out (which would be understandable), or maybe he was confused – but whatever the case, he portrayed a distinct lack of communication which many found unprofessional, and it showed in the reactions from some of our travel companions. But I knew this was a test – I knew this was when I’d need to use some of that sabr; so it wasn’t so bad. I had come knowing we’d face trials – and this seemed like the first major test in the journey.
It’s interesting to see how different people react when they have to wait. At the airport, some made Fajr (because they hadn’t made it on the plane), others chatted to each other, a few read Quran, and some sat – exhausted – just waiting. A large group from Thailand was at the airport, and my wife noted how we South Africans complain – yet the Thailanders just sit on the floor and make themselves comfortable – no worries.
Later, while waiting for the bus, I was struck very sharply by how well our travel companions used their time while waiting. Only a few sat talking, sleeping, or doing nothing. The others kept busy reading Quran, reading their dua books or Hajj books, making dhikr, and making dua. They understood the value of time, and especially the value of time on this trip. There was no time to waste – because they were on the most spiritual of journeys, and were just weeks from the spiritual peaks of their lives; with the need to build spirituality in the time leading up to Hajj. If ever there was a time to shun vain talk and time-wasting in favour of spiritually-productive actions, this was that time.
And it was truly amazing to be with such people, in such circumstances. Alhamdullilah, I’d travelled to quite a few places in my life, but it had never, ever been like this – with people who were so committed to their deen and so conscious of the way they use their time.
We’re often told about the value of time, and how we should use ‘every moment’ wisely. But to actually see people living that advice was really incredible for me, and it served as a very relevant reminder for life in general, and this journey in particular.
Later that day, we again waited at the airport – this time for our flight to Madinah. It was there that we first experienced the madness of the Hajj crowds. As we were going through the final metal detectors to the departure lounge, there was a huge group of East Asians with us. Many were old, and maybe they were from rural areas – because it seems they weren’t used to how things worked at an airport: many didn’t understand (or rejected) the concept of a queue; they pushed their way through, and at the metal detector – where you put your bag to go through the scanner – they piled on their bags, trying to cram as much as they could onto the conveyor belt. It was amusing, but could also have been very frustrating if we let it get to us.
In South Africa – and many other Westernised countries – we’d call that kind of behaviour just plain ‘rude.’ But – as we were to experience later in the trip as well – this is something that’s probably normal in other parts of the world. For people from some other countries, it seems their way of life is different – and what we perceive as being ‘civilised’ (i.e. waiting your turn and being patient) is different to the way they operate. It doesn’t mean that they intend to be rude – but it’s just that that’s their reality back home, so it comes naturally even away from home.
While waiting to leave, hunger struck – and the departure lounge was ill-equipped to deal with the needs of the masses, because there was only a small kiosk selling snacks. But when it comes to food, we South African Indians always come prepared (which you can attribute to the Indian mothers’ obsession with keeping their families well-fed :)). Many had their ‘padkos’ packed from home – pies, samosas, and home-cooked meals. The spirit of sharing spread, as people walked around offering what food they had to others. I hesitantly took some of a Nando’s burger – thinking it would be a welcome mini-meal. But the burger was cold and half-eaten, and it really didn’t do much to satisfy my appetite. It was kind of gross, actually, but I appreciated the generosity of this brother – who let me pick whatever I wanted from the food he had.
We then boarded the plane – our last for the next six weeks – and prepared ourselves to enter the Illuminated City; Madinah – the home of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Everything up to that point had just been the starters, and now the real trip was to begin…
- You’ll need a lot of sabr for this journey. Things will go wrong, so be mentally prepared for that and make the decision to be patient, relax, not panic, and enjoy the experience – taking positives from it.
- When things do go wrong, stop and think before you complain. Complaints come easily, but if you took a few moments to think before speaking, you’d see that they aren’t always necessary – and the more patient you are, the better it is for you.
- Look for positive opportunities to gain reward by helping others – old people especially. If you’re experienced and capable in handling paperwork an, luggage, and getting to the right places, try to help those who find it difficult.
- Try NOT to watch the movies and TV shows on the plane. Whether the content is ‘decent’ or not, you’re going for Hajj and leaving behind all these forms of distraction – so reduce or cut your reliance on them immediately, so that it’ll be easier to shun them once you get to Madinah or Makkah (where TV is available in your hotel room).
- If your leader(s) seem to be making things worse, keep your cool and encourage others to do the same. Try to act with firmness, but in a constructive manner, to ensure that things get sorted out – without being insulting to those who are not fulfilling your expectations. Be patient, make dua for them, and focus on making the trial as smooth as possible.
- While waiting, use your time wisely. Avoid useless chatting and doing things that have no spiritual benefit. If you want to sleep, make an intention that you’re doing it as a form of worship (i.e. to gain strength for the travel that’s still to come). And if not, engage in other acts of worship, or even spiritually beneficial conversations with your travel companions. You may never travel with people like this again, so use the opportunity to derive maximum benefit from the situation.
- When foreigners push and shove, consider the idea that it may just be normal behaviour for them back home – and that they’re not trying to be rude. Be compassionate yet firm with them, and be patient.
- Share your food with others. If your family (mother, especially) packs you food that you don’t think you’ll want to eat – take it anyway, and look for opportunities to share it with others later. In that way, you can feed the hungry, and also gain reward for yourself and those who prepared the food for you.