By Anisa Mehdi
When you see people circling the Ka’aba it may look like a swarm, a school of fish, a galaxy swirling its way counterclockwise … just because. From overhead it’s a maelstrom that never sinks into the sea. It’s a powerful, living organism, a community of Babel, in which individuals experience communion with “the other.”
Tawaf is the first act of the Hajj and it consists of seven rounds of the Ka’aba. The Ka’aba symbolizes the House of the One God; Muslims face toward it from everywhere on earth to pray five times daily. On pilgrimage first and foremost walking around it is your act of worship. If you cannot walk, wheelchair is the way to go nowadays; historically it was hand-carried palanquin. Today an entire floor of the sanctuary is dedicated to access for the disabled.
Let me tell you about my first tawaf this hajj.
Tala, Sameera and I arrived together through King Abdul Aziz Gate. This was their very first time and they were filled with wonder and excitement. I, the experienced one, was fighting fear. I knew the potential crush of the crowd. Yet I knew, too, that what was true for JRR Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Nine heading into Lothlórien was just as true for us at this moment: you bring your truths with you. Surrender is the only way.
We walked as if to the water’s edge, where human beings flowed like a liquid current of life. Like an ocean’s undertow, like a whirlpool’s suck, the circling of tens of thousands of human beings around Islam’s central shrine caught us up and swept us in.
I surrendered my fear to joy. Suddenly I was comfortable, happy, having fun, smiling and greeting others and seeing them greet one another: “Asalaamu ‘alaykum! (Peace!)” We held on to one another, sometimes by hand and sometimes in a conga line. As people moved to exit the whirlpool we let go hands and let them through. A world that works for everyone means we make way for one another. Once they passed we grabbed hands again. With Iranians we chanted in Farsi, with Egyptians in Arabic, with Indians in Urdu, all to the glory of God.
The way was thick at the “starting line” each time. It’s a green string of lights where people slow briefly and raise their right hands saying, “God is greater!” Then, light a traffic jam easing, there is space and breathing room for a bit. But not for long. As time for pre-dawn prayer grew nigh people began claiming their spots; sitting in ever tighter circles around the Ka’aba. When the first adhan (call to prayer) soared above there was less and less room for those of us still circling. We had to weave around those who’d settled down.
On our seventh round I could see a human zigzag ahead as people moved like a single being first left then right to avoid stepping on seated pilgrims. We were heading into a river rapid with no control. We simply had to ride the current; befriend the wave no matter how scary, how tight, and squished we were. Control came from tuning in to the nonverbal consciousness of the crowd.
As one we struggled to keep our footing. Sometimes I had no footing, sometimes I was the ground for someone else. “You were holding me up, Anisa,” Tala told me later. A conjoined consciousness kept us afloat. We were committed to success. Were one to fall, all would go down and that was out of the question. Off to the right someone tumbled and was instantly lifted back up before catastrophe could seize the moment. Our bodies became fluid; bones lost rigidity. Like the scales on a fish or the hairs of a caterpillar we moved as one crying “God is Greater!” Laughing. Sweating. Watching out for one another as our lives depended on each of us. Enlightened self-interest at its best. There was no I or you or them or us: they were me and I was we.
The wave calmed about half way around and we girls moved right, to the edges of the whirlpool, to cool and calm ourselves. A Saudi man, elegant in his white thobe and red and white keffiyah, gestured an exit for us and said, “Ladies, it’s time to pray.”
“But we’re on our seventh!” The green line was a quarter circle away.
“Seven?” His smile grew broad. “Keep going!” And he waved us on.
We stepped over praying hajjis, tiptoed between kneeling pilgrims, chanting and laughing “la illaha il Allah” (there is no god but God) over and over, goal in sight, oblivious in our ecstasy to all but completion.
We pushed past the starting line, giddy, and wobbled off to find a spot to give thanks.
How do we keep this beyond right now?