My grandfather was a magician in his warmth — a man who paved the way for my life as an American. He had six children and sixteen grand-children. He used to tower above me, called me Master Mustafa when he was proud of me, used to make it feel like a chant. The day he passed I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. I woke up to the news. My father was in Pakistan with him, and it was on me to be strong for my aunties.
He was just too young. At his age, so young, he should not have left me yet.
My grandmother still wakes to this day, keeps her memories of this dashing man to herself, a love-locked treasure chest. My father grows out of his own father’s shadow, knowing every decision made for his health is of the utmost importance. I prayed for my grandfather’s happiness, and that one day I could see him again. But I didn’t expect to see him on my trip to Mecca, Medina, and Mina in 2013 for Hajj.
In Mina, we took shelter across the sprawling desert. We laid our heads to Earth, stayed within our confines. I caught glimpses of how the 1% performed their Hajj in these Mina tents. They had plasma TVs, satellite cable and radio, plenty of fresh food and drink throughout the day. In our tent, I rolled my sleeping bag out and made my bed, as not to intrude on anyone else’s space.
My neighbor to my right was an elderly man who was getting married after his Hajj. My neighbor to my left was my father, without whom I could not have done my Hajj. My neighbors to the front were a father and son from Algeria. They taught me French deep into the night, when we couldn’t sleep, when we felt the mysticism and spirituality of our religion with us. For how else would we ever encounter each other, if not for our faith?
In our tent, there were simple rules, some unspoken. Be on time for salat, five times a day. Do not complain. Don’t forget to eat and when you eat, eat reasonably. Stay with your group. Be compassionate, and patient. Especially patient.
I was in a no mans’ land — yet I was with all my brothers and sisters across the globe. I witnessed for myself all walks of life, bearing all to set foot on holy land. I circled the Ka’baa, drank the zamzam, shaved my head clean, made conversation amidst a clairvoyant night, continually questioning. The nights fell and it seemed we were no longer inhabitants of our little blue planet Earth… no…we were no longer mortal.
We appeared translucent, fluid even, as we roamed unknown terrain in some corner of the cosmos. We were as close to heaven as we would ever be. And the entire time, we felt our loved ones with us.
While there, I bore witness to a wide range of miracles of the human spirit. One look over my shoulder — a sea of Muslims, approaching an escalator in the desert. One slip, one awkward landing, and they would crumble like dominoes, toppling over each other in confusion. Their persistence struck my heart. I saw the rich and wealthy royals of Mecca — they saw a bird’s eye view. In their black helicopter, every ritual is completed. I saw them circle the Ka’baa, the gust of machinery their sole saving grace for grandiosity, and watched them throw stones at Satan from high.
I saw men on the cusp of a lifetime put their health on the line for their pilgrimage. I saw women holding their children high above the crowd as they completed their rounds, a grip so firm the children had no choice but to let go of their inhibitions. I saw the bald heads of my brothers, of my own father’s. I saw how the dove-white cloth brought a cleansing to my skin, made me no different than my neighbor.
At times, I was God’s witness standing before the Ka’baa, the noise deafeningly loud, the rhythm of the circular motion, the blinding purity of the white cloth en masse. I raised my palms to my face, studied the lines in them as if I had never seen them before. Traced them with my index. Prayed for what everybody prays for. To be happy. To find what it is that drives me, that gives me purpose. For my parents to be happy and for my future kids to be happy.
I felt the enormous weight of faith when I let go of the present. My mind drifted to memory lane…all the people I have met, all the places I have been…visions of each floated in my consciousness, until it happened.
I saw him.
Smaller-than-average head, a twinkle in his eyes, dimples and freckles alike speckled on his cheeks. I got choked up, my eyes welled with tears and I let them fall, one by one, on the soil that captured so many Muslims’ common hopes and dreams and fears. I felt thankful I could stand there, my heart in my throat, my hands at my sides, connecting to him.
Ordinarily I would feel shame, weeping in front of my parents like that. As I probably should. But not on my Hajj. Not when it left me refreshed; at the brink of youthful cynicism, my eyes opened to the humanity that comes with faith. Not when it renewed my relationship with my grandfather, somewhere where we both felt someplace far, far from our worldly existence.
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Mustafa Abubaker is a novelist, author, writer, journalist and poet. He is in the process of writing his debut novel.