The grating ‘scrunch-scrunch’ of a million squashed plastic bottles beneath our sandals was making it difficult to focus. I held my mother’s hand tight to stop her slipping.
Around us, a hundred talbiyahs were being chanted by the Hajjis slowly shuffling towards the focal point of the plain of Arafat, the Mountain of Mercy.
It was late afternoon, an earlier thunderstorm had cooled the temperature considerably and thinned out the crowds. This had given me the confidence to take my mother to visit the revered mountain.
Arafat was where Adam and Eve had been forgiven by God, and in 632AD, on this very day, it was where the Prophet Muhammad had completed his mission whilst performing his own Hajj.
During his one and only pilgrimage, the Prophet laid out the non-negotiable rite of being in Arafat on the 9th of Dhu’l Hijjah until the setting of the sun – he had said nothing about being at the mountain.
The sheer volume trying to visit it earlier was the reason Raf and I had left our mothers praying in their tent, and with two fellow Hajjis in tow, joined the huge mass of pilgrims, moving glacier-like, towards Jebel Ar Rahma. Using umbrellas to keep the midday sun off our heads, few noticed the dark, foreboding clouds gathering in the distance.
By the time the granite face of the mountain came into view – awash with the white ihram of pilgrims atop it – a large crack overhead was followed by a strong wind sweeping through the valley, turning our cheap brollies inside out and leaving us exposed to the imminent downpour.
The unexpected opening of the heavens on the most auspicious day of the Hajj aroused joyous shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ – God is great – all around us; the Hajjis saw it as a sign of God’s bounty. According to tradition, rain in the desert is nothing short of a miracle, laden with blessings.
Up ahead, the thick crowd near the foot of the stairwell leading up the mountain was slowly coming to a standstill, and the soldiers charged with controlling the flow reacted quickly by diverting Hajjis – us included – away from the mountain.
This annoyed some pilgrims who broke away to scramble up the slippery, jagged rock face; having patiently shuffled along for the last hour to reach the mountain, they were not about to be denied. Those of us watching observed another miracle, as somehow no one slipped and caused themselves serious injury.
Eventually, we also broke away to find a spot near the mount.
The four of us stood, eyes closed, arms outstretched, facing Makkah; lost in our own individual supplications, completely oblivious to everything around us.
The rain streamed down our faces, mixing with salty tears; I tried to recall the individual requests people had asked me to remember. As I said each person’s name slowly and deliberately in my head, the voices outside began to fade to a whisper. By the time I moved onto my personal supplications, I could hear nothing except my own pleadings.
It was a powerful moment. The moment we had come to the Hajj for.
Now, at a turn in the road where Bangladeshi migrant workers in green boiler suits haplessly held out plastic bin bags, I tried to recall the names I had forgotten to mention earlier. My mother handed me a few Saudi riyal notes, and I discreetly placed them in the top pockets of the workers as we passed them. They smiled and nodded in acknowledgement.
At the foot of the mount, I guided my mother to a space beside a group of Arab women, one of whom was wearing a traditional, thin, metal face mask. Above us, the mount was still awash with the white of men’s ihrams, but now the atmosphere had changed. People sensed time was running out. Soon the sun would set on this blessed window, when it is said any request made by a Hajji standing on the plain is granted. The murmur of a thousand incantations being rapidly whispered cascaded down the rockface.
My mother and I spent the next 30 minutes making sure we maximised our opportunity. As she made supplications for a Hajj dedicated to her father, I did my best to recall the requests I had forgotten the first time.
On our way back to our tent, she pointed out the trees lining the route.
“You see those? They’re called ‘Zia’ trees,’ she said. “They’re named after former Bangladesh president Ziaur Rahman. When he came for Hajj, he saw how scorched the plain was and told the King of Saudi that the Neem tree of Bangladesh provided excellent shade and he would send some saplings to be planted here to shade future Hajjis. In return, the Saudi King promised to accept more Bangladeshi workers into his kingdom.”
I wasn’t sure about the validity of the story, but listened with a smile. There aren’t many tales about Bangladeshi workers in Saudi Arabia that make people smile, so I was glad to hear this one.
General Ziaur Rahman was the second President of Bangladesh, and the man who declared the country’s independence on 27 March 1971 by radio. My mother would’ve been an 18-year-old bride with a one-year-old babe in arms. The previous day the War of Independence had begun, which would see almost 3 million Bangladeshis killed.
That evening, I stood atop a large rock looming over the plain of Muzdalifah, our third destination for the day. Before me, a vast ocean of sleeping bodies stretched out as far as the eye could see. It was like nothing I had ever witnessed before.
Somehow, before the day was done, the Hajj authorities had managed to get all 2.5 million of us to this thin stretch of desert for our third rite of the pilgrimage. Now we were to pray, collect pebbles for the stoning ritual tomorrow, and bed down, out in the open with nothing between us and the starry desert sky.
Catch up on the other five instalments now: