I wrote this piece in 2000 for a magazine, Al Hujjaj, that is now defunct. This story will probably remain with those of us who went for pilgrimage in 1997.
When the fire broke out on Mina in the Hajj of 1997 we had just completed our Thuhr salah, noon prayer. From the bridge above our camp the Asgari (police) were shouting frantic commands to the bewildered pilgrims below. “What does he mean we must vacate the camp?” we thought. The black clouds were in the distance. We were in no apparent danger. We were wrong.
My wife, my pregnant sister, my brother-in-law and I started to gather our belongings unhurriedly. By the time we came into the street, however, panic had already swept the whole of Mina. Buses could not move as the panic-stricken river of people were competing for fleeing space. In the ensuing chaos my partner and I were separated from my sister and her husband. The sound of exploding gas stoves was getting louder and the thick smoke was getting larger.
The fire behind us, a merciless sun above us, amidst sounds of ambulance sirens, my wife and I walked that day, out of Mina in the direction of Makkah not knowing whether we would make it to Arafah to complete our Hajj. Along the way, on the outskirts of Mina, we found some shade amongst thousands of other weary pilgrims. Covered from the sun, we threw down our prayer mats and lifted our hands. We prayed to our Creator to deliver us from this day.
We prayed for the safety of my sister and her husband. We prayed that our children not grow up orphans. We prayed that our family not panic when they see the events on the news. We prayed for the safety of all the pilgrims waiting for their Hajj. We prayed the prayer that was in the hearts of all our surrounding brothers and sisters. By Asr, a strange calmness was already descending. Saudi firefighters had won the battle against the blaze. Pilgrims were already walking back to Mina. Silently we got up and joined them.
It was only the following day that my wife and I met up again with my sister and her husband. They made it to Makkah on the day of fire. We passed each other on their way to Makkah but they did not see us, nor did we see them. We followed different paths but all made it to Arafah, grateful to see we had all survived. What a homecoming!
I think back on these events with a fondness. We all go for Hajj, for the same period, in the same dress, with similar hardships – fire or no fire. We go around the same Ka’bah, between the same two hills of Safa and Marwa, to the same Arafah, and stone the same demons. We go in search of the same Allah. But every path, every journey, every Hajj of every pilgrim is different.
But that is not the only lesson. It is also that spirituality is not just about silent contemplation. Hajj is a very physical journey. It is performed amidst great crowds of people, with searing heat and trying conditions. Many Hujjaj fear the masses, they fear bad toilet conditions and fear the heat. On Hajj, you can never bank on anything except Allah. It is no coincidence that the time of Arafah begins when the sun is at its zenith. If you can overcome this, you have the resources to overcome anything.