The "Holy" Adventure

Performing the Hajj is the 5th pillar of Islam for those who are "able". It has always been my intention to visit the holy land of Mecca and Medina. I remember the 1st day of work, 2nd Feb 2005 at a lunch meet with two of my new "senior" office mates. They reminded me of how quickly the "able" part comes for people like me. Within a few months I registered with Tabung Haji to get my name in the que. Now all I need to do is consistently save up while waiting for my turn which if I remember right is due in 2017.

Meanwhile, I have had my fair share of travels to various parts of the world. At times I have asked myself is it fair that I visit all these places yet I have yet to visit the birthplace of our beloved Prophet or the holy sites of Islam that the prophet himself recommends us to do. I believe things like this are a matter of "invitation" from God himself. Alot of muslims have the money, the health, the time, the ability or have been to all corners of the world yet have never set foot in Al-Haram. As they say, "all the stars must align" for you to have the urge and go through with visiting the holy land and as I learned myself, once you've been once you will always leave craving to come back again!

I was invited to join this umrah group by my good friend Fedtri last year in Nov/December. At that time I didn't have much planned yet so I quickly put down the money for the booking of my seat in that group. As the new year came and events unfolded, it turned out that I did have a lot of things happening this year, a couple of big financial commitments made and other big ticket spending items set. Umrah ended up being one of the lower priority items once other more immediate big financial commitments came up. At one point I even contemplated cancelling my seat. I'm so glad I didn't! God sent me help in the form of a good friend. Fedtri offered to help pay for the umrah costs up front for me and basically gave me a 3-4 month interest free loan to pay for the umrah. This helped me a lot in spreading my finances. After 3 courses at Sri Pentas and a session at Setiawangsa Mosque, the moment that I had been waiting for came. I was to fly to Saudi Arabia on the 6th of April 2011.

Too lazy to write a full diary style write up on my umrah, here's a Che Det style details of the highlights of my visit to the holy lands...

Oh, first a little background on the group I joined.

i) The group I joined was the Media Prima group organised by Arrayyan Travel Services Sdn Bhd.
ii) It is an annual event. 1st time Media Prima staff get 50% of their umrah cost subsidised by their employer(1st time only) and they can invite family and friends who pay the full fair.
iii) There were a total of 101 members of our group including family and friends of Media Prima employees.
iv) My travel mates were Fedtri, Shahril (Newscaster, RTM) and Abg Jasmi (uncle of one of the Media Prima staff).
v) The itinerary was planned such that we visited Medina first, then only Mecca.

Ok, lets start shall we?

1) Our outgoing flight was delayed by 3 long hours. The ground staff missed appointed everyone's seats such that the plane was nose heavy. The cabin crew were not so professional at handling the situation. 50 people needed to be moved to the rear seats. I don't know if they managed to get the 50 people to move to the back or if they just moved some of the luggage to the back. Anyhow, it was an unpleasant delay and a delay that would affect the other details of our journey.

2) We were flown in a very old Boeing 747 with an antiquated cabin and entertainment system. It was no big deal as I wanted to set myself in the right frame of mind for the umrah so I didn't use the entertainment system at all on the outgoing flight.

3) The stewardess kept on calling me "Adik" (little brother) which was no problem to me but Fedtri couldn't stop making fun of that fact all 8 hours of the flight! I've accepted the fact that I look younger than my age a looong time ago...

4) We landed at the Hajj terminal at Jeddah airport. We got off the aeroplane on open air stairs, much like on Air Asia and were whisked to the main terminal by bus.

5) The shuttle bus was driven by an Indonesian driver.

6) The Saudis call every man "Haji" and women "Hajjah" or "Siti Rahmah".

7) Me, Fedtri and Shahril went through the same immigration counter manned by the same officer. Shahril was last amongst us but he took the longest to clear immigration. When we asked why, it was apparent that we shouldn't talk unnecessarily at the immigration counter. He asked the guy for the time but ended up getting his finger scanned for prints and had his hand being "inappropriately handled" by the officer. It turns out that if you're fair, of Asian build (small) and have not so much hair, arab guys tend to want to touch you! This incident earned Shahril the nick name "Amrad" (Hairless man in arabic) and "Guava" (jambu) for the rest of the umrah...hehehe...
8) The packed dinner on the bus from Jeddah to Madinah was an intro to the Arab food portions which are HUGE! We had 4 chicken pieces with chips (fries) which alot of people couldn't finish.

9) Saudi mornings at this time of the year are very cold!!

10) At Madinah we stayed at Holiday Villa Hotel which is Malaysian owned and is a street crossing away from Masjid Nabawi - the prophet's mosque.


11) Food was Malaysian food. Food was provided in this package. We didn't have to buy our own food. However, we did try to be adventurous and ventured into an arab food court and ordered a dish each... Not such a smart move as the portions were HUGE and I was the only one that finished my plate. The others wasted their food. My stomach is like a sock. Very flexible and can expand to accommodate good food.

12) Masjid Nabawi is just beautiful and HUGE! It has retractable canvas roofing at the mosque courtyard and retractable domes on the inside.

13) The modern Masjid Nabawi includes the former house of the prophet which is now houses the tomb the prophet, his wife Aisyah, and his closest companions Abu Bakr and Umar Al-Khattab.

14) Masjid Nabawi includes an area signified by green colour carpet as opposed to the red coloured carpet found on the other parts of the mosque. This area is called Ar-Raudhah.

The heart of the mosque houses a very special but small area named ar-Rawdah an-Nabawiyah, which extends from Muhammad's tomb to his pulpit. Pilgrims attempt to visit and pray in ar-Rawdah, for there is a tradition that supplications and prayers uttered here are never rejected. Entrance into ar-Rawdah is not always possible (especially during the Hajj season), as the tiny area can accommodate only a few hundred people. Ar-Rawdah has two small gateways manned by Saudi police officers. The current marble pulpit was constructed by the Ottomans. The original pulpit was much smaller than the current one, and constructed of palm tree wood, not marble. Ar-Rawdah an-Nabawiyah is considered part of Jannah (Heaven or Paradise).

It is prescribed for the one who visits the mosque to pray two rak’ahs in the Rawdah or whatever he wants of naafil prayers. It was narrated from Abu Hurayrah that Muhammad said: “The area between my house and my minbar is one of the gardens ( riyaad, sing. rawdah) of Paradise, and my minbar is on my cistern (hawd)” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 1196; Muslim, 1391.
And it was narrated that Yazeed ibn Abi ‘Ubayd said: “I used to come with Salamah ibn al-Akwa’ and he would pray by the pillar which was by the mus-haf, i.e. in the Rawdah. I said, ‘O Abu Muslim, I see that you are keen to pray by this pillar!’ He said, ‘I saw that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) was keen to pray here.’” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 502; Muslim, 509.
15)  I managed to Pray in Ar-Raudhah twice, both time amidst an impossibly large crowd. Alhamdulillah. Fedtri managed to pray 3 times at one sitting in Ar-Raudhah. The mosque "police" tried twice to stop him from praying again as to make room for others...

16) The mosque police/guards were very stern, esp at Raudhah and infront of the Prophet's tomb. Rightly so as to keep the flow of worshippers smooth, to let other people have a chance at praying in Ar-Raudhah and also to prevent people from doing syirik practices in front of the prophet's tomb.

17) Shopping in Madinah is not bad at all. Bought myself among others, a couple of thobes, Sajadahs and two silver rings.

18) Ajwa dates are the dates most prefered by the prophet. It is the most expensive type of date in the world and retails at RM100 per kg in Malaysia. Madinah is the best place to buy these dates and they cost only Saudi Riyal (SR) 60 per kg. 1SR = 0.80 Malaysian Ringgits (MYR). It tastes really good too. No wonder the prophet preferred these dates!

19) Cheapest place to buy these and other stuff like pistachios, figs and chocolates etc, is actually at Masjid Quba'. There's a shop just outside the mosque, next to the parking area.

20) Saudis are very well off. The country has no tax yet there are poor people and beggars abound. These people are usually immigrants with no or very low paying jobs. Alot of beggars are also "professional beggars". It is in my opinion at it is better to donate to the cleaners/workers in that mosque compound. These people are very lowly paid and their intention to work in Saudi Arabia is just insyaAllah.

21) The journey from Medina to Mecca takes 6 hours. I don't know why our bus was driving so slowly!? The national speed limit on Saudi highways is 120 kph and the roads are of very good quality. We should be going faster and saving our time on the road.

22) Medina was abit cooler than Mecca.

23) The male and female worshipers were segregated in Masjid Nabawi but not in Mecca. Nevertheless, during prayer time, the mosque "Police" would clear the main prayer area from women and women had their own sections. Other times, men and women would sometimes pray next to each other.

24) I celebrated my 30th birthday (9th April) partly in Medina and half of the night in Mecca. After arriving at our hotel, I straight away performed my first Umrah at 1 or 2 in the morning completing it in about 2 hours. Slept for about 40 mins that night before waking up for Tahajjud & Fajr prayers. slept for one or 2 hours after breakfast in time for Duha prayers and some sharing session with Fedtri and Shahril before zohor prayers. After that, lunch and we were off to Tana'im, the closest Miqat for Ihram and performed our 2nd Umrah after that. This would be our typical day in Mecca. Sleep deprived but passionate to make full use of our time there.

25) My throat started feeling uneasy in Medina. By the time we reached Mecca my throat was already sore and my voice gradually disappearing. My throat infection gradually turned into a headache and a cold. My nose even bled during one of the sa'ie attempts. Bringing alot of tissues saved me during one of the umrahs. Forgetting to bring any tisues made one of the umrahs very difficult.

26) The package included 4 umrahs but I did only 3 to keep the umber an odd number and to make time for other ibadahs like sadaqah and solat and tawaf sunnat.

27) I wanted to shave my head (simbolic of shaving off past sins with each hair strand shaved) after my first Umrah but couldn't find any barbers near the Marwah hill. Thankfully on the way to the hotel room there was a man who shouted "Ahmad! Botak?" at me and Fedtri. What a coincidence I said. I asked him how much and we agreed so he brought me to the barbers which was in the same Zam Zam hotel complex but in the lower floors. It seems that anywhere in the world, Barber shops are mostly Indian run. Same story in Mecca...

28) The guy shaved my head using a new blade but WITHOUT cutting my hair short first. He straight away shaved my head from the back of the head! The whole process took about 5 minutes! I was hairless after that and if it were not for the white colour, I would've looked like a shaolin munk in my Ihram...

29) The third umrah was the most trying one with the brunt of the midday heat. We were not allowed to cover our heads during ihram and I had no hair on my head so the heat would go directly to my head. Not good for my health but Alhamdulillah. The whole umrah only took just 1 hour to complete, 30 mins Tawaf, 30 mins Sa'ie.

30) This year's umrah season started late as the visas were only started to be granted late March /early April. Therefore there were more than usual people at the holy sites. A few times our "trio" got split up in the crowd. On all occasions, a simple prayer to God brought the parties back together. Prayers are answered instantly in mecca...:
i) Fedtri got seperated from me and Shahril. His sandals were with us. He prayed that me and Shahril would not go before meeting him and low and behold, he went to the Abdul Aziz gate of the mosque and found us exactly where he had thought us to be at!
ii) Fedtri's sandals got lost twice but was found again on both occasions.
iii) during our last umrah's tawaf, we got separated. Fedtri prayed that he would find me and that I would lead him during the Tawaf. Low an behold, on his 2nd round of his tawaf, he found my back and I led him around the Kaabah from there on.
iv) I prayed that God would meet me with a poor person for me to make a donation/sadaqah some of my school student's money to. Alhamdulillah, on the 2nd last night a poor Indian man came to me on the way back to the hotel and he looked genuinely poor and in need of some money so I obliged.
31) My 2ndary school form 3 and 5 students (exam year students) collected a large sum of money for us to help distribute to the poor and needy in Mecca. We ended up buying quite a number of Qurans to wakaf at the mosque. We were lucky enough to be introduced to this Sheikh from Turkey. More on him later. We later offered to donate some of our school's money to their Madrasah. The rest of the money we distributed amongst the poor and underprivileged around the mosque compound.

32) The Turkish Sheikh spoke no english but tried to very softly comment on Fedtri's shaved beard. His English speaking Omani student later came up to him and translated to us that he was trying to say that keeping a beard shows a true Muslim identity. We later talked via his "translator". He said that the foreign minister of Turkey, Ahmet Davuto─člu once lecturered at a Malaysian University. My guess is that he once lectured at IIUM.... He also wrote a Dua' for us on Fedtri's book. He said that by reading this dua' 10 times a day, our dua' will be equal to the dua's of walis (Saints)

33)  Almost every prayer time was followed by a solat Jenazah or pre-burial prayer

34) When walking outside the Majidil Haram compound we were stopped outside a bookshop by a group of Indonesian women. The makciks were really happy to see us eventhough we weren't indonesian. For them, seeing young people going for umrah is a very rare sight. Of course I reckon they thought I was younger than my real age but for them coming from rural indonesia (not Jakarta) people save for a lifetime to get a chance to to to the holy lands. Those not struggling to make ends meet might not be interested in going to visit Mecca and Medina. Seeing young people there must be a really big deal for them. They were so enthusiastic and shook hands with us (hand inside their hijabs).

35) That said, seeing the elderly over in Mecca trying to do the physical acts of Umrah made me really think that umrah and Hajj is best done at a younger age. It really is quite a physical act, compounded by the sheer number of people present at the same time. So my advice is, save up for Hajj early, register with tabung haji as soon as you can and if you have extra savings, go for umrah first to get a taste of things to come.

36) The Turkish Sheikh and his students all couldn't believe that I was 30. they kept of asking me "'20' or '30'?" as a sign of disbelief. Yes, east asians have youthful looks...

37) Everyone's umrah experience will be different, even when following the same umrah group. When at the holy places, the ibadah will be done on their own so who you do your umrah with and who you are close to when you're there plays a significant role on how much and what experience you get from your umrah. We ended up doing our ibadah in our group of 3 friends, but there were times when we go split up and when that happens, it is all up to you and how you fulfill your own expectations. Being in a small group gives you enough support similar to a small "usrah group" whereby you will be able to share knowledge in between prayers and advise eachother on umrah or other religious matters.

more to come later....