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Associated Press
Mecca, Saudi Arabia – Despite five days of exhaustion and hardships, Muslim pilgrims were saddened to see the annual hajj wind down to a close Friday, ending what for many is a spiritual high point of their lives.
“Bidding farewell is hard,” said Afaf al-Nuweihi, her voice choking with emotion. “I wish I could stay longer – in a place of worship where you pray and get closer to God.”
Al-Nuweihi, a 61-year-old retired Egyptian teacher, spent her nights during the hajj sleeping by roadsides in her tent between moving along with some 3 million other pilgrims from ritual to ritual. Still, she is ecstatic.
“I feel I am born again. Hajj is all about enduring hardship and suffering in order to wash away our sins,” she said. “I hope God will give me strength to sustain my hajj spirituality after I get back home because it’s going to be difficult for me to come back again.”
Amina Hallaq, a 47-year old Syrian, sat on a plastic mat on the pavement. “I’d be even happy if we could stay at least another week,” she said. “Believe me I am sad to be leaving.”
After performing the ritual of stoning pillars that represent the devil in Mina on Friday, pilgrims proceeded to the nearby holy city of Mecca to bid “farewell” to Kaaba – a cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth that Muslims around the world face during the five daily prayers – by circling it seven times in the final rite of the hajj.
Thousands milled through the massive four-story mosque in the center of Mecca housing the Kaaba and completed the final steps of their pilgrimage with more than a hint of sadness.
“It is a difficult and bitter thing,” said Fadhel Abdallah, a Yemeni petroleum engineer, 33, sitting in the mosque reading his Koran. “The atmosphere here is so spiritual that one cannot experience it anywhere else.”
He described his mind and body as now clear and said he had left behind the anxiety and stress that plagued him at home before he made the journey.
Above the Kaaba, on the vast mosque’s third level, a pair of Pakistani friends watched the slow, hypnotic movement of the pilgrims around the courtyard.
“When you simply look at the Kaaba you feel rewarded by God,” said Usman Haidar, a 32-year-old in the Pakistani army, sporting a long luxuriant beard. “It is difficult to leave this place, anyone who comes here is the luckiest person because God has brought them here.”
His companion, Nadim Haq, a 43-year-old businessmen, said that pilgrims always feel lonely when they leave “because they leave part of themselves behind.”
Friday is also the last day of the three-day holiday of Eid al-Adha, marked by Muslims around the world.
On the last day of the hajj, pilgrims also walk the distance between hills in Safa and Marwa, re-enacting the search by Abraham’s wife Hagar’s search for water for her infant son Ishmael in the desert. After her seventh run, the spring known as Zamzam sprang miraculously under Ishmael’s feet.
“I feel like I am flying on an angel’s wings,” said Abbas Ibrahimi, a 50-year-old Iranian teacher. “I feel my feet are not on the ground.”
“Can there be any better place than here?” interjected Gol-Abroo Qazizadeh, 67, a fellow Iranian.
He then asked which news organization the reporter represented. When he was told The Associated Press, he said laughing: “We still believe in ‘Death to America.’ America is the cause of all the world’s problems.”
Isn’t hajj supposed to be a spiritual experience and politics mustn’t come into it?
“We’re Iranians, we can’t help it,” he said lightly.
Qazizadeh agreed that politics had no place at hajj. “I’m honored to be destined to come here. My son died six months ago and I got a chance to pray for his soul in God’s House,” she said, referring to Kaaba.
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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