What an beautiful journey you have ahead of you they said. It is so serene and tranquil in Madinah, they said. You will leave your heart behind, they said. They said many many inspiring things but they also left a lot unsaid…
My experiences during my Umrah left me with a lot of questions. I experienced some highs but also real lows and while trying not to have expectations I still inevitably did have them. Most people leave out the negative parts of this journey, choosing to only speak of the spiritual high they experienced. I want to bring you my honest experience. The good and the bad; in the hope that you will be more emotionally and physically prepared for this journey of the soul.
Our journey started with 9 days in Madinah after which we would go to Makkah for 5 days. We flew Emirates from Cape Town. A 10 hour flight to Dubai with a 3 hour layover and then a 4 hour flight to Madinah. My husband and I were travelling with our mothers. Both of them would require wheelchairs during this journey and we booked assisted travel on all flights. I was told over and over how lucky we were to be taking our mothers on this journey with us and how much sawab (spiritual reward) we would receive. It truly was a blessing to be able to take them. In spite of the complications that came with travelling and getting around with wheelchairs I am forever grateful for it. When I think of how emotional my mum was at one point during the trip that she had actually gotten this far, it made it all worth it. After her health complications and foot amputation from diabetes she had not seriously thought she would make this journey.
The wheelchair assistance from Cape Town airport was seamless. We were fast tracked through the various checkpoints and only had to manage our luggage while 2 ground staff members pushed our mums in the wheelchairs. Our wheelchairs were exchanged for airport service wheelchairs and were booked through to Madinah without extra cost to us. This was not the case in Jeddah when we were coming back. We were required to have the chairs plastic wrapped at our expense for 25 Riyal per chair (about R100) before they would book the chairs through to Cape Town. On the flight itself a smaller slip chair was used to transfer mum to her seat.
Our flight was at 8pm and we spent most of the flight sleeping through the night. An uncomfortable contortion in cattle class in tight seats where there was little leg room and the seats reclined about 2cm. Sleep was intermittent and only achieved because of sheer exhaustion. I had spent the week before the trip wrapping up work and furiously preparing content that needed to be published while I was away. It had taken all my time and I had almost no preparation for the actual rites of the Umrah. We had attended 2 classes with Imam Hassan Walele and had his notes for our journey. But I still felt sorely unprepared. The service on the Emirates flight was friendly and efficient. The food is not too bad. Although my mother who has seriously high standards when it comes to food, completely snubbed her nose. Like with me, airline food will only ever meet levels of acceptability rather than approval.
We arrived in Madinah and met with another couple and their toddler who would be joining us on this trip. We all would be joining a larger group of almost 100 people who had spent a week in Turkey first. They were due to arrive a few hours after us. Our plan was to wait for them at the airport and then we would all be bussed together to our hotel. We had barely sat down at the waiting area when we were approached by airport security. After some confusion and explanation (the language barrier is a big issue), we were told that we could not wait in the airport even if it was a few hours. It seems that it was a security risk for them having people loitering at the airport. As guests of the Saudi Government, we needed to be moved from the airport to our hotel straight away. As our transport had not yet arrived they would facilitate this at their cost.
The seven of us and our luggage were bundled into a minibus taxi driven by an Urdu speaking Pakistani. Amidst broken English and my Mother in law speaking some Urdu we were transported to our hotel in Madinah, the Millenium Al Aqeeq. Here we waited in the hotel lounge for the rest of our group to arrive as all check-in details were with the larger group. The hotel is one block away from Masjid al Nabawi very close to the ladies entrance, gate 16. A quick 5 minute walk from the hotel and you were on the mataaf. This hotel is rated a 5 star hotel online but I would put it at a 4 star. It is efficient and convenient. The ammenities are good quality and service is of a high standard. But it lacks that extra bit of sparkle that would make it 5 star. The hotel in Makkah would offer us that. But I will talk more about it in a later post.
Our room was spacious with enough room for my mum’s wheelchair and a
bathroom that was wheelchair friendly.
It was late evening by the time the larger group arrived and we did not get any of our salaahs in the masjid yet. We checked in and went to our rooms to rest and freshen up. It was already supper time and after a quick recon we found some casual shawarma and kebab shops right around the corner of the hotel. There was also the option of fried chicken and chips known as Broast. These shawarma and Broast shops are everywhere in madinah. I was a tad disappointed to discover that sit down restaurants were not a big thing here. There were some Pakistani or Indian cuisine places but they were very casual. The kind of places where they covered the table in plastic before you sit so they could just whip the whole thing off when you’re done. The food was tasty but I can’t say much for the experience, except that it’s functional. Sit down restaurants were usually located in the hotels which surround the Masjid. These were really expensive. Think 35 Riyal (about R150) for a bowl of soup or 90 Riyal (R360) for a steak. At a 4 to 1 exchange rate, the Rand was weak and food was expensive. We kept mostly to buying shawarmas and chicken from the takeout shops which averaged at 6 to 11 Riyal for a shawarma. Chicken and chips for 4 was about 16 Riyal.
Pav Baji is an Indian Street Food snack we bought at a smaller section of the huge Dubai airport.
My first experience of the Arab attitude towards women was on that first night when we went to buy some food. I stopped at the shawarma shop where I wanted to order from and greeted the man behind the counter. I got no response. My husband came up behind me and greeted as well and was instantly greeted back. This would prove to be the standard throughout most of our trip. Women are second rate citizens in this country. Facilities seem to be fewer. There are more limitations on women in terms of time and access in the haram. Separate queues in fast food places. The only place we seemed equal was when it came to haggling over price while shopping. This was the only time when men seemed willing to engage properly with a women or even give them the time of day. Most of these vendors though were not Arab, but came from countries like Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
Arab men seemed innately uncomfortable if you were in their space. I must admit, I really struggled with this attitude. If I had been in the country much longer I suspect I would have gotten myself into some trouble. I tend to speak up when confronted by rudeness or inequality and it would have been hard biting my tongue for much longer. Sabr (patience) is the name of the game here and this would be one of my tests.
Later that night we would go to the Prophet SAW’s mosque, Masjid al Nabawi. This would be my first experience of this beautiful architectural marvel and of the famed Rawdatul Jannah or Garden of Jannah (the green carpet area) around the grave of Prophet Muhammad and his two khalifas, Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Umar. I will save this account for my next post as there is lots more to share about it and this post is already too long. If you have made it this far, thank you for your commitment and stay tuned.