An American Woman on the Hajj (Part-1)


An eminent American journalist and author, MICHAEL JANSEN, is little known to be among the few contemporary Western journalists who have studied Islam in depth and, in the process, have ultimately embraced the faith as their own. Here, in this essay, written in 1974, when she just seventeen, she recounts her first impressions of the Hajj journey that she undertook as a new convert to Islam, and what that journey meant to her as a practical tour, as it were, of the Islamic faith-universe.

Iwas in Mecca at last. Before me was the Ka’bah, a great black cube partly submerged in a torrent of white-robed pilgrims circling round and round. Around us, like a great dam containing the torrent, stood the massive walls and the seven slim minarets of the Sacred Mosque. High above, the muezzin began the evening call to prayer: “Allahu Akbar!… God is Most Great!”

Up on the hills the thin reedy voices of the muezzins in the smaller mosques joined in, each voice picking up the call in a fugue of prayer soaring into the golden crest of the afternoon.

In response, the crowds circling the Ka’bah slowed and stopped while new thousands flooded into the courtyard. In unison we bowed, fell to our knees and touched our foreheads to the earth, the familiar words of the prayer filling the courtyard and cloisters with a hoarse whisper that spilled out into the streets of the hushed city.

Indeed, the very air vibrated in anticipation of the days to come. In the morning I would embark on the last miles of a journey that had begun years before and far away. It was not, certainly, comparable to the trans-continental trek of the African Muslim, or the long sea voyage faced by the believer in Asia, or even to the former caravan journey from Damascus. Yet, in a sense, it was an even longer journey. For my journey had begun not only in another culture, but in another religion.

I have deep roots in America. Some of my father’s forbearers migrated to the Virginia Colony in 1609, and on my mother’s side are ancestors who fought with Washington and Lincoln and a great-grandfather who was a Pony Express rider. Until I was 16, I myself had had an upbringing generally regarded as typically American: Midwestern, middle class and Protestant. I grew up in Bay City, Michigan, belonged to the Episcopal Church, went to Sunday School and sang in the church choir.

At 16, however, I discovered the Koran. I was attending a high-school journalism seminar at the University of Michigan and I met some students from Iraq. We somehow began to discuss the Koran. I decided to read a translation and, one evening shortly after, opened a copy to the first chapter:

“All praise is due to God, the Lord of the Worlds, the Beneficent, the Merciful; the Master of the Day of Requital; Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help; Guide us on the Right Path, the Path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favor, not of those on whom wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray.”

Those words, simple and direct, expressing ideas I had always held, so impressed me that I immediately set out to memorize them. Indeed, they drew me into Islam, an example perhaps of the Prophet Muhammad’s assertion that everyone is born a Muslim and made a Jew or a Christian by his parents.

From that time forward, I charted my life in the direction of Mecca. I studied Islamic history at Mount Holyoke College; I spent the summer of 1961 working with Palestinian refugees in Beirut; I earned a graduate degree at the American University of Beirut; I married and put down new roots in the Lebanese village of Shemlan. Finally, one bright December morning in 1967, with a descendant of the Prophet’s family as my witness, I formally declared my adherence to Islam.

Like every Muslim, I was theoretically on the road to Mecca from that moment on. I had not envisaged making the journey so soon, however, and when the opportunity to go to Mecca unexpectedly arose in 1973 I was completely unprepared. I had to find out, for example, where to buy the Ihram, where to book accommodations, how to engage a mutawwif and so forth. Officials, acquaintances and even friends who had made the Hajj proved to be mines of misinformation. Airline reservations clerks, for example, said there was no need to book far ahead, but three weeks before the Hajj was due to begin I learned there were almost no seats left and was barely able to get one. One presumably knowledgeable person said I would not be able to go on the Hajj at all because I had not assumed an Arabic name when I made my declaration. This was especially upsetting, first because my name, Michael, appears in the Koran (Sura II–verse 91), but also because, as I said, I had never considered myself as a ‘convert.’ I had simply considered myself as someone who had recognized where she belonged. (Later, I learned that it was customary to take an Arabic name, but not necessary.)

The actual journey to Mecca began on the fifth of Dhu al-Hijjah, 1393 (the 29th of December, 1973, according to the Gregorian calendar), at Beirut International Airport, but it was not until the afternoon of the seventh that I donned the Ihram and drove along on the road from Jiddah to Mecca. The road was crowded with cars, buses and trucks all packed with pilgrims chanting the Hajj refrain, the Talbiyah:

Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!

Labbayk, la sharika laka, Labbayk!

Inna-al-hamda, wa an-ni’mata laka wa’l mulkl

La sharika laka, Labbayk!

Here I am, O God, at Thy Command,

Here I am!

Thou art without associates

Thine are praise and grace and dominion

Thou art without associates, Here I am!

As we drove along, I had joined in, sometimes at the beginning, sometimes in the middle, “Labbayk. . . Labbayk!” echoing over the stony plain. “Labbayk . .. Labbayk!” a tunnel of sound from Jiddah to Mecca, reaffirming, with each mile, the directness of the relationship between God and man that is fundamental in Islam.

At the end of the tunnel, the car plunged into choked city streets, crept down the steep side of the bowl that holds the Holy City and stopped at the Mecca Hotel, directly across the street from the Masjid al-Haram, the Sacred Mosque. There I alighted, suddenly aware, amid the torrent of white-robed pilgrims that I was about to embark on an even more momentous journey than the one I had already accomplished.

Like most pilgrims, I could barely resist the desire to pay my formal respects at the Ka’bah immediately, but the crowds were so dense that I thought it wiser to wait. In the interim, I stood in the arched cloisters and looked out at the marvelous spectacle taking place in the great courtyard before me.

The center of the spectacle, of course, was the Ka’bah, shrouded in black silk, with a wide band of golden calligraphy two-thirds of the way to the top. Just that morning, the Ka’bah had received its ceremonial washing and, as is customary, the corners of the covering had been raised for the duration of the Pilgrimage, exposing the dark-gray blocks of Mecca stone of which it is constructed, roughly cemented together.

Around the Ka’bah, following their mutawwifs and repeating the customary prayers, swirled men and women of every race and nation, from every corner of the earth. There were brown men, black men, yellow men and white men; some young, some old; some with the bearing of ancient patriarchs, others with the faces of medieval peasants and warriors, many with the clean-shaven look of modern businessmen. It was as if the sea had risen in a great tide around the world and swept us all to Mecca and into the whirlpool spinning about the massive black cube.

After a short time I realized that the crowds were not going to diminish, and decided to delay no longer. Leaving the cloisters, I walked along one of the nine broad stone walks that lead to the wide marble oval pavement which surrounds the Ka’bah and tucked my sandals (which I had removed before entering the mosque) into the gravel near a bench. Then I engaged a mutawwif and, left shoulder to the Ka’bah, edged into the current.

Although this first ceremony is a moving experience for a pilgrim, the Tawaf, or ‘the Circling’—that is making seven circuits around the Ka’bah—is not, at that point, considered part of the Hajj. Along with the Sa’y, or ‘the Running,’ it comprises the ‘Umrah, or ‘Lesser Pilgrimage’, which is a gesture of respect to the Holy City made by the pilgrim on his first visit. It begins, traditionally, with the pilgrim kissing or touching the Black Stone, but on that night there was no question of my getting near enough to touch it. The throng, gently but firmly, had carried me off.

In spite of its size, the Hajj multitude is surprisingly gentle. Occasionally, as one group or another would attempt to cross the mighty stream, there would be an angry wave of pushing and jostling, but even that was understandable. To many pilgrims, who may never have gone further than the next village before making the Hajj, getting lost or separated was an experience too terrifying to contemplate.

On the seventh circuit, the mutawwif steered me from the center of the stream to the outer bank and found a place for us to perform a Salah—the recitation of a prayer while bowing, kneeling and touching the forehead to the earth. This Salah, which completed ‘the Circling,’ is performed near the Place of Abraham, a spot where Abraham prayed.

For the next rite, I mounted the small rocky hillock called al-Safa, turned toward the Ka’bah, raised my hands in salutation and declared my intention to perform the rite of Sa’y , or ‘the Running’. Then, descending from al-Safa, I entered the Mas’a, a spacious promenade bisected lengthwise by two narrow, railed pathways for the wheelchairs of the infirm, and joined another throng of believers, walking briskly to al-Marwa, another hillock, in the first of seven ‘Runnings’ between the hills.

This throng, I found, was more relaxed than the crowds outside. Although there were occasional groups of determined peasants from the Anatolian steppes or the plains of the Punjab, who, arms firmly interlocked, swept other pilgrims aside as they rushed at a headlong pace down the Mas’a, most were exceptionally considerate. Children unconcernedly followed their parents, proud fathers bore infants in their arms and on their shoulders; the old, the blind and the crippled, who either could not afford or would not countenance wheelchairs, slowly but safely made their way.

After the Sa’y, I visited the Well of Zamzam, where Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, found water. I descended the white marble steps to a large divided chamber with a long pipe equipped with brass spiggots running along its back and side walls. Crowding round the taps were ample Egyptian women, who wept as they splashed themselves and everyone else with the warm water, which I found had a slightly brackish smell but little or no taste. At the top of the steps, I saw two men wringing out a long white piece of material: ‘A burial shroud,’ someone said, explaining that some simple folk bring their shrouds to Zamzam because they believe that a shroud bathed in its waters will help them gain entrance to Paradise.

Although, by then, it was long past midnight, I was not disposed to leave, and quietly drifted around the cloisters and galleries. The Gregorian New Year—1974—was an hour old before I recalled that elsewhere people would be celebrating New Year’s Eve. But on that night, I was not of that world. I was in a very special world where dates and hours, mundane duties and appointments did not impose themselves—a world in which my time belonged to God alone.

In the dark corners of the mosque, pilgrims slept wrapped in blankets, shawls and even prayer rugs. During the Pilgrimage, the Sacred Mosque becomes a part of the daily life of the pilgrims as well as a center of Pilgrimage. This may seem surprising to Westerners, but, to a Muslim, religion is a part of living; it is not folded up like a churchgoer’s Sunday best until the next serviceA prayer rug may serve as a bed, blanket, shawl or turban, as well as for devotions. Only the Koran is kept apart, wrapped carefully in a cloth and placed respectfully on top of one’s goods.

As I walked on, the peace and serenity of the mosque crept into my heart. At the rail of the dim gallery above the cloisters, a man sat facing the Ka’bah transfixed, a Koran in his lap, and an Iranian woman stood alone, quietly weeping. In the courtyard, where great throngs still circled the Ka’bah, the sedan chairs of pilgrims unable to perform the Tawaf on foot bobbed above the heads of the multitude like boats plying through waters.

“How far I’ve come,” I thought. “How far I’ve come.”

The next morning, with the thunderous refrain, “Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!” the Pilgrimage began. Thundering through the streets of Mecca, the crowds swept out of the city in a great river that flowed along the broad road to Mina and past Jabal al-Nur, ‘The Mountain of Light.’

For many, the Pilgrimage begins with this first glimpse of Jabal al-Nur, where Muhammad received his first revelation. To them, the mountain where the Prophet was summoned to God’s service finally becomes a reality. Here Muhammad was commanded:

“Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth; createth man from a clot.

Read: And thy Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who teacheth by the pen, teacheth man that which he knew not.”

Here, with these words spoken in this place, Islam began, and here we joyfully responded, “Labbayk, Allahumma, Labbayk!”, knowing that God was, indeed, with us in this lonely inhospitable valley. The sky was a hard ice blue and the air like crystal, sparkling with the rising dust. Yes, this was, indeed, a place fit for revelation, an intense solitary place, brown and blue and filled with white-robed believers as far as the eye could see.

(To be continued)

Michael Jansen is currently a Middle East analyst for The Irish Times (Dublin), and a columnist for The Deccan Herald (Bangalore, India), The Gulf Today (UAE), and The Jordan Times (Amman). She has contributed articles to ARAMCO WORLD magazine, Middle East International (London), Gemini News Service (London) and The Economist (London). She is the author of several books including The United States and the Palestinian People (Beirut); The Battle of Beirut (London and Boston); Dissonance in Zion (London and Boston); The Aphrodite Plot – A Novel about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus (Ann Arbor); and War and Cultural Heritage – Cyprus after the 1974 Turkish Invasion (Modern Greek Studies Department, University of Minnesota). Jansen received her BA in International Relations from Mount Holyoke College and her Master’s from the American University of Beirut with a specialization in the politics of the Middle East. Following the outbreak of the civil war in Lebanon, Jansen took refuge in Cyprus, where she has lived since 1976.

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