Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Hajj

At the market where I shop, a Palestinian guy has a stand that sells great Middle Eastern food. He's as American as I am, except the accent, and I didn't really think of him at all in religious terms until last year when his assistant ran the stand for several weeks and we asked where Omar was.

"He's doing the Hajj."

Wow. When he came back, we asked him all about it and he told us amazing sotries. You could tell it was utterly moving to be among so many people from around the world, all in one place at one time for one purpose. He seemed to have been a bit shocked by the juxtaposition of extreme wealth in Saudi Arabia and the deformed and impoverished Indian beggars whose Hajj was paid for by the Saudis.

By far, he said, the stoning of the pillars was the most dangerous part of the pilgrimage. He said you could feel the tension as people approached, and the crowds concentrated. He was certain that if he lost his footing, he'd be dead. With old and infirm pilgrims in the throng, I can hardly imagine what that must be like. Poor Omar had to take twice the risk: His wife was too scared to approach the pillars, so she gave her stones to him and made him throw them.

Crowds were an issue everywhere, it seems. He told us how the pilgrims camped in groups, as they had traveled, based on ethnicity. And the best strategy was to perform the rituals in the same group, for the sake of strength in numbers and protection. Keep the women in the middle, the strong men on the leading edge. Don't be afraid to use your elbows.

He said the Iranians and the "Chinese" (I'm guessing he meant Turkmens from western China) were particularly effective at this tactic. His group was all American Muslims, of course.

"We tried it, moving in a pack like that, but after a while everyone went his own way."

Yep. Americans. God love us. Or Allah.