Author’s note: This is the second installment on a series of posts. Read: Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.
I had been trying to get an ‘umra (or lesser pilgrimage) visa during the last few months of my stay in Cairo, but nothing materialized. My alternative plan was to see Jerusalem, if I wasn’t able to get to Mecca. Fortunately, my roommate at the time made a contact in the Saudi embassy in Cairo. He asked me to get a certificate from al-Azhar Mosque saying that I was a Muslim and a photocopy of my passport.
Getting the certificate
I had had a bad day. I was definitely not in the mood to go to al-Azhar all alone. For some reason, every person I thought would come with me, declined my invitation. I had pretty much given up, and so I wandered over to the “Cultural Day” event taking place on another part of the American University in Cairo (AUC) campus. The Pakistan table, to my dismay, had absolutely nothing on exhibit (unless you count the book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a piece of notebook paper outlining the Pakistani flag, and a white boy of Irish descent named Andrew). I drifted over to the American table and helped friends serve hamburgers and Doritos.
At the American booth, I re-met Ahmed, an undergraduate who was forced to study at AUC after the U.S. Government denied his visa. He kindly offered to come with me to al-Azhar. At this point I had a funny feeling that God was reminding me of some life lessons. I hadn’t been feeling very connected to God on the days prior to this one. Ahmed and I entered the mosque, performed the necessary ablution (wudu), and performed noon prayer with the congregation. After asking where I could get proof of my Muslim-ness, we walked up towards the Northern Cemetery, to an office building where I could get my visa. The process was relatively simple.
“So, Brother, Do you pray?” the Sheikh said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“Do you know al-Fatiha?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Recite it for us, please.”
Two days later, I returned and received an Arabic and an English version of a document stating that, I was “affirming” my Islam. I was told that this document makes it easier for Saudi Arabian officials to give U.S. citizens ‘umra visas.
I had never met Muhammad, Bilal’s contact in the embassy, so I was a bit skeptical of him, until I actually had two documents in my hand. One was an invitation to the embassy that I was to present to the person at the window. The other was a letter stating that I was a Muslim in good standing, that I had spent the past academic year in Egypt, and that I wanted to top it off with the ‘umra. Basically, it made me look good, and I wish I had scanned it because it’s a letter written in Arabic from the Saudi Embassy in Cairo saying that I’m a nice guy. Who wouldn’t want to keep a copy?! It’s not like I’m ever going to convince another ambassador that I’m a cool guy.
Earlier in the week I had made a few trips to the Saudi embassy and was completely ignored by the employees of the embassy. The Egyptians outside also offered the standard stares that an unusually long-haired, American passport holding-male would receive
This time, however, I was prepared. Never in my time in Egypt had I seen a “line” for service. It was always a crowd of people trying to get to a service window before anyone else. I pushed my way through to the window, sticking out my invitation and my passport, so the man behind the window could see that I wasn’t “just another Egyptian.”
Ding! Ding! Ding! Express service!
I was given a laminated piece of construction paper and told to present it to the man behind door about ten feet away. All the Egyptians stood, gaze locked on me, seemingly jealous. I felt like singing, “I’ve got a golden ticket,” as if I had just gotten an invitation to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory-as if I was about to lick the wondrous, lick-able wall paper and swim in pools of chocolate!
That didn’t happen, but it sure was a refreshing feeling.
As soon as I was behind the gate of the embassy, everyone treated me very well. The guards inside the compound were extremely nice to me, and we hung out while I waited for them to process my “Application For ‘Umra Visa.” I felt a bit bad though because my application was processed faster than any of the Egyptians’ applications.
My visa identifies me as a special guest. The literal translation of the wording is “act of courtesy/flattery.” Admittedly, I was pretty excited. For all I know, it says that for everyone, but lifted me to a higher state of happiness. I knew already that I was an exception to the rule. Usually, in order to perform the ‘umra one must purchase an entire package through a travel agency. All I had was a plane ticket. Exciting!
The trip begins
Omar and Sigrun, the couple who picked me up from the airport when I arrived in Cairo, also agreed to drive me to the airport on the evening of my departure, accompanied by our mutual friend, Mariam. I had given my last Egyptian Pounds away, completely forgetting about baksheesh-ing, or tipping some luggage handlers in the airport. So I gave the guy a U.S. dollar. Oh well.
The flight was relatively uneventful. The only problem that could have occurred was when I let two kids have my window seat. If it was the daytime, well, let’s just say that those kids got off easy!
I would’ve felt kind of silly watching episodes of Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, or a Bollywood movie on my way to Mecca, so I left it on the Qur’an channel, and tried to keep up with the recitation of the holy book.
Honestly, Jeddah gives me the creeps. My experiences with people in Saudi, the laws in place there, and the overall atmosphere contributed to the uneasiness. The airport seemed vaguely familiar due to left-over memories from the age of 12.. I filled out a “Medical Card” (AKA The “Do You Have SARS?” and “Have you been to Singapore, China, or Canada?” Card) and passed through customs with ease. I should note that none of my bags were ever checked at the airport, and I was never bothered at any checkpoint on my trips to and from Jeddah.
I lifted my suitcase off the conveyer belt and waved away all of the people trying to help me. Before walking outside, a stop over at a money exchange gave me the much-needed cab fare to Mecca. Walking outside, I was bombarded with offers to go to Jeddah. The taxi drivers all wanted 130 riyals. Instinctively, I laughed, knowing the taxi game in Cairo. The only difference here, was that the taxis were Mercedes. I countered their offers of 130 riyals with my own offer of 50, much to their chagrin. If they didn’t want to play with me, I wouldn’t play with them. Most were willing to go down to a 100, but that just wasn’t good enough for me. I figured that I should find someone to go with, so we could split the fare. While wandering around, I met Ahmed, who happened to be on the plane with me. The cabbie settled for 60 riyals each. Mafi mushkilla. No problem.
The ride to Mecca was a bit uncomfortable because the taxi driver didn’t like me. He complained about my bag being too heavy, and he complained that I put my backpack in the front seat. That’s all he did. Complain.
Ahmed and I talked about Islam, and Muslims in America and in Egypt. He seemed like a good guy. I found out that he is an Egyptian working in Riyadh as a medical doctor.
Out of no where, Masjid al-Haram appeared.
Memories of when I was 12 flooded back, but I pushed them aside because I was worried about finding a place to stay. Ahmed found someone who took us to a cheap hotel. He and I agreed to stay in the same room, since he was leaving the next day, and I’d have the room for however long I wanted for 35 riyals a night. Score.
For some reason I had a bad feeling about the guys at the front desk though. They just looked at me strangely, again, it’s just a weird vibe I got from people in Saudi. In Egypt I would say assalamu alaikum, or peace be unto you, to practically everyone on the street who looked in my direction. In Jeddah, I tried to do the same at first, but I was met with what sounded like grunts. Occasionally I got an unenthusiastic unemotional waalaikum salaam. That put me off a tad bit. I should note that Mecca and Medina have been exceptions to my observation. Unlike in Jeddah, I felt quite comfortable in the holy cities.
At this point it was close to 1 o’clock in the morning. My own feelings, lack of sleep, and other people were making me feel a bit off, so I delayed performing my ‘umra that night. I had made the intention to do it the next night anyway.
As we entered the holy mosque, Ahmed kept talking to me. He was telling me certain things that I could say when I entered the mosque, but I honestly wasn’t in the mood for his chatter. I wanted silence, and I wanted to be left to my own thoughts. It wasn’t just him, though. It was my lack of sleep. I was in that state where everything is a blur, and I wasn’t really conscious of myself.
As a result, I decided to explore. Unfortunately, I fell into my habit of people watching. I just watched. I wasn’t exactly sure what to say to God, and maybe it didn’t even cross my mind. I was looking for silence. I walked upstairs where it was almost completely empty, and laid down. A brown-uniformed officer motioned for me to get up.
Eventually I fell asleep on the ground floor, about a 100 paces from the Kaaba, the cubical structure that Muslims all over the world pray towards. I didn’t go near it that night. I fell asleep on the carpet, and was nudged awake after the adhan, or call to prayer for dawn prayer. I prayed immediately after I had woken up, still in a bit of a stupor. After finishing two rakat, or units of prayer, the man who had woken me up informed me that I didn’t have wudu, the ritual ablution. I had totally forgotten, and was kind of embarrassed. I thanked him, and returned just in time for prayer.
Afterwards, I met up with Ahmed under the yellow-ish sign marking King Fahd’s gate. As we exited the mosque, he told me that I should put my left shoe on before my right shoe. If he really cared to tell me that I should put my left shoe on before my right shoe, I figured that his way of practicing Islam was definitely different than mine. I thought. We returned to our room, turned on the air conditioning, and promptly fell asleep, after seeing a little lizard on the wall.