Locking my electric wheelchair into place behind the steering wheel of my specially equipped can, I took a deep breath. I was beginning the journey of a lifetime--Hajj! I knew that Hajj would be a life-altering event. I also knew that, while Hajj can be a struggle for an able-bodied person, it would be even more of a challenge for me, a paraplegic in a wheelchair with complex medical needs.
Paralyzed by a fall as a 17-year-old high school senior, through determination I managed to earn two college degrees during a time when curb cuts were unheard of and schools and colleges were fraught with architectural barriers. Now a divorced single mother, I was raising two sons, teaching at an Islamic school and feeling blessed with the Islamic faith that gave me the strength to strive toward realizing my human potential to its fullest.
Driven by love of Allah and a burning desire to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam, I placed my trust in Allah. I also tied my camel! I made numerous and careful preparations for my journey. I attended Hajj classes at the mosque, where I heard reports from numerous hajjis. I spoke at length to a brother who had recently performed Hajj in a wheelchair himself. I secured the services of a sister and of a married couple who would accompany me on my trip; Sister Rasheedah Id-Deen, with years of nursing experience behind her, would assist me with personal care and needs, along with Sister Binta Kareem. Sister Binta's husband, Ocei Kareem, would take charge of the logistics of transporting me. Although I would be gone only four weeks, I painstakingly packed enough medical supplies, herbal remedies and energy foods to last me three months. Wary of the availability of electrical supply on the plains of Mina and Arafat, I opted for a manual wheelchair. As I euphorically drove off with three other sisters that May morning in 1992 I joined a group of 40 other Muslims bound for Mecca, I felt amply prepared.
Hand-carried by Brother Ocei and another brother on and off the Dulles Airport bus, I experienced humbling feelings of dependence that I had not felt in years. Fortunately, Saudi Airlines had been apprised of my situation, and had a small chair ready for me that was especially designed to maneuver through the narrow airplane aisles. I was lifted onto the chair, and braced myself for the ride and transfer to my seat at the rear of the plane filled with Muslim pilgrims.
Before I could get there, however, a non-Muslim couple who anticipated my difficulty stopped me. Out of the graciousness of their hearts, they offered me their seats at the front of the plane. Their kindness helped to calm me, and with the pilot's recitation of Surah Al-Fatihah, we took off on our flight to Jeddah.
When we landed eleven hours later, I was loaded onto an elevette lift and lowered onto the tarmac by airport workers. I felt apprehensive during this procedure, wondering about the workers' procedure, wondering about the workers' abilities to deal with the disabled. I reminded myself to be patient, though, realizing that things would be different here in Saudi Arabia; there would be many cultural distinctions.
At the crowded airport, the sisters helped me to don my ihram. Then we moved onto a shuttle that took us to the staging area where we waited for a bus to take us to Mecca. The wait was long and hot, but certainly not dull! I watched, astonished and fascinated, the flow of arrivals of different groups of people from all over the world. When our bus finally arrived, though, I was greatly disappointed and saddened at its appearance--it was terribly old, without a wheelchair lift and with doors so narrow the brothers had to turn me sideways to lift me onto the bus.
My wheelchair, medical supplies, baggage and specially designed wheelchair cushion were packed on top of the bus with the rest of the luggage. As the bus took off, so did my cushion; I spent the remainder of my trip sitting on make-shift pillows, diligently trying to avoid dangerous pressure sores.
Upon our arrival at our apartment, I saw that it was at the top of three flights of stairs. For the duration of our stay, I would have to be carried up and down those stairs sometimes two and three times a day as we went back and forth from prayers. The part of Mecca in which we stayed had a large African population, and the neighboring men often willingly came to the assistance of the group's brothers to carry me. As at the beginning of this journey, I again felt humbled by my dependence.
When our group finally made out way to Masjid Al-Haram for Umrah, reverence and awe overwhelmed all of us. Tears flowed. A small voice inside me, however, told me to dry those tears, and soon I realized why--I would need all my strength and clarity. As I approached the Masjid door in my wheelchair, a custodian jumped up and blocked my way. He shouted a torrent of angry words in Arabic, and then gestured brusquely. A look of great disdain on his face, he began to make shooing motions and sounds. Hurtfully, I saw that I was being shooed away from the Haram door the way a fly would be shooed away from a banquet!
The brothers in our group stepped forward and attempted to explain the particulars of my situation, but to no avail. We were being refused entry because I was in a wheelchair! I could not believe this was happening. I thought to myself, "He's kidding! I didn't travel thousands of miles to be prevented from performing my rites." But he was not kidding, and adamantly continued to refuse us entry.
I was shocked and angry. Here I was, a woman in a wheelchair, receiving the least possible compassion in Mecca, the place where I had expected the most sensitivity. I summoned the strength and determination I had learned during my 26 years of life as a disabled person, and decided to try another door.
The guard at the next door refused us in a similar situation. Undaunted and unbowed, we tried a third door. Again, our entry was barred. We tried a fourth and a fifth door, but were shooed away again. After being turned away from seven doors, and now a great distance from where we had begun, I began to feel disheartened. My inner voice, however, told me to hold on, pray and trust in Allah.