This article about clerics getting all miffed that Hajjis were taking selfies really irritated me. Apparently, it was all kinds of wrong because it was ‘touristy-behaviour’, ‘humble bragging’, etc. I do wish to differ, and would like to point out a small fact: all these people, clerics or otherwise, complaining about these selfies either live/work there and/or have been to Hajj dozens of times and have the luxury of passing by Mekka and/or Medinah whenever they feel like it, or they simply haven’t been there at all. That’s it. I cannot imagine a single person in their right mind who has been to Hajj who hasn’t at least had the urge to get their picture taken, as a selfie or any other kind, to preserve that memory forever. I just simply can’t. I can’t imagine how anyone would not want to document and tell the world ‘I MADE IT PEOPLE!!’. Seriously, I just can’t! Would you climb all the way to the top of Mount Everest and not want to show everyone you did it? Would not want your picture taken as you receive that long awaited PhD graduation certificate? Man, people even consider standing in front of the Whitehouse an accomplishment. So why not this?
I mean, listen, you’re there and your trying to get everything right, trying to do it all perfectly, trying to squash in as much duaa as you can and read as much Quraan as you can, trying to stay awake for as many hours as you can to make the most use possible of every hour and every minute and every second that you’re there, all while trying to avoid getting crushed to death by the millions of people crammed into the same relatively small space with you. You feel small and insignificant and dirty and poor, and weak and mortal and in so, so much need for guidance and mercy and forgiveness. You’re there and it’s just you in this world, just you and Him with nothing in between, and He’s looking straight into you and you’re so ashamed of yourself and the lifetime of sins and disobedience that you’re carrying on your back, so ashamed of the pathetic list of wordly nothings you’ve come to ask for while the reality is you don’t really deserve anything at all. And yet, you’re here, in His home, at His door, asking to be let in and to be forgiven and to be guided and to be protected from your own self, because you simply can’t make it on your own. And you know that He is the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious, so there’s hope for you yet. It’s a completely different world, a completely different time. Like an eternity of twilight where the sun neither comes up nor goes down. Where the outside world simply doesn’t exist: the world of wars and sitcoms and restaurants and careers and dreams for a future full of pathetic aspirations. It’s like this is your home and the rest of your life is a holiday. It’s where you truly experience the feeling of humility and yearning, and where you can finally and willingly let it all go, and just be.
Nothing can describe that experience. Nothing can frame it in words nor in pictures, and each and every person tastes it in their own distinct flavor. But the sense of accomplishment, of overwhelming joy, of a dream come true, and wanting to share that and everything else with the whole world: that’s one thing everyone has in common. And how best to preserve if just an inkling of that feeling? Why, take a picture of course! Take a picture of me in my ihram, with my head shaved bald (for guys of course) or my cool hijab and matching abaya, with my eyes sunken from lack of sleep and my hands and feet smudged with dirt, and if pictures could document smell, I would smell like 8 skunks and a dead moose from the sweat, both mine and what got grinded into my clothes from the people squashed around me. Take that picture dude! And make sure to get the Kaaba in the background. That smallish block of brick covered in black that I’ve been dreaming of seeing, dreaming of touching for as long as I can remember. Can that picture describe what I felt when I first saw it, between the pillars and chandeliers as I first stepped foot through Bab Alsalam? Can it play the music screaming in my head as I ascended from the basement and it loomed up in my view in all its grandeur and magnificence? Can that picture describe the thoughts, agonies, dreams, yearning, past present and future, of all those millions of beings circling and chanting and stretching their arms just to touch it with the tips of their fingers? No, it can’t. But it’s the closest thing to it.
I can’t remember how many pictures I took when I was there 4 years ago, but I know they weren’t nearly as many as I would have liked. I wish I could’ve caught that man whose voice I heard behind me over the din an hour after the sun had come up, crying and wailing in a language I couldn’t understand, but also could, and then literally crawled and dragged himself across the floor towards the basin and the Kaaba. Everything from the agony etched on his face to the scraping of his nails on the marble embodied a humility and shameless groveling, and told a thousand stories that I instantly understood but could never describe. I remember a faint thought fluttering around in my head as I watched him in awe: if he crawls all the way down the stairs he’ll be trampled to death in 3 seconds. I wish I had filmed the small group of old men and women who had just arrived late at night, and were shuffling across the huge yard towards to the Haram, their hands up and their tears running down their wrinkled faces, chanting in their cracked voices: ‘Labeik Allahoma labeik!’ I wish I had had the time to carry my camera around the different camps in Arafa, to snap pictures of people of all ages and colours and languages, as they hunched over their Quran books or crouched over their hands, concentrating so hard on their duaa, with no eyes or ears for anyone or anything around them. Or to picture the hundreds of trucks and freezers parked all along the highway and at every bus stop and petrol station and any expanse of asphalt big enough to hold them, giving out free food, drinks, water, blankets, whatever, and just asking for the Hajji’s prayers for them and their parents in return. Or to record the couple sitting in the row behind me on the bus: a young man and his elderly father, as they smiled at each other and chanted together, so happy that they were on this historic and intimate journey, to the Home of the Almighty. Or the other couple, an elderly man and his wife with the word ‘Bosnia’ printed on the back of their matching pink shirts, as the hurried in front of me down the dark and noisy tunnel, with the heavy traffic on our right and the concrete wall on our left, until they finally came out on the other side to the fresh air and the relative quiet, stopped, looked at each other, smiled in relief, then walked away with each one’s arm around the other. I wish I could have recorded that Juma prayer, the day before Arafa, and the millions upon millions of people around us filling every possible space in and around and behind the Haram, reaching all the way over the low hills across the road and sitting in the streets and alleys of the large market behind it, as we listened to Sheikh Alsudais as he told us that today, we were the guests of the Almighty in His home. I wish I could have captured the sea of people walking in front, behind and around me as we trudged that afternoon from the first day of Aljamrat towards the Haram, so many people! So many, that when I looked up at the signs over my head I realized that we were walking down a huge highway several lanes wide and several miles long, packed to the brim with people walking, walking, walking towards the same place, like a river that has no end.
I have a thousand and one memories of that place and that time, but no number of pictures or blog posts would do it justice. But still, that’s the closest I have to it. That memory is something that I want to preserve forever, to show the entire world, to share with each and everyone, and to encourage everyone to go and experience it themselves, because there’s simply nothing like it. And once you go, you’ll never ever lose the sense of longing to return. Like that was your home and the rest of your life is the holiday.
So for all the know-it-alls telling people not to take their selfies and ‘just focus on your Hajj’, I say this: into malkom wu malna? And for the Hajjis I say: fix that hijab and ihram and take that selfie, and show the world that THIS is where it’s happenin’!