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This year’s Hajj is a landmark: the first full pilgrimage after a daunting three-year period when the COVID-19 pandemic sharply reduced the scale of one of Islam’s holiest and most beloved rites.
Millions of Muslims from around the world will start converging next week on Mecca in Saudi Arabia to begin the several days of rituals at holy sites in and around the city. For pilgrims, it is the ultimate spiritual moment of their lives, a chance to seek God’s forgiveness for their sins and walk in the footsteps of revered prophets like Muhammad and Abraham.
It’s a mass, communal experience, with Muslims of many races and classes performing it together as one. But it is also deeply personal; every pilgrim brings their own yearnings and experiences.
The Associated Press spoke to several pilgrims from far-flung places as they prepared for their journey.
GAZA: Amid family’s love, her dream comes true
It’s been hard, raising 10 children on her own and living in the Gaza Strip, blockaded on all sides and torn by multiple wars. But Huda Zaqqout says her life feels miraculous because she is surrounded by her family, including 30 grandchildren.
And now, at 64, she is finally going on Hajj. It just so happens that now, after an easing of Saudi policy, more women pilgrims can participate without a “mahram,” or a male relative to escort them. It’s serendipitous timing for Zaqqout, who has waited years for this opportunity, and whose sons cannot afford to make the long, arduous trip from Gaza to Mecca.
“Gaza is like a prison. We are locked up from all directions and borders,” she said.
Instead, she will travel with a group of women, all over 60.
It will be a dream come true for Zaqqout, who says her dreams are often premonitions.
There was the dream that predicted her triplets. Or another that promised something good would follow something bad. The bad turned out to be that, after serving 10 years in prison, her husband took a younger, second wife and eventually left Zaqqout. But the good, she says, was that she emerged stronger, blessed by the love of her large family.
In April, she dreamt Prophet Muhammad was standing beside her.
“After I saw the prophet, I just felt I want to be there, in his proximity,” she said. She immediately signed up for an Umrah, the so-called “lesser pilgrimage” to Mecca that can happen any time.
She had registered for Hajj in 2010 but had never been selected to go. After she returned from Umrah, she nervously tuned into the radio broadcast announcing this year’s Hajj pilgrims. She fell to the ground, crying with joy, when her name was announced.
For Gazans, the trip is particularly hard. The tiny Mediterranean coastal territory has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when the militant group Hamas took power. Though pilgrims are allowed to travel, it is a bureaucratic nightmare. Then the arduous bus ride to Cairo Airport takes at least 15 hours and sometimes twice that due to long waits at the border and Egyptian checkpoints in the Sinai.
That hasn’t dampened Zaqqout’s joy. Her neighbors congratulate her. She watches YouTube videos to learn the Hajj rituals and goes to physiotherapy for her feet, which often hurt, knowing she’ll be doing a lot of standing and walking.
At her house in an old section of Gaza City, her grandchildren throng around her. At one point as she told her story, Zaqqout started to cry; the children hugged her and cried with her. When she went shopping for gifts, prayer mats and clothes, one grandson insisted on accompanying her, holding her hand the whole time.
Zaqqout feels Hajj is the last thing on her life’s to-do list. She has no debts, her children are married and have families. “After that, I don’t need anything from life.”
On Mount Arafat, the climactic moment of the Hajj, she said she will pray for peace and love between people. And she’ll pray for her family.
“I would like to see my children live a happy life and be proud of their children.”
INDONESIA: He set aside a few coins a day
At a rural intersection outside Jakarta, 85-year-old Husin bin Nisan stands guard, his hands nimbly signaling for vehicles to stop or proceed. It’s a blind curve, and approaching traffic can’t see what’s coming. Now and then, a driver thanks him with a few coins that he tucks into his orange vest.
Husin is a “Pak Ogah,” a type of volunteer traffic warden found across Indonesia. Nearly every day for more than 30 years, he has directed traffic in a poor village called Peusar, living off tips equivalent to a few dollars a day.
The whole time, he has put aside coins for his dream. It has been a wait of more than 15 years, but finally Husin is going on the Hajj.
Husin tearfully recounted the prayer he had repeated: “I beg you, God … open the way for me to go to Mecca and Medina. Please give your blessing.”
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has a staggeringly long line of citizens wanting to go on Hajj; wait times can last decades. It lengthened even more when Saudi Arabia barred foreign pilgrims in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, when Hajj reopened but with age restrictions, less than half of Indonesia’s quota could attend, said Arsyad Hidayat, director of Hajj Development at the Religious Affairs Ministry.
“The waiting period for the pilgrims was doubled,” he said. “And when it returns to normal to 100% of our quota, the impact of not having the pilgrimage for two years is still there.”
To catch up, Indonesia negotiated with Saudi Arabia and received an additional 8,000 spots this year, reaching an all-time high of 229,000. Authorities are giving special preference to older people. Nearly 67,000 of this year’s pilgrims are above 65, including more than 8,200 above 85. The oldest is a 118-year-old woman. The elderly will get extra services, including first-class flights and special accommodations and health care.
Husin has spent much of his life awaiting this chance. After two decades working as a Pak Ogah, he managed in 2009 to save the 25 million rupiah ($1,680) needed to register for the pilgrimage. It took four more years before authorities conveyed the date he would go — 2022, nearly a decade in the future.
When 2022 arrived, he couldn’t go because he was over the age limit. It was a blow, but he kept his faith that the pandemic would end and he would make it to Mecca.
A father of four and grandfather of six, Husin still works every day. His wife helps him put on his vest in their small home. Thin, with thick white hair and white beard, he walks to his intersection. He sometimes stands directing traffic for 12 hours a day, taking breaks sitting under a tree by a nearby cemetery.
Earlier this year, he paid off the remaining 26 million rupiah ($1,750) and was confirmed for this year’s Hajj.
In early June, Husin packed his suitcase, including his “ihram,” the white robe that all male pilgrims wear. Then he put on his best clothes and said goodbye to his family and friends. He began his journey.
“Now, I could die in peace at any time because God has answered my prayer,” he said.
LEBANON: A near-death experience cemented his faith
Abbas Bazzi doesn’t fit most people’s image of a religiously observant Muslim. With his long hair pulled back in a bun, he co-owns an organic cafe and grocery in Beirut’s trendy Badaro neighborhood. He sells sugar-free smoothies and vegan shawarma sandwiches. He teaches conscious breathing classes, practices reiki healing and does yoga.
He is now preparing for what he hopes will be his fourth Hajj journey.
Bazzi was born in a Shiite Muslim community in south Lebanon; his parents were secularists who never went to mosque. He took an interest in Islam on his own, beginning to pray at age 9 and to fast at 11. Later, he studied all the major world religions — “a journey from west to east,” he said. But he remained most convinced by Islam.
Bazzi attributes his early interest in religion to the circumstances surrounding his birth. He was born prematurely, at home, in 1981, at the height of Lebanon’s civil war. The newborn was not breathing properly, so a friend of his mother’s — a religiously observant woman — gave him rescue breathing until they could get him to the hospital.
In the first month of his life, Bazzi said, he was so sickly that his parents didn’t name him, fearing he would die. Although not a practicing Muslim, his father made a vow: If his son lived, he would name him for Imam Abbas, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures. The child lived; his father kept his promise.
As Bazzi grew up, he explored spiritual practices, including meditation and yoga. While others found the blend between those practices and Islam strange, he saw them as complementary.
Some people may think that a Hajj pilgrim should look different or pray more conspicuously, he said, but “I made a decision in my life that all of my life will be in service to the divine project.”
In 2017, at 36, Bazzi applied for the Hajj. But up to the last minute, he hadn’t received his visa. He went to the airport with his group of pilgrims and saw them off, waving goodbye. The next morning, he got a call saying his visa was ready. He scrambled to book a new ticket and followed his friends to Mecca.
“I’ve gotten used to surprises in my life,” he said with a laugh.
In Mecca, he said, “I saw peace. I saw this is the only place where people are gathered from every country in the world, every color … different doctrines. I saw unity, I saw love.”
He returned the next year, and the years after that, feeling he had more to learn. “It’s not possible to reach knowledge of all of (Islam) in a single trip or a single day.”
This year could be another nail-biter. His visa is approved, but his passport has expired. Renewing it was delayed because so many Lebanese are trying to get passports to leave the country since its economy collapsed in 2019.
Time is running short.
“I am praying,” Bazzi said. “God willing, if it’s meant to happen, it will happen.”
UNITED STATES: Her quest gained an urgency during the pandemic
A wave of emotions washed over Saadiha Khaliq as she reflected on the spiritual significance of her upcoming pilgrimage to Mecca, more than 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) from her home in the US state of Tennessee.
“It’s really this invitation and this honor,” said the 41-year-old Pakistani-American engineer, who lives near Nashville. “You just hope that you’re worthy of that honor and that it’s accepted from you.”
Her tears flowed.
Undertaking the pilgrimage has been on Khaliq’s mind for several years; she would read and watch videos about Hajj rituals and ask others who had gone about their experiences.
Her religious quest gained urgency during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic really put things in perspective,” she said. “Life is short, and you have limited opportunities to do things that you really want to do.”
This year, she applied for places on the Hajj for herself and her parents. While they’ve been to Mecca before, this will be the first Hajj for all three.
“This is kind of a big, lifelong dream and achievement for them,” she said. “And I’m just grateful that I get to be part of the whole experience.”
Khaliq was born in the United Kingdom. In the 1990s, her family moved to the United States and eventually to Tennessee, where her father is a mathematics professor.
As part of her preparations, she’s trying to go in with a clean slate, from clearing financial obligations to working to make amends and seek forgiveness from family members or friends who she might have had issues with.
“It’s very hard to stand there [in Mecca], if there’s negativity in your heart … if you made space for things that are resentment or anger,” she said. “And I’m still working on cleansing that part of my heart.”
As the date nears, she has experienced an array of emotions, including a sense of going into the unknown.
She marvels at the sense of unity and humility that comes as Muslims of diverse backgrounds from around the world pray next to one another. All of them, she said, are on a journey to God, seeking forgiveness.
“You are now standing before him without any of your social status, your wealth, and you come before him with some good deeds and some bad deeds,” she said. “All you can do, as a Muslim, is hope that at the end of the day, this is pleasing to God.”
IRAQ: He is taking no chances that could upend his pilgrimage
Two years ago, the pandemic wrecked Talal Mundhir’s Hajj plans. So the 52-year-old Iraqi took no chances when he and his wife were confirmed for this year’s pilgrimage.
He stopped playing soccer, one of his favorite pastimes, fearing he might get injured and be unable to go.
A resident of the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, Mundhir tried to go on Hajj several times over the past two decades, but never made the draw. Finally, he was accepted — in 2021, when no foreigners could go because of COVID-19.
It was a close call this year as well, since Mundhir is unemployed amid Iraq’s economic crisis. But he and his siblings recently sold a property they inherited from their father. His portion of the proceeds covered the Hajj expenses.
Last week, Mundhir and his wife set off with their group for Mecca for an early arrival before the pilgrimage’s official start on June 26. It was 36 grueling hours on a bus across the desert.
But he said all the exhaustion from the road vanished once he and his wife visited the Haram, the mosque in Mecca that houses the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site. Millions of pilgrims will walk seven times around the cube-shaped Kaaba to kick off their Hajj.
“I can’t describe the feeling,” Mundhir wrote in a text message from Mecca. “I felt such mental ease, but at the same time, tears. I don’t know if they were tears of joy or of humility.”
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.