As you can imagine, a lot's happened in the last four years. My mum died in September 2013 and in February 2014, I made the decision to re-train as a primary school teacher. The two events were inter-linked, well not so much my mum dying but the time I spent with her in the hospital during the last six months of her life was a direct influence on my career decision. There are so many blog posts to be written from that time but I'll have to do those later, my reason for returning to my blog is because we've recently returned from a family jaunt to Saudi Arabia and there's so much to write about that trip that it inspired me to fire up the blog again! Well actually, it was my niece Nadia who asked me to write about the trip and I thought, "What a great idea!" and committed to doing so.
This will be a long post (as my posts often are) so I suggest you make a cup of tea, grab some biscuits and settle down for the read. Also, an explanation of terms I'll use. In the paragraph above, I referred to my niece Nadia. She's actually the daughter of my first cousin. I'm not sure what you'd call her in the UK, maybe a first cousin twice removed or a second cousin once removed or something like that, it'd be a mouthful whatever it is. So, for the sake of ease, when I refer to my cousin's children, I'll refer to them as niece or nephew - they call me 'khala' which means aunt and it makes sense to us. However, I'm slightly alarmed by the fact that one of my nieces now has children so technically, in Pakistani eyes, I'm now a grandma or a great-aunt at least. That bit concerns me as it makes me feel quite old!
Back to the main reason for this post, our Arabian adventures. By our, I mean me, my two sisters and my dad. We'd never planned to go on this adventure together, it wasn't on our bucket-list and we were all busy taking our separate holidays over the years. But for quite a few years, I'd been trying to find some way of getting into Saudi Arabia to visit my aunt, my mum's beloved older sister Mariam, who I'm also very close to. I last saw her in 2008 and I was getting increasingly desperate to see her, especially after my mum died. There were conversations I needed to have, questions I wanted to ask but most of all, I just wanted to spend time hanging out and chatting. But as a lone female trying to get into the Kingdom, it's practically impossible to get a visa, unless you're travelling with 'mahram'. This is a close male relative (actually defined as someone you couldn't marry as it would be incestuous - this does not include first cousins as in Islam they can marry - and some of my first cousins have), so in my case would be my dad, brother or even my 16-year old nephews! I wasn't planning on travelling with any of them so I kept going round in circles, trying to find a solution. But as they say, 'where there's a will, there's a way' and I asked my nephew Taha (my aunt's grandson and someone who'd grown up in Saudi) to look into possible ways for me to enter the country alone, maybe a business visa or something like that.
Last June, Taha put me in contact with a London-based travel agent who might be able to help with Saudi visas. After a long conversation, I discovered that there was a way! As I'm over 45 (I know, hard to believe), I could join a 'ladies group' made up of two or more women and we would be allowed into the Kingdom without male chaperones. The agent said I could join a group that was already going but the problem with that was that, as a teacher, I'm strictly limited to travelling during school holidays and dates might not work. The only alternative was to make my own group. I've got two sisters, Rahila and Alia, so I asked them if they wanted to come with me. They both replied yes immediately and then we decided to take my dad too as it would be a bit mean to leave him behind when the three of us would be travelling to Saudi. The strand of family we'd be visiting on the trip we're very close to - my aunt has a daughter Bushra who lived with us for a couple of years in the mid-80s while she studied on a beauty therapy course. At the time she had two children, Sana and Taha, and we all spent many hours together back then. I'm sure this is the reason why we have such close bonds and ties now, that time living together and subsequent summer holidays in London when they'd come and stay, together with a third child Omar, who was born after the family left London and returned to Saudi.
At around the same time that we decided we'd be visiting Saudi, Omar was fixing dates for his wedding. Originally he'd planned it for the end of February 2017 but we wouldn't be able to attend as we could only travel during February half term so he very kindly changed the dates of his wedding to when we'd be there. We now had a trip made up of quality time with family, a wedding and the final part - umrah - this is a mini pilgrimage to Mecca and something you're expected to do when you visit Saudi (even for a not-very-religious person like myself), especially as the visa we would be getting was an 'umrah' visa. I don't think tourist visas or visitors visas exist in the country yet...
It was fun planning the trip with my sisters. We took on different roles - Alia booked the flights, I arranged the visas and Rahila picked up the visas and passports. My dad just had to turn up! The first thing we were going to do when we arrived was go for 'umrah' and my other cousin S1 had said she'd accompany us. I felt a little nervous as I'm not religious and I can find it a little uncomfortable being around mega-religious types and S1 is like that. The week before the trip found me consulting YouTube for videos on how to do the prayers as I'd never been taught properly as a child and had never felt the need to learn as an adult. It's amazing what you can learn from YouTube, with the help of a little cartoon character, I have now learnt the sequence for praying!
En-route to Jeddah - just before the plane took off. It was at this point that we realised that four out of five adults from our family were flying together and if anything happened to the plane (i.e. if we died), everything could potentially be left to my brother as me and my sisters don't have wills. We quickly wrote and sent email wills, acting as witnesses to each other, just in case anything happened to us!
If you're going to do 'umrah' as soon as you arrive in the country, you have to make your intention at a certain point while still in the air, known as 'meeqaat'. This means being in the appropriate clothes you have to wear (ihraam). For me and my sisters it was okay as we just had to put an abaya over our clothes and make sure our heads/hair was covered and we could do that when we had a short stopover in Bahrain. For my dad, he had to get changed on the plane from Bahrain to Jeddah. Basically he had to take off all his clothes and then wrap two towels around him, one around his waist and the other draped over one shoulder. Rahila had to take him to the back of the plane to help him get ready. Poor guy, he normally wears a few layers and there he was half naked, wearing a couple of towels! My biggest concern was what if his towels fell off and he was left naked on the plane or at the airport!
Three sisters ready for 'umrah'.
My dad wearing his 'ihraam' at Jeddah airport. We had to wait about an hour as Alia's suitcase had gone to the wrong terminal. My dad was so cold without his layers we had to wrap all our coats around him.
Once we were picked up from the airport by Taha and his dad Rasheed, we went to their flat where we'd be staying - big family reunion. Oh the joy of seeing my aunt again! I don't think she could believe that we were actually there - she'd never ever dreamed that her little sister's three daughters would all come together to visit her and there we were. It was joyful seeing members of my mum's family as I hadn't seen anyone since she'd died but it didn't take long for the tears to start trickling...
After eating and sleeping, we woke in the evening and got ready to go for 'umrah'. What we ate before we went was very important and discussed carefully. "Nothing too spicy," said S1. I didn't understand the relevance of this and it had to be explained to me. Basically, when you go for umrah, you'll also say prayers at Mecca. Before you say any prayers, you have to do 'wuzu' - a ritual for washing and preparing yourself for prayer. There are various things that can 'break' your wuzu and you have to do it again before you pray. Included in the long list is farting. If you fart, your wuzu is broken and you have to do it again. That's why no spicy food!
I think at this point I should discuss my feelings on religion. I'm not religious, never have been, and as much as various family members try and make me more religious, I don't think it's going to happen. Many reasons why, which are a blog post in themselves. I do believe that if you're very religious, no matter which religion, it's best to follow what you believe but not try and force others. What I don't have much time for is what I consider the nonsense. People taking things so far that you put religion ahead of harmony and good relations. People in my family are of varying degrees of religiousness - my cousin S1 and her younger sister S2 are both pretty religious and some of the things they say/think are frankly a bit bonkers. One thing I heard was that as my dad and Bushra's husband Rasheed are not 'mahram' to S1 and S2, and so they'd have to be wearing their hijab at all times (or maybe the niqab which covers the whole face, apart from the eyes), it was proposed that my dad and Rasheed stay in a small room in the flat for the duration for the week so that S1 and S2 could move freely without being covered up. To me this is ridiculous! S1 lived in our home for a number of years when she was a teenager and S2 will have visited us in London and stayed at our house - my dad is used to seeing them dressed respectably but not all covered up like ninjas! I'm glad this suggestion of my dad being put in a room didn't actually happen as I would have been pretty angry if anyone had tried to implement it!
I like going to visit places of worship, regardless of the religion. I find them calm, peaceful and spiritual. I am always respectful when I go to places of worship and behave in an appropriate manner. Going to Mecca for 'umrah' was never going to be any different to that. I took learning my prayers seriously and I studied what we'd have to do, beforehand. As part of the cleansing process before going, you have to remove all body hair - I even went and got a Hollywood even though I did question that - who's going to know? However, I did object to S2 telling me that the leggings I wore under my abaya weren't okay because a tiny bit of my ankles were showing and someone might see them! But my abaya comes down to the floor, in fact it drags on the floor so no one is going to see my ankles. And if they do, so what? This is the nonsense that I don't understand. S1 told me I couldn't take photos at Mecca, suggesting that I might start taking selfies. At this point I got annoyed but kept it reined in. These sorts of things spoil the experience for me...
By the time we got to Mecca, it was 1am and although there were other people doing umrah, it wasn't too busy. I felt quite excited seeing the Ka'ba for the first time - here's this place of worship that I've known about all my life, that Muslims from all around the world have visited for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years and perform the same rituals. That in itself it pretty incredible to me. People save all their lives to come and do this and there I was with my two sisters, about to embark on our first umrah. The first thing you do is 'Tawaaf' - you circle Ka'ba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction, raising your right hand as you go past the Black Stone. I said to my sisters that I wanted to get quite close to Ka'ba as it wasn't very busy and I wanted to experience it fully, so the first Tawaaf we did, we were very close to the Ka'ba. At one point, we saw lots of people touching the Ka'ba and I wanted to do that too. S1 said we couldn't do that as there were men there and they might touch you (accidently, not intentionally) and that wasn't okay. I went ahead up to the Ka'ba and put my hand on the black surface. It was fine, no one touched me but actually when we were doing the other Tawaafs, there was a lot of pushing and jostling, people seem to have left their manners outside of Mecca. So, you get unintentionally touched by men who aren't your 'mahram' when you circle the Ka'ba but no one says anything about that!
The next thing you do is walk between two mountains, Safa and Marwah, seven times. This is less strenuous than it sounds as it's all inside with air conditioning. At this point, I broke away from the others as I wanted a bit of quiet time to myself to experience everything. Plus, S1 kept telling off people who were taking photos and that was embarrassing... Once that was completed, the last thing you had to do was cut your hair. A lot of men shave their heads completely but we decided against my dad doing that (he'd also come and done umrah but in a wheelchair as it would be too much for him otherwise) so it was just a lock of hair cut off. And then you're done!
|I did sneak in some photos!|
Part 2 of the Arabian Adventures will be about Saudi weddings! Coming soon!