Off We Go to Mecca

Why not fulfill a religious obligation and earn a free airline ticket in the process?

Beliefnet columnist Hesham A. Hassaballa, a physician in Chicago, will file regular reports from Saudi Arabia as he participates in his first Hajj.



Sunday, January 26, 2003



God willing, my wife and I are all set to leave for Mecca tomorrow. The wait has been almost unbearable. I have had much anxiety, however, as I prepared for the trip. In order to make the pilgrimmage, one must apply for a Hajj visa from the Saudi Arabian government (and pay a fee...sheesh!). In addition, you must have proof of vaccination against Neisseria meningitidis serotypes A, C, Y, and W-135. This bacteria causes meningitis and can be deadly, and the enormous crowds of the Hajj place all pilgrims at increased risk of infection.

To add to the anxiety of waiting to be approved (the Saudi government sets quotas for pilgrims from every country), my wife and I had to send our passports to the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.....Gulp. As the day of our departure neared, there was no word from our Hajj tour company agent. I continually harrassed him about our tickets and passports, and he continally ressured me that everything was going to be OK. I always said, "all right," but deep down I was very nervous. On January 23, the agent told me that the passports should be sent to him the next day. January 24 came, but there were no passports. I called him again, frantic by now, and asked him about the passports. You see, I just could not fathom being prevented from going to Hajj this year because our passports were late or (worse yet) lost. He told me that they should come via Federal Express on January 25. I said, "OK," but now I was very, very nervous. Thank God, they did in fact come in that day, and I actually got to see the passports--along with the coveted Hajj visa--in my hands today.

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In fact, except for the passport process, the entire process fell into place ever so smoothly. Originally, my wife and I were going to be separated in the hotels in Mecca and Medina, each of us rooming with three other strangers. At the last minute, however, a spot opened up whereby my wife and I could stay together in our own private room. We were supposed to fly Lufthansa to Frankfurt, Germany, and then fly to Saudi Arabia from there. There was no more room on Lufthansa, however, and so the Hajj tour company booked us on American Airlines. This is great, because I can then earn frequent flyer miles on the flight to Frankfurt!

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