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Travel Diary: A fortnight in Saudi Arabia

1 April 2010

I am on board a Saudi Arabian airlines flight to Jeddah. It’s been five, long years since I touched my forehead to hallowed ground. While the churlish brat sitting behind me constantly kicks my seat and the woman sitting beside me, a nurse from Bloemfontein working at  King Faisel Hospital has not volunteered more than those words, I am happy. In a little while, I will see the lights of Jeddah twinkling beneath me, I will be home.  Labbaik.

2 April 2010

I was hardly in Jeddah above an hour before my passport was confiscated. We were whisked through immigration, no questions asked but as soon as we stepped into the arrivals hall, scanning the crowd for friends, a veritable snotkop demanded, ‘Jawazat!’ ‘Passports!’ Apparently it’s standard practice for all passengers on umrah visas to be accosted thus. I gave our passports over, certain that they’d be given right back to us. Instead, the passports were checked and our visit visa with allowance for umrah was noted, head honchos had to be informed, confusion had to be pronounced. After calling our visa ‘sponsors’, clarifying we’re not elaborate fakes  our passports were eventually released.  That circus orchestrated by the Ministry of Haj in the name of job creation. Bless.

Leaving Jeddah for Makkah, my friend points out an area recently ravaged by floods.  While I had heard about the floods, I somehow didn’t think the devastation to be at all severe. We learn that by popular account about 3000 people died in the flooding. Yet, the official count reads only 300 because the vast majority were illegal immigrants.  The family of each ‘official’ casualty of the flood has been given SAR1 million in compensation. Already, the roads were being repaired, the area although visibly damaged was undergoing a swift transformation.I wondered if a similar tragedy were to befall South Africa, would we be able to repair the damage this soon? ‘This area is like Jeddah’s Soweto’, my friend says. ‘Maybe our own Mandela will emerge from here too.’

The sight of the Makkah skyline, even from a distance is jarring. Like an echo of Gotham city towering over the Haram.

3 April 2010 (4:00 AM)

Sentences beginning with ‘I’

I am seated cross-legged in the haram, looking towards the Ka’abah. I have just performed two tawaaf and despite wanting to perform another, my feet and temper are otherwise inclined. I am more irritable than I am allowed to be. Rumi’s ‘If you are irritated by every rub how will you ever be shined?’ comes to mind. I want the Turkish women sitting to my left and those seated behind me, holding a conversation over my head, to hush. I want to be performing tawaaf closer to the Ka’abah. I want everybody obstructing my view of the Ka’abah to be quiet and be seated. I want the wheelchairs constantly bumping against me to be moved to the first floor. I want space around me as I walk around the Ka’abah. I want more solitude, less annoyance. But I can see the Ka’abah, it must be enough.

4 April 2010 (6:00 AM)

Sunrise over the HaramThere is no sight quite as spectacular as the sun rising in the Makkah sky. Although it was a balmy 30°C at 2AM, the light breeze now tugging gently at my pages and skirts has settled an unruly mind. I promise to work twice as hard on my return just so that my Lord can let me feel this over and over again. This, right here, the Ka’abah at the centre of a wakening day, is beauty. I wish I had the paint or the words that would sufficiently record this sight and these feelings for posterity.

5 April 2010

We performed  the Maghrib/Sunset prayer at a mosque surrounded by carpet stores. It’s characteristic of Jeddah to have clusters of stores all plying the same trade situated on the same street.  Another street, Falsteen street, is populated with stores selling mobile phones and accessories. The mosque we prayed at had no running water at the time. When later my brother narrated the tale of trying to perform wudhu with a trickle of water a family friend tells us, ‘All of Jeddah routinely is out of water. It’s not something new.’ ‘Aren’t there plans to get piped water yet?’ I ask. ‘Of course we have pipes ready! But then, these water trucking companies wouldn’t be making any money.’ For a country with the resources of Saudi Arabia, municipal services remain shockingly rudimentary.

In Khaledeya, long after midnight, after sleepily tucking into Al Baik, I came across this store. Che didn’t seem at all pleased to be caught in  Jeddah. My friend asks why I’ve stopped to take a picture.  I explain Che looks a little out of place beside Gucci and Adidas. Playfully, my friend accuses me of being racist for thinking the ‘badoos’ ignorant of Che. I ask if he knows who Che is. ‘Well, who is he anyway?’ he asks.

6 April 2010

I’m not so noble to have raised my nose in moral indignation against the new shopping mall in the high-rise Zam Zam building. I am sufficiently ‘phony’ enough to have stepped through those doors and paused in sheer awe. Yes, Makkah is becoming a Disneyland version of itself. There are more people posing for pictures around the haram than there are praying. Susan Sontag’s words, ‘Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs,’ rings eerily through the hordes of people recording themselves doing the Sa’aee, obstructing the passageways with frequent stops to photograph themselves walking towards the Ka’abah. We are a generation obsessed with being seen to have done rather than to have simply done. I find the moral indignation over the construction of the skyscrapers somewhat farcical. It’s like the moral indignation over language change, self-appointed gatekeepers of linguistic purity huff and puff when language  change is evident, decrying the move away from a more authentic set of values. Change is indubitable, language change is often simply a mirror of social change. So too, the changes in Makkah simply cater to the changing demands of pilgrims. Do I not find it reprehensible? I think it’s sickening, but it’s only proof our collective phoniness.

This is Anfield. (At The Footlocker, ZamZam Towers)

The Sheikh stationed at the door of our building handing out leaflets warning society against the folly of their ways has for the third time today, handed me a little purple pamphlet, damning me to hell for not covering my face. Apparently I, and others like me, are responsible for the corruption of society and unless I cover up a fiery abode is my lot.

7 April 2010

Let’s play spot the Saffan in Makkah

South Africans stand out in Makkah. Easily discernible, even from a mile away, men in their short sleeved thowbs/kurtas, suspiciously shiny looking takkies/tennis shoes/ sneakers, women in their uniform of austere-looking knee-length burkas,  shoe bags proudly displaying the name of their travel agent on their backs, bratty kids who address their parents with the preamble, ‘I want…’   Clusters of women sitting in the haram who can be overheard saying, ‘Benoni! My uncle was from Benoni! Ali Bhai Ravat? The Cook? He lived on Mayet Drive! No man, his children are still there. Four sons he has…Yes, yes, Ahmed is the biggest. Good boys they are. Next time your’ll come Durban your’ll must visit.’ We also take halal certification very seriously, as self-appointed viceroys of SANHA/MJC/NIHT/ICSA South Africans are commonly heard asking unsuspecting cashiers at Burger King/ Al Tazaj/ Pizza Hut/ KFC/Hardees, ‘Where does your meat come from?’ Fear not South Africa, we haven’t managed to export vast quantities of Rainbow chickens just yet.

8 April 2010

On our way to Ta’nim, Makkah, our taxi driver asks us where we’re from. ‘South Africa,’ we reply. ‘South Africa? Where’s that?’ he asks perplexed. ‘South of the continent of Africa’, says my brother. ‘Yes,’ he says impatiently, ‘but what’s your country called?’ ‘South Africa,’ we reply in unison. ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘never heard of it.’ ‘Mandela?’ we ask, ‘No.’ ‘Ahmed Deedat?’, ‘No’. The World Cup? ‘Oh yes! South Africa! Ahlain! I heard there’s lots of gold and diamonds where you come from, true? So, you should pay me double.’ I think he was only half-joking. As he continued chatting away to us, while texting and also steering his taxi through the Makkah traffic, the car lazily straddled two lanes, the one it was meant to be driving in and the other for oncoming vehicles. Just as I realised our ambidexterous driver was chancing his luck, an on-coming car,  manages to swerve away at the last second. Our taxi driver slams on the brakes, rolls his window open and lets out a flurry of colorful expletives. I don’t suppose I’ve been good enough to have died in Makkah.

Later that evening I perform umrah. There is no point hoping for the haram to be less crowded, it is crowded. The only way to survive the crowd is to merge with it. As I perform the Sa’aee, I think of the woman whose actions millions of people each year replicate. Hajer, the wife of Abraham, stranded in the desert without food or water, anxious to feed her son Ismail, ran seven times between the mountains of Safaa and Marwa, searching for water. It was an act so beloved to the Creator, that hundreds of years later, we walk between Safaa and Marwa, just as she did. Yet she did not seek to curry favour with her Lord, she was desperate to feed her child. The act of a woman, of a mother, how many poems have been penned of the love of God, how many salaah prayed in fear of His wrath, how many more elaborate displays of piety are made, yet the act of a mother seeking to feed her child was so beloved to Him, that even hundreds of years later, we walk that walk, men, women, children, that He may look upon us with a smile too. And I learn, again, that being a good Muslim, is being a good person, to do good for good’s sake, to give for giving’s sake.

Makkah, no matter how many times before you may have lost a lock of hair on its floors, shocks you with its relentless drive, stabs you with its constant motion, bruises you with its boisterousness and then somehow, like a blue bird descending in a snowstorm, you gain respite- from yourself, your ego, the person you think you are.

9 April 2010

I feel like a tourist in my own home town. Madina is home. Yet, it isn’t. I’ve been disconcerted by the number of people who’ve come up to me, warmly greeting me, remembering my name, my family, asking after my parents, clearly pleased to see me and I don’t remember them at all.

10 April 2010

A call from my parents has informed me that a storm of controversy is brewing over my good friend thanking Sheikh Yusuf Qardawi for addressing the absence of Muslim women from South African mosques. That too, in front of 120 men, many of them among the leading ulema of the country, at our home.  When my parents first told me of it, I felt a surge of pride. I wondered had I been home, would I have been able to pluck up the nerve to support her. I hear also that she was one of very few women at the Hamida Masjid in Newtown for Sheikh Qardawi’s lecture. ‘Where was everyone else?’ I wondered. There are too many among us, eager to cheer from the sidelines. It’s lunacy to field a one woman team.

As I write this, I’m sitting in an all-male office in Madina. Nearly every desk around me has been vacated, fear of contamination, I guess. From the periphery of my eye I can see a group of them eying me suspiciously. They look murderous. I text a friend back home, letting him know of my predicament. Just in case this lot take up arms against me, I’ve entrusted my obituary to him.

11 April 2010

I am seated in Al Al Madina Al Munawarah, within the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). There is an ethereal quality about Madina. It’s encompassed by a peace that is almost a tangible thing. You can feel it, in the smiles of its people, in the clouds above. In Madina the world conspires to be gentle, restful, quiet. Far from the gilded pillars, staggeringly symmetrical arches and  engineering wonders,  the real opulence of Madina is in its tranquility. While Makkah must hurt you before it hugs you, Madina surrounds you with an aura of solitude. So that even among thousands of jostling women one feels simply at peace. Whether the tranquility is a reason for it being the place of rest of the most beloved or whether it is tranquil because he (pbuh) returns our greetings here, I’m still not sure.

12 April 2010

The highlight of my trip so far has been watching a group of Bosnian men reciting the Talbiya in their native tongue. Gathered outside a 24-hour, doughnuts and coffee store, they chorused their group leader with a passion and determination that roused everybody within earshot. This is not my first visit to the Harmain, but for the first time I’ve met such a wide variety of people. A group of young men from the US wearing identical T shirts, ‘Make Islam accessible to the deaf’, were a refreshing sight. I’ve met German reverts, French burkha wearers, Egyptian niqabis, Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis, Kazaks, Uzbeks, Malaysians, Tunisians, a Thais, Indonesians, Australians, Turkish, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, Nigereans, Eritreans, Morroccans… Islam is not homogeneous. But with ‘salam alaikum’ Muslims are able to relate to each other on at least a shared sub-culture.

13 April 2010

Entrusting our internal flight reservations to my dad meant we were left with seats on a flight to Jeddah a full day before we wanted to leave Madina. Attempts at rescheduling were met with comic disdain. The impending Spring Break had already clogged domestic flights.  No worries, says Dad. Go to the airport at 12:20 and xxx will help you. As we whiled away the afternoon at Madina Airport, dad’s wastas/contacts promising to get us seats on the 15h00 flight and then the 16h00 flight. As my brother stood docilely, politely waiting his turn to remind the subordinate wasta to spare us seats, my sister gets up, annoyed that my brother is not assertive enough. She grabs the tickets from my brother, goes up to the side of the counter and is immediately helped. Sometimes in Saudi Arabia, it really does help to be a woman. My brother, we’re promised will get onto the 17hoo flight, my sister and I have gotten on to the 16hoo flight with only a few minutes to spare before takeoff. As we board the flight, handing our boarding passes to the steward, his brow immediately creases in confusion. There actually aren’t any available seats on the flight. We’re asked to wait at the back of the plane and I anticipate being summarily dismissed. As my sister and I look at each other, trying hard not to laugh at ourselves, we learn that two airline staff have been relegated to jump seats and space has been made for us after all. We arrive in Jeddah to learn that my brother was suffering a converse fate. He had now only the 22h00 flight to hope for a seat. After much shouting into phones,  my brother arranges to get to Jeddah by car. At home, being the youngest among us three, he easily shirks any difficulty, constantly shielded by us all. His discomfiture at being thrust these responsibilities is obvious. Earlier I had watched a Saudi woman and her children at Madina airport. Her eldest son is no older than 10, yet she stands back and allows him to speak to airline officials. The kid seems comfortable, well accustomed to this sort of responsibility. Quite the opposite of  my brother who is twice is age. Of course this is not indicative of all Saudi behavior. I have Saudi friends who are more independent than some of my South African friends back home.  Saudi Arabia is a more complex set of circumstances and people than most realise but the tendency for women in certain socio-economic tiers and cultures, to take a back seat and allow instead their children to negotiate the front lines does worryingly exist.

14 April 2010 (3:30 PM)

A family having a picnic on the seaside in Jeddah

Watching the waves roll in, for a few minutes, there are no social obligations, no errands to run. But in a short while the driver will be collecting us, there are the final errands to run, a wedding to attend, a flight to catch. A sense of home is too transient to be a concrete place, we carry home within us, wherever we are.

9 replies on “Travel Diary: A fortnight in Saudi Arabia”

Your easy command of the written word conjures the image of a master conductor, gently bending the music of the instruments to her will. The imagery you weave has no equal and we mere mortals can but lap it up in awe! Yours is not a mere description of your travels, but a welcome window into your soul, allowing us to accompany you (albeit by proxy) on your amazing journey.
I am reminded of dreams long past, yet so ever present.
I am, and remain, your most ardent cheerleader, even if only from afar…

Lovely to have read and thank you for sharing. I wish I could try to untangle the knots of thought of my recent trip to put them on page. Well done Kay 🙂

loved this!just returned from Umrah last week myself you bring back my smile and desire to return to the greatest Home on earth. shukran and May Allah keep your pen as sharp as always for the benefit of the Ummah

I’ve read this 4 times already, trying to wrap my mind around it. I love the way you paint with your words.
My family and i are intending to go for hajj this year, Insha-Allah.
Your writing opens a portal of experience to accompany the imagery that we see in the hundreds of picture sources available. Thank you, for allowing me a slice of experience through your eyes.
.-= Hasina Suliman´s last blog ..Put your money where your Foot(ball) is? =-.

brilliant. beautiful. bold.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this Khadija. So refreshing 🙂

“I don’t suppose I’ve been good enough to have died in Makkah”

I hope I do not insult the object of your reflection by saying that everything you describe becomes fascinating through your descriptions. Khadija Patel is an encapsulation and ensconcement of merit

This was not written, there are piece that are woven into it, with shades and colours. If anything, I would like to experience Makkah through you!

Oh how I wish I could go for Umrah once again.

Your entry of sa’aee left my eyes a little wet.
What honour Allah bestowed upon Hajirah, the mother of Ismaeel A.S.?
If women are so ‘foul’, why do all men that make umrah and hajj have to follow the footsteps of one?


Indeed, home is everywhere, most times:)
Loved these pieces.
I read something somewhere about new Saudi identity documents for women that don’t require a guardian to be stated? The road is long and longer still though hey?

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