06
Oct
10

Preparing for the Hajj – technology

If you are swayed by the mass media, you may get the impression that Muslims are stuck in the backward past. Of course, there are no generalisations that could ever really be true, given the infinite variation among humans and that all essential free will. We do believe in a Qur’an that has not changed in over 1400 years but we also live in the present. And in the present there are these marvelous advancements in technology which can make anyone’s life easier – and it is no different for Muslims. And for Muslims preparing for Hajj, some of these trappings of “modernity” can be a real help.

I was particularly worried as the time for the Hajj grew closer, because I was not with my parents who had the experience of performing Hajj before. I spend a lot of my time alone, traveling on planes, in hotel rooms etc, or in Guyana where I am based. Additionally, I was only going to be in Trinidad a few days before we left for Makkah. How was I going to learn the du’a, internalise the various steps, feel really prepared without that communal preparation. Many Hajj groups or jamaat have Hajj classes to prepare people for this major undertaking. Although I could learn these things on my own, for me (and many of you) that communal learning, particularly with others also making the trip, really helps. This is where the world of computers, internet, handheld devices and media players, is a boon.

A really good start is to get yourself a copy of the Simple Hajj Guide from fatwa-online.com – it’s a “Handy foldable A4-sheet pocket” Guide that has all you need to know in a single document. The steps, the du’a and portions of the Qur’an as and when needed. You can get a version with or without the Qur’anic translation. We had them in the foldable pocket size, but Lilandra also printed them out a little bigger (one section to a half-letter size), laminated them, punched a hole in the corner of each page and loosely tied them together with yarn. Easy-to-read and protected from the elements.

Find relevant Hajj maps to get an idea of where you’ll be going for the Hajj – the routes, the places you’ll be staying etc. You don’t have to memorise these things – you’ll be following a massive group most of the time so it’s not likely you’ll get lost – but if you’re like me, this is essential to visualise the process and make you feel like you know what you will be doing. You can visit the Ministry of Hajj or Ummah.net or google for maps that seem to be your liking.

The joys of Skype.

This tip is obviously for people who are not in the same place… We gathered together as a family with our Simple Hajj Guides, books our Hajj leader may have given us, the maps and then conference-called on Skype. Free (once you’ve paid for the internet) and pretty decent connection. We went through the whole process as guided by the parents who had done this before, reciting the elements, finding places on the map. See if you can Skype someone who can guide you like this – or Skype (or Google Talk or however you want to communicate) with other members of your family or group to have a community study session. Video and or tele-conferencing works in our jobs – it can work for the Hajj as well.

MP3 Players

In addition to a couple Skype sessions, Lilandra also had Dad record the steps and the required recitations from the Simple Hajj Guide. She used Audacity and a nice USB Headset with Microphones. Originally saved as Wav files and then converted to MP3s – a series of files so they could be easily emailed and downloaded. These were one of the most brilliant things ever. Seriously. I put them on my phone (which doubled as my MP3 player) and on flights or in airports I just played them together with the Simple Hajj Guide and got myself ready. You could also connect your MP3 player to your car, or burn the files to a CD to play in your car and home stereo system (depending on the equipment available to you).

If you haven’t already, there are several audio recordings of the Qur’an available online that you should download and keep on your phone/MP3 player/iPod etc.

Phones

Since we’re on the topic of phones…before the Hajj, I was due to get a new cellphone and I got one that served me as my phone, mp3 player and camera. These are everywhere these days. So, we’ve covered why you need the mp3 player for Hajj (Simple Hajj Guide audio and the Qur’an), but the other elements are essential too.

Lilandra: I bought my new phone in Makkah. The *nice* thing about buying it there is that it came preloaded with neat things like Qur’an software (µQuran), an arabic-english dictionary and…that app for prayer times (can’t recall the name…the joys of being a klutz), the world over FREE!

GSM Phones – in order to use your phone in Saudi Arabia, you need to have a phone that works on the 900 band. We don’t use this band in Trinidad and Tobago, so check your phone before you go. Check your provider to see if you can roam in Saudi Arabia using your plan. Note that neither Digicel nor Bmobile in T&T prepaid plans allow you to roam in Saudi Arabia (*then* at least). Bmobile postpaid should roam, however.

However, if you have an unlocked quad-band GSM phone, you can buy a special Hajj SIM card on arrival in Saudi Arabia (in the airport) and there are top-ups available all over in the usual little shops and bigger supermarkets etc. We made sure all 4 of us had a unlocked quad-band phone each, and we each bought a Hajj SIM (these SIMs are active only for the period of the usual Hajj visit). This way we could communicate during the mass events (text or voice) with each other, with our Hajj leader, other members of the group and perhaps most importantly, communicate from a women’s tent to a men’s tent or vice versa, without disturbing any rules of purdah. During the tents in Mina, you will often find men waiting outside the women’s tents, waiting for someone to come out so they can ask for their wife, mother, sister, daughter etc. This way, the relatives know when to step outside 🙂 We were also able to send texts and make calls back home (to Trinidad, Guyana, Jamaica, wherever) using these SIMs. It also made communicating with our “not-sheikh” very easy. He was just a text/phone call away once we left Aziziah!

Cameras

Technically, photography is not allowed in the Haram. Or in the Prophet’s Masjid in Madinah. Although they are much stricter in the latter. However, you would never guess that by the number of photos you will see of all these places. The guards know about cameraphones too, so don’t think that saying it’s your phone will let you in. That being said, we did take photos during the Hajj, including of the Kaabah etc. Phones with cameras are small and can be slipped in. I have no idea how people slipped in regular camcorders and larger cameras…but they do and did… I saw people posing in front of the Kaabah as if they were at some kind of concert posing with the band. Strange. A little decorum and discretion would be great if you are planning to record some of these moments. And there are locations, moments and items you are allowed to photograph for which you may wish to have a camera. Camera on your phone means one less item to pack.

Electricity

Saudi Arabia uses 110 V 220 V 60 Hz…there may be a variety of outlet types used (American 2-prong or 3-prong, the European 2-prong or the British 3-prong) but generally we found the European rounded 2-prong might be in hotels, but the tents in Mina seemed to use the British 3-prong. Walk with a universal adapter set and maybe some spares (these are cheap, it’s not that hard to obtain). There will be electrical outlets even in the tents in Mina and Arafat – try to be polite and generous in sharing the available outlets. Note that you may have to climb up to reach these outlets in the overhead duct systems. Ask before borrowing someone’s Hajj stool or luggage to climb up. Seriously. And no outlets are in Muzdalifa where you’re out in the open ground.

Internet

We didn’t walk with our laptops. In our hotel in Makkah, they might have given us a wireless password if we had. In the hotel in Madinah, the guy there said Internet Cafés. – And I’m not sure about those being available for women.

But, if you have a smart phone/good browser, and you’re already splurging on your jewellery and clothes on top of your hajj cost, then well, feel free to use the prepaid GPRS/EDGE/data plan.

I think I did get some free Wifi hot spots in the airport at least.

Other Resources

The Hajj is itself loaded with rewards for the believing Muslim. But within the Hajj there are countless opportunities to make supplication or du’a to Allah (swt), or make dhikr (remembrance). If you haven’t memorised sufficient du’a etc then you should try to get some of those handy little publications like Forty Rabbana (a collection of authentic du’a found in the Qur’an) or Hisnul Muslim (Fortress of the Muslim) (available electronically from fatwa-online.com). Search for electronic versions suitable for handheld devices to keep with you or get the printed versions which are small and pocket sized. If you search online, you should also be able to find audio recordings of Hisnul Muslim. Actually, incorporating the du’as (prayers) and dhikr (rememberance) in Hisnul Muslim right away is a good start. There are so many nice du’as there. Flip through the table of contents!


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23
Jan
09

Was I ready for Hajj?

I don’t want you to think hajj is only about the travel to and from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But unfortunately, due to all the stress and worries, our heads were in a turmoil and I was worried that I would never be in the right frame of mind to make an accepted Hajj. But then, who can say what the right frame of mind is?

I didn’t want anything to spoil my Hajj, but there I was, haven’t even left Trinidad and Tobago yet, worried that my hajj might be spoiled by all the thoughts going on in my head. I was worried about why it took us so long to get visas. Who screwed up? Did anybody screw up? What about the other group that didn’t get visas? I was trying not to be annoyed with what I heard. I was trying to be *calm* and when upset make dua or pray..

In the years leading up to our trying to make Hajj (2006 when Chennette got sick, 2007 when our other siblings had babies), I never thought it would happen. I never thought I was ready for Hajj. I didn’t think I was worthy. I still didn’t think I was the perfect candidate but then…in our religion there are five pillars:

  1. Tawhid – belief in one God and submission to him
  2. Salaah – perform the 5 daily salawat
  3. Zakaah – give the annual charity, one-fortieth of the money you’ve had for a whole year
  4. Saum – fasting in the month of Ramadhan
  5. Hajj – make the pilglrimage to Makkah, if you can afford it

And, I could afford it. Barely I guess 😉
When I quit my job I made sure I had that money put aside (even though it seemed like a pipe dream) and didn’t touch it for anything.

And Alhamdulillah (All praise is due to Allah), I was finally making Hajj. My stomach shouldn’t’ve been in knots because of travel arrangements…yes it should’ve been in knots because of the great spritual/religious journey I was embarking on. I wanted it to change me for the better. I wanted to be a better person and a better muslim. And I was going to pray hard to change into that person.

Mostly, I wanted an accepted hajj. I know I’ve not been the best Muslim I can be and I know there have been lapses and I wanted forgiveness. Hajj gives you the opportunity for a clean slate (if accepted). But even if not accepted, I still decided it would be my turning point. There were many things I wanted (not just material!!!) and I also had to make up my mind to not be disappointed with whatever I received.

During all the worries about our visas and other groups not making it mom would announce at random, “It’s Allah’s house. When He’s ready for you to come, you will come.” Remember, Allah (subhana wa ta’ala) was ready for her to come twice before. And so with dad. Chennette and I were embarking on our first hajj. The obligatory one. And no matter what people tell you about it, you know you’ll never be ready.

And on a side-note, I was very concerned about these infamous stooping toilets or sunnah toilets.

EEK!

Especially considering certain surprises.

But don’t worry, I will have a post dedicated to that *luxury*.

23
Jan
09

On Leaving for Hajj

We left on Sunday morning with some trepidation as we had only collected our passports with visas the day before.

The preceding week was very stressful as there was still some doubt that our first group (we had been split into two as we were such a large group) would be able to make hajj. They left Trinidad on the Tuesday before us and since then had missed so many flights and there was some talk of having to pay change of date fees and rebooking fees.

Furthermore, during that week we didn’t hear much from the first group directly. There were many rumours floating around that they were “locked up” and “starving”. They left Trinidad without their passports as the visas had not been issued yet and were supposed to collect them Tuesday morning at Caracas with the visas (the Saudi Embassy is in Caracas) and then continue on with their connecting flights. Caribbean Airlines said they would take people with some sort of photo ID and Trinidad and Tobago immigration said if Caribbean Airlines would board our group then they have no problem letting them leave. I assumed Venezuela was okay with 40-odd passengers being in transit waiting for their passports.

Well our whole group didn’t get visas until Thursday and ours arrived in Trinidad on Friday. So the first group had not left before us as was the plan. But they weren’t locked up. They were staying in a hotel outside of the airport. This was rather stressful. A couple from our jamaat were part of the first group.

During that week we got many calls from many people saying, yes we got it!, yes we got it! (and we would wonder but didn’t you say we got it yesterday?). It got to the point I didn’t want to answer the phone anymore. One Hajj leader, a friend of dad, sent a message with his wife for us to not leave Trinidad without our passport and visa! Don’t!

In that week, we also heard that one group didn not get through at all. Can you imagine a group of 50 paid their money for everything and then their visas are refused?

You must be really careful in picking a group. People may not talk but somehow you should find out for sure whether your group leader is licensed or not. If you can’t find out, sometimes the students in Saudi Arabia might be able to find out for you…I don’t know how…they might be better able to listen to what people are saying. Also, you have to get previous hujaaj to tell you honestly about their experience. And just because it was good one year doesn’t mean the next year it will be so.

So, Sunday morning, we left. We had confirmed bookings. We had visas. The only thing that could stop us was immigration at any point. There was enough layover time at each stop (or so we thought anyway). We were just worried about our fellow hujaaj in the previous group. The hajj terminal in Jeddah closes on Tuesday midnight and our group was scheduled to arrive Monday. If you’re not in by Tueday midnight you’ve missed it. They won’t let you in to make hajj. We didn’t know what their flights were anymore. We heard they would take the same flight with us out of Caracas to Frankfurt and when we went on to Jeddah from there, they would go through Amman and arrive the day after us. Cutting it very closely, yes?

Leaving Piarco (Trinidad) was hard. Our neighbours carried the four of us up. And we were the first to check-in I thought. We were starting to wonder if we were *late* (was it even 4 am??) It’s sad when the whole family is going because there is nobody to wave you goodbye. But then, isn’t it sadder when you’re leaving someone behind because then you *are* waving someone goodbye? Either way ti felt strange.

Thankfully in the throngs that came to see off the last hajj group, friends and family did appear. One group came with samosas and such (pre-arranged) so we’d have some extra food/snacks for the trip. Relatives of the people from the first group came to see us off too, and talked dad’s ear off. Dad was even able to thank one of the persons responsible for our group actually getting our visas.

With all this stress, I decided not to take gravol (much needed medicine for flying…but it puts you to sleep). We would arrive in Caracas around 11 and not leave until 5pm…and I didn’t think it would be wise to be asleep and groggy throughout that stay. The stories we’ve heard!

05
Jan
09

A House for Mr Biswas

As we were leaving Makkah, en route to Madinah, we saw some “houses”. There were quite a lot of them in fact, unfinished, roofless, windowless, doorless, abandoned structures.

One of them, about two to three hours into the drive, had BISWAS written on the side, in capital letters! Unfortunately I have no photographic evidence (we were in a bus)!

If you’re interested, check wikipedia or Amazon.com.

I know, I know, some of you Arabs/Arabic speakers (hmm do any read here?) will come and tell me what the actual significance of the phrase BISWAS is but for now…I prefer to imagine!

Originally posted here.

05
Jan
09

Hajj Photos

Camel walking away in ArafatSlowly but surely we’re going through the photos we managed to take during the Hajj. Except for the food ones. During the actual days of Hajj we weren’t really focusing on taking pictures of ourselves or other people, or sneaking cameras into the Masjid-al-Haram. It just didn’t seem to be right to pay attention to those things when we only got to Makkah a few days before the Hajj began.

We did somehow manage to take quite a lot of photos of the things we ate (although not everything!). Somehow, I guess this seemed acceptable…I haven’t sorted through those yet. I just couldn’t face it. Soon we’ll just create an album of the daily food or something.

While I’ve only got up to the days just after the Hajj was completed, anyone who’s interested can go visit the Chennette’s Flickr album for Hajj 1429.

The photo are still of Makkah and I have some proper Kaabah shots to upload. Not to mention Madinah!! Insha Allah it’ll happen. What with relying on my cameraphone and the Olympus P&S that is supposed to be sister-the-elder’s when we thought we’d have the new Nikon Coolpix we got for the parents…the photos got better as we got used to the camera…AND I am tweaking 😀

02
Jan
09

Of Pilgrimage, Hujaaj and Luggage


First View of the Kaabah

Originally uploaded by Chennette

The family returned from the Hajj on the 29th of December 2008. Last year 🙂 That was on Monday and today is Friday. But we arrived with the usual Hajji cough, cold, flu, allergies, tiredness from 3 days of travel, good cheer from the completion of the Hajj and the communion with 4 million people from all over the world…everything but our luggage. Four of us, and the only luggage we got was our little 2-gallon container of Zam Zam water!

Alhamdulillah, we got our luggage yesterday. Of course, passage through and long stay in Caracas meant that 4 were opened and a couple things snagged from 2 of them, but nothing overly important or valuable (i.e. all my new hijabs are intact).

Lilandra walked with a copybook and had the great idea for us to journal (by HAND) so that we could at least have some notes for blogging later. We did pretty well on the trip TO Saudi Arabia, even having comments (in the margins) and guest commentary and musings from the parents. That never made it past the plane to Jeddah though. Once we got into Saudi we were in full Hajj mode and that just took up all our concentration and attention.

The experience of the Hajj is difficult to explain briefly. On one level, it is intensely personal, a completion of an individual religious obligation (if you can afford it) and an opportunity for forgiveness and personal prayer and supplication. During the Hajj, you try to do as much as you can to maximise the benefits of the experience. On the other hand, it’s a massive community exercise, with millions of Muslims from all over the world descending on the same location to do the same things for a few days. Oh, the languages, and the peoples, and the crowds. It’s all just amazing to be part of that, part of such a huge celebration and really feel like one of an Ummah (nation).

Lilandra and I will nonetheless try to chronicle our journey here for posterity, and maybe for the benefit of any future hujaaj*. There are some really funny stories – especially the ones that were not so funny to us at the time. Wily old ladies and the unspoken battle for sleeping ground. The shock of the stooping toilets. Flat tyres and deserts. Saudi seasoning = salt, salt, and salt on the table.

But we’re back safely, and more or less healthy depending on when you ask us. As for photos, well, they technically don’t allow photographs in the Masjid-al-Haram (mosque around the Kaabah) and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, but I managed it in Makkah (hence the pictures of the Kaabah and more to follow). In Madinah they’re much much stricter, but I do have some courtyard photos to share 😀 (Also posted at Lifespan of a Chennette)

————–
Hujaaj is the plural term for a pligrim, singular is Hajji or Hajja

30
Nov
08

Hajj: Leaving in a few hours

There is so much I want to say.
There is so much going through my mind right now.

Five years ago when my elder sister made hajj, I was impressed. I never thought I would be ready.

Four years ago when they talked of us making hajj soon…I mentally scoffed (I didn’t think I was ready, neither did I think I was able).

Three years ago when we were planning to make hajj (when Chennette got ill), I didn’t think it would actually happen.

Two years ago, it still wasn’t concrete in my head and we only cancelled some time in October after Chennette’s convalescence.

One year ago…well we intended to make hajj but…we knew about these babies beforehand. You know, they give you about 8 or 9 months notice so we knew although we planned and my brother’s parents-in-law planned to go that we wouldn’t. That would be fun. We all make hajj while our family in Saudi Arabia come back here to empty houses. And my sister in Guyana.

This year, it was still rather…unbelievable but when I left my job last July, I made sure of one thing, that I had my hajj money set aside…waiting…for whenever it would be…waiting…

Well, Insha Allah we are leaving home in three hours to catch a flight in seven hours. We have three flights. We finally have our passports with visas and hopefully everything will go smoothly for us.

I am very excited.

We have Chennette’s sony camera phone, mom and I have motorolas with funky so-so cameras for “snaps” and … elder sister’s point and shoot camera! with only 1GB of storage…so we shall judiciously take pictures because we have no computer!

Don’t expect to see us online…maybe we’ll be able to say hi but who knows…internet cafes? My brother’s phone line is down so no internet…unless he gets it fixed.

We’ll be gone until the end of December…so a whole month!

I’m going to keep a written journal and try to transcribe it when I come home. Wish me luck.

The only sour note is that half our group left Tuesday morning for Caracas on the same flight plan as us and are still in Caracas. The visas were only issued Friday for all of us. And they’re hopefully flying out of Caracas on the same flight as us (hopefully I say because there seems to be penalties for flight changes and I am praying hard we all make it)! We will share our food/snacks/money with them and Insha Allah both halves will make it to Jeddah Hajj terminal on time and able to complete the rites of Hajj this year!

I wish us all who are making Hajj a Hajj Mabrur (I hope I got that right…it means simplistically an accepted Hajj).

I’ll miss you and if your comments go into moderation, I’ll check them when I come back. If you’re not spambots and it goes into the black hole I apologise.

Also published here, my blog!

See Chennette’s post on her blog!