As we celebrate Nowroz, the Afghan New Year, I’m planning an adventure—my first pilgrimage to Mecca. Yesterday I posted about how I, a secular Muslim with little knowledge of Islam, decided to take this journey.
This post is about the arrangement details of the trip.
Before preparing spiritually for the pilgrimage, I had to tackle the visa instructions for Umrah. The Saudi Embassy requires a notarized permission slip for all women traveling without a mahram, a male relative. Jim, enjoying his new found power, jokingly refused to sign my permission slip.
Jim's notarized permission slip for my trip
I also learned that sometimes the Saudi Embassy refuses entry visas to “younger” women who travel without a mahram—I needed to look worthy of the pilgrimage in the visa photos, plain and pious. It took the CVS photographer many attempts to capture me with an appropriately saintly look and without my hair peeking out from under the headscarf.
I’m grateful I can afford to make this pilgrimage and be welcomed in these cities as a Muslim. Saudi Arabia, however, requires all pilgrims to make the pilgrimage with the clearest intention and devotion—no beach holidays in Dubai before transiting to Mecca. The Embassy even holds on to your passport until the last minute to make sure of this. My flight is next week but I still haven’t received my entry visa. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
Jeja, my mother, warned me that I must dress appropriately in Medina—plain, modest clothes that cover me from head to ankle. In Mecca, all pilgrims dress in new, white clothes just as the Prophet Muhammad, Peace Be Upon Him (PBUH) and his followers did during their return to Mecca after being ousted.
Not a single item in my closet was long enough, loose enough or pious enough for this journey. Luckily East Essence, a Silicon Valley based online Islamic store, carries appropriate outfits and head covers at reasonable prices. When I visit Afghanistan, I wear a light linen headscarf that hangs loosely around my face. In Saudi Arabia they wear a hijab-style headdress that tightly wraps the face and masks the hair. In dire need of instructions I searched the internet and found the YouTube channel HijabTrendz, a life saver.
Polka dot Abaya from East Essence
With my wardrobe set, I tackled the next pressing problem—learning how to properly pray five times a day. No respectable Muslim will admit publicly that they don’t know how to pray and I wasn’t about to turn to anyone for help. So, I quietly cursed the Mullah who ended my religious studies at age nine, and again turned to the Internet for help.
Although 1.6 million Muslims believe in one God their practice of Islam differs greatly. I was overwhelmed by the myriad of different prayer practices and couldn’t figure out which one I should follow. But, then I came across the Muslim Converts website—a dumbed down, step-by-step instruction covering the five daily prayers for new converts. After practicing the printed instructions, I graduated to a YouTube channel where each of the five prayers is performed in easy to follow videos.
Group prayer in Medina
I must admit, taking five breaks a day to perform ablutions and then praying is a wonderful way to bring peace and meditation to a hectic workday. I just hope I can sustain it beyond the trip.
In the past year I’ve found myself defending Islam and Muslims as a peaceful people but the atrocities of ISIS and the massacre of Charlie Hebdo cartoonists provoked doubts for me. I realized my knowledge of Islam and Prophet Muhammad, PBUH were limited to stories from my childhood. This pilgrimage gave me the motivation to dig deeper and better understand the origin and current state of Islam—making me a better spokesperson.
To learn more about Islam, I plunged into reading several books. Two stood out: Reza Aslan’s book, No God But God and Tamim Ansary’s book, Destiny Disrupted. Both these authors shine a clear, objective and knowledgeable light on the complex history and culture of Islam.
I also found documentaries—Empire of Faith, PBS Documentary and Decoding The Past, Secrets of The Koran—rigorous in recounting the evolution of Islam. The common theme captured by these works that resonated the most with me was that the Prophet preached Islam to be an extension of Judaism and Christianity. He had great respect for the Jews and Christians of Saudi Arabia, and even based some Muslim religious practices on their traditions. We don’t hear this perspective from Islamic zealots or from Islam’s haters.
Perhaps after my trip, I’ll tackle reading the Quran.
I hope that I’ll learn more about the true meaning of being a Muslim as I walk, pray and meet Muslims from Africa, India, Indonesia and even the United States. After all, in Mecca everyone is meant to be equal—wealth, gender, race and status are irrelevant in the eyes of Allah—dressed in white, taking the same steps as Prophet Muhammad, PBUH.
I plan to blog and post pictures with availability of Wi-Fi and time. I hope to give you a glimpse into a world we know very little about.
Nowroz Mubarak to my Afghan friends and family … and to you.. Here are some of my previous posts about the celebration and traditions of the Afghan New Year: Afghan Fruit Medley for New Year, Afghan New Year/Nowroz Celebration 101, Nowroz Stories: My Afghan American Life.