World Nomads recently ran a travel writing competition that we decided to enter. With three themes to choose from and only 700 words to tell your story, it took us longer to decide on a travel moment to share, than to actually write the piece. Of all the times we made connections with locals, or stumbled into the unknown, this moment of finding peace in the most unexpected place was the clear choice. See below for our entry, based on an experience during Hajj 2008. Despite the years in between, it was a moment I’ll never forget.
The finest golden thread glinted in shimmering lights, against the stark black, embroidered cloth that adorned the House of Allah. A million people shuffled around the mosque, lost in prayer, lost in thought, lost in the wonder that they had finally been accepted to experience Hajj (pilgrimage), in all its chaotic, beautiful glory.
The sun had long since sunk behind the peaks of the mountains of Makkah, and I sat patiently waiting for the call to prayer. I had spread out my mat an hour earlier, hoping that today, at last, I would get to pray without distraction.
The microphone was turned on, and that’s when it all began.
As the melodious Adhan (call to prayer) ricocheted off the marble floors, pilgrims started jostling for space. Before I knew it, my treasured spot was invaded by three other women, and I found myself squeezed between them with barely enough room to breathe. I listened to the Adhan distractedly, frustrated at this breach of personal space and human decency, silently hoping that it would be over quickly so that I could breathe again.
When the Imam (Leader of Prayer) sounded the one-word warning, a hush fell over the crowd. In that moment I contemplated how lucky I actually was to be sitting there, in that very spot, surrounded by a throng of people who shared my faith, but little else.
After all, I was not in my home, but in the House of God; a place where all are welcome, and where there is space for everyone. Hailing from a hundred different countries, speaking a thousand different languages, with cultures and classes of all kinds, all with a single purpose- to leave everything behind, forget all else, and focus on prayer for just five minutes.
It was actually quite a feat, now that I think about it, to summon forth complete silence in a crowd that large, without the common thread of language binding everyone together. Even more amazing, was the fact that even for a first time visitor, just one word not only silenced us all, but even had everyone aligning into neat rows, ready to follow the prayer.
Talking to fellow pilgrims during the trip, I had learnt so much about how people live in other parts of the world. In Muslim countries like Turkey, quotas mean that people put their names down in childhood, and often only get the opportunity to come when they are in their forties. In poorer countries like Indonesia, people often sell all their belongings to afford the trip, and re-build their lives when they return. It is not a compulsory trip if they cannot afford it, but their faith is so strong that they sacrifice everything to perform the pilgrimage.
My own grandparents could only afford it in their sixties, and here I was at eighteen, having made no sacrifice to be here, and it dawned on me how blessed I truly was. I had so much to learn about life, so much to experience, and I realised that sometimes lessons are learnt in the most unexpected ways.
I put away my annoyance, focused on the prayer, and resolved to befriend these women after it had concluded. I discovered that one lady was from Lebanon, draped in a billowing abaya (cloak), another from India, cool in her colourful chiffon panjabi (dress with pants), and the third from France, wearing a fashionable frock. We were all dressed so differently, reflecting our cultures and senses of fashion, but we were all covered from head to toe nonetheless, in a show of faith.
We had no language in common, and I did not find out much else about them. But somehow we all thought to share some treats with each other, which we had brought from our homelands. Where language can sometimes be a barrier, food is a universal binder.
I set off on pilgrimage to cement my faith and fulfil my obligation, but I never expected to find peace and understanding on a mosque floor, far from home, surrounded by strangers that I could not speak to, sharing sweets whose names I could not pronounce…