A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

A Downpour in the Desert –My Hajj Story

Most Hajj stories focus upon the sense of awe and inspiration that arise upon gathering in Mecca with thousands of Muslims from around the world, to perform one of the five pillars of Islam. I felt those emotions, too, but something else stands at the forefront of my memories.

Dhul-Hijja  in 1996 corresponded to April, when full summer already blazed across  Saudi Arabia, hot enough to kill a person. My husband and I decided to make Hajj, before the calendar advanced Dhul-Hijja into an even hotter season. Transportation would be easy; we would take a bus across the country, from Riyadh to Mecca.

I was not worried about the heat, however. I was worried about crowds. Every year, returning pilgrims came with stories of stampedes resulting in death by the hundreds. An average of two million people converge and move together from place to place along a twelve mile tract of desert from Mecca to the Plain of Arafat and back again.

Everyone told me the Hajj would be difficult. Now, years later, memories of my Hajj experience float through my mind as if I’m watching someone else’s film. Certain scenes are frozen, but most are lost in the maze and flash of the changing shapes, colors of Mecca, the desert, and the flowing clothes of the pilgrims. Sometimes I wonder whether I was really as sick as I felt, but I no longer need to know.

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I was still worried about crowds when we stopped on the Plain of Arafat, where we stayed all afternoon, in prayer and contemplation. Neither the men’s nor the women’s tent was air-conditioned, and as the afternoon progressed, my heart rate increased dramatically and I could feel my cheeks throb with blood.

The other ladies noticed how red I’d become. They encouraged me to persevere. The day would be over soon.  We sat in the tent, prayed and read the Qur’an. Allah would reward my suffering.

My head ached with every blink of my eyes; I feared I’d faint from dizziness, or suffocate from lack of air; my heart beat so fast that my respirations became shallow. I had planned to say prayers for each of the dear people in my life, as well as for my worries and hopes, but I forgot them all. I couldn’t pray for anything except a quick end to that day, and the stamina to endure the rest of it. Toward evening, my husband came to check on me, and seeing my condition, fetched a magnificent block of ice, for which I wept in relief and thanksgiving. One of the ladies told me to put the ice in the barrel for community use, but I didn’t. I used it to rub myself from head to foot, over and over until the ice had melted. I felt ashamed, imagining the other women regarding me as stingy, but  the instinct to self-preservation had taken hold. I believe I might have died that day, had I not rubbed myself with ice. I was a fair-skinned Westerner, out of my element, physiologically unprepared to endure long hours of extreme heat.

That evening, I moved with the crowd to Mina, to prepare for the next ritual.

This time, we stayed in air-conditioned tents, the men in one huge tent and the women in another. My tent housed forty women—I counted them— each of us entitled to space sufficient to roll out just one smaller-than-twin-size pad. I rushed into the corner spot, with the tent skin on my left side and the air conditioner at my feet. It was the coolest location in the tent, yet the air never became cool. The air-conditioner churned twenty-four hours a day, except for sudden five-minute power outages during which all of our movements froze in mid-air, as we waited impotently for the box to re-start itself.

I suffered from too much heat that week during the Hajj—heat exhaustion or heat stroke, I don’t know, because I had been too sick to shuffle over to the doctor’s tent, that day on the Plain of Arafat where my husband saved my life with a block of ice. I’d been too embarrassed to ask the doctor to come to me, where he’d have had to invade the privacy of Muslim feminine living quarters. The other women had been hot, too, but none of them actually fell sick, as I had. They were Egyptian women, all except me and one other American ten years younger and fifty pounds lighter than me. They appeared to tolerate the heat well, but I did not. The temperature those last few days of April 1996 ran between 40 and 50◦C, maybe higher (104◦F–122◦F).

I could not perform the ritual of stoning the pillars, not only because of heat but because of crowds; my husband did it for me. During that unit of the Hajj, I sat inside the tent during daylight, afraid to go outside. I would emerge gratefully at dusk, and at 3AM I would walk between the tents to the portable showers. Even then, I was hot. The heavens dealt out relief in stingy little puffs of hot air, which never brought comfort, just a momentary lessening of the heat. In the tent, the air-conditioner labored, and I listened to it intently, as if by listening, I could keep it functioning. Even though I was lying with my feet at its base, the cool air dissipated before reaching my head. Only my feet remained comfortable. I didn’t know how I’d survive if the air-conditioner stopped working entirely. This possibility seemed imminent, as the wiring didn’t appear neatly or deliberately connected. In idle moments, I studied the paths of the various wires, in case I’d be called upon to re-establish connections. The five minute power outages which occurred several times each day scared us all, because the machine had to work that much harder to make up for the brief outages. Temperature rises by the minute in the desert.

One night, falling asleep after my 3AM shower, I was awakened by the sound of a downpour. Yes, desert rainstorms do occur, with forceful bursts of water rushing down from the sky all at once. Rain doesn’t usually fall in April, though, so I was sure Allah took pity on my suffering and sent that rain just for me. I opened my eyes slowly, savoring the comfort of the now cool air. The other ladies must have all been sleeping; I didn’t hear a single voice or whisper. I wanted to lift the bottom of the tent and peer out, just to verify that my other senses weren’t playing tricks on me. I wanted the water seep into my side of the tent. I rolled over, opened my eyes and gingerly lifted the bottom of the tent skin. Dawn had infused the night. No water trickled forth. I lifted further. No water danced and curled into sandy rivulets along the edge of the tent. Where had it gone so quickly?

Full consciousness spiraled up, and with it the oppressive, pervasive heat. Could the water have dried up already, in a matter of minutes? Had I fallen back to sleep after the cloudburst? The sand should have borne telltale darkening of not quite evaporated wetness, but I saw no such evidence, and now the air carried not a single discernable molecule of moisture. All forty women seemed to awaken together, for I heard many voices going about the routine of the morning. The air-conditioner droned on and on, like a steady, heavy downpour.

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One never knows what awaits. I had feared crowds, yet nearly died of heat.  From then on, I knew in my gut –not only in my head– that the future is unknown, and that one’s imagined fears can collapse into irrelevance before they materialize.

The opposite is true, too. One’s imagined joys can fizzle into hazy retreat, while totally unexpected blessings flood in, bringing immense happiness, but that is another story.

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13 responses

  1. It’s so interesting. I’ve not gone to Hajj. But i went to an Umrah a year before marriage. And it was such an amazing trip. Esp when i was there, it was almost end of April and the weather was so nice and pleasant.
    I was with my grandma and grandpa, and i am so happy that God gave this appotunity to be with my lovely grandpa. He passed away a year after, while i was preparing for my nikah.. It was such a great lose, bcs he meant alot to me, but sweet moments with him during umrah really calmed me down…

  2. I like to hear/read about people’s Haj experiences. Everyone is so different. For me the most spiritual day was Arafa.
    There is a book called One Thousand Roads to Mecca which was very interesting to read.

  3. ~W~, that book sounds intriguing.

    The experiences of Hajj are extremely varied, depending upon hundreds of conditions, not the least of which is the weather in Mecca. Imagine, though, the thousands and thousands who come, but from where? Each of them has a unique life, perspective, language, culture and experience. Even among compatriots, the variety of experience is immeasureable, yet all are one, at Hajj. All are one body in front of Allah. This is the beauty of it.

    Shahi, I’m sorry you lost your dear grandpa. Your Umrah with him was a blessing, indeed.

    I’ve made Umrah a number of times, and I admit that my Umrah exeriences were more deeply spiritual and fulfilling than going to Hajj. The crowds and difficulties of Hajj put me on an edge.

    If you haven’t gone to Hajj yet, I advise to get the best accomodations you can afford.

  4. I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t gone to Hajj in my adult life although I did so many Umrah and one Hajj with my family when I was a teenager, I plan to go hopefully after the end of my years of studying, there are always things in the way, which brings a common saying in Arabia, Hajj or a trip to the house of Allah is when God allows it, even if you are just one hour away…Interesting to consider the effect of heat, I had a heat stroke on the sea side of Jeddah at around such time twice which made me bed-ridden for a week…

  5. I think you were quite right to put the ice your husband brought for your wellbeing to the use it was intended too. You weren’t selfish, the other women were for pressing you, while they could see you were in a bad state!

    I am sorry that your hajj was not as happy an eperience as should have been, it is very worrying to read how ill you were.
    But I’m glad you have had other beautiful experiences. It must be so special an experience to be actually at mecca!

  6. Subhan Allah ! each person has a different experience ….. We too did our first hajj in 1996 and it was really hot yup …. we too used to take the pieces of ice from the cold box and put it on our heads and rub it on our cheeks …… Hajj and Umrah are a womens jihad according to a hadith and no wonder the reward is so great …… all the sins are washed off as if we were born anew …. isn’t that worth all the sufferings? …… Alhamdulillah they keep improving the facilities for the hujjaj every year still theres more to be done but we should be thankful for whatever improvement has been made since past 12 yrs …. People coming from abroad used to have more problems but this year it was a bit less ….. I think it’s a matter of perspective too coz I’ve heard some hujjaj come here and say that we are so scared we have heard soooo many stories about the difficulties faced but in the end they say Alahmdulillah that our hajj went off well …. I’ve experienced it too ….

  7. Masha’Allah you truely had a grave jihad against the heat in hajj. Masha’Allah your husb brought you ice!! I bet the other women were more jealous their husb didnt’ bring them any…. Allahu Alim. I’m glad you were able to survive hajj and live to tell the tale you so beautifully told.

    Suzie: althoughthere are bad experiences in hajj most poeple leave withthe sence of happiness and happy of the completion of a pillar of islam. We should strive to lok forward to hajj and trust in Allah that bad things wont befall us. A fter all many people go to hajja nd don’t have any problems! i think being prepared is numero uno! 🙂 hope you get a chance in the future I’m sure it would change your life.

  8. Hajj is truly a singular experience, one that I cherish. I actually did experience the profound spiritual depth that most people write about. Absolutely, the experience enriched me tremendously, but I chose to write about one extremely stressful aspect of it, as a counterpoint to the more predictable accounts. I want to show that Hajj contains all sorts of experience, spanning the full range of human possibility, even birth and death.

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