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.

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!

True, this is no great spiritual accomplishment, but we have not yet started our Hajj. And what's so wrong with fulfilling a religious obligation and earning a free airline ticket in the process?

Although I worried much about the pre-Hajj procedures, everything went wonderfully, thanks be to God. In retrospect, I really should not have worried so much. It is clear to me now that God was watching over the whole process, and He took care of everything to make the entire process easy. For, I think that God wants me to come to His house as much, if not more than, I do. Now, all I have to do is get through airport security without being harrassed.....Gulp!

Monday, January 27, 2003

The Lord has blessed our trip so far. Checking in at the airport could not have gone more smoothly. I am sitting on the plane now and listening to a fine selection of Indian music. It was exciting to finally be embarking on the most important trip of my life. But it was hard to leave my two daughters behind. Our youngest daughter wanted to go to Mecca with us, in fact. I am comforted, however, by the fact that I leave my children behind only for the sake of fulfilling a duty that God Almight has obliged upon me. Our flight will take us to Frankfurt, Germany, in six hours, and from there we will board a chartered flight with dozens of fellow pilgrims to Jeddah. It is there that the spiritual trek "home" to God's sacred house in Mecca will begin.

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The first leg of our journey to God's sacred house was completed when we arrived in Frankfurt. Then we boarded our final plane to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. We will then take buses from Jeddah to the holy city of Mecca. At the terminal gate, we saw dozens of fellow pilgrims from all over the United States. I even met a pilgrima, a friend, whom I hadn't seen in more than 10 years.

The diversity of the pilgrims' origins is striking. On the plane with me now are pilgrims from India and Pakistan, all over the Arab world, Africa, and Southeast Asia. They are all my brothers and sisters, all converging on the same place at the same time for the same holy purpose.

In Frankfurt, the first part of the Hajj ritual became incumbent upon me, namely entering into the state of Ihram. This state is manifested both physically and spiritually. Physically, I don two white unstitched cloths, leaving behind all remnants of my earthly life. Princes and paupers become indistringuishable. It is the utmost manner of showing our utter insignificance before the most holy lord God. I must wear this garb before entering--in this case flying over--the sacred precinct of Mecca. Spiritually, I must fulfill all obligations that God has obliged upon me while in Ihram, and I cannot harm any living thir or harm any fellow pilgrim.