Friday, January 05, 2007

The Hadj

from Jacqueline

Warning – this walk down memory lane is a bit long - and the delay, for once, was not me, but a glitch on the mothership.

I don’t know how far you managed to read past the headlines in the past week, but the end of the Hadj, the annual pilgrimage to the house of God – Allah – at Mecca, that all Muslims are expected to make one in a lifetime, ended shortly after our annual holiday festivities came to a close. There’s usually a short segment in the newspapers or the TV, showing thousands upon thousands of pilgrims who have made their way from every continent in the world, many to die during or just after the Hadj, for they have saved for years and years, and have held on to life by their fingertips just to make the journey.

I spent a fair amount of time in Saudi Arabia two years running during the Hadj, starting when I was twenty-one, and it just fascinated, saddened and awed me, the depth of passion among the pilgrims. As you know, if you’ve been reading this blog for any time, I was once, upon leaving college, an airline stewardess (that’s what we were called in those days, and we wore little hats too). I sometimes follow this statement with an apology, as if it was the silliest thing to do in the world, however, though I couldn’t wait to leave after two years, it was a great way to see the world. The airline I worked for, like many others, had a “slow” period during the winter months, so they sub-chartered to other airlines. And every year they were among airlines who allowed their ‘planes and crews to be chartered to take pilgrims to Jeddah, from where they would make their way to Mecca. You could say the contract was a cash cow. The first year I was based in Morocco for two months, flying from there into Jeddah once a week, where we would stay for three or four days, then back to Morocco. The second year it was Algiers, the place where I was, quite literally, stoned by locals who thought I was French – one almost took my eye out! My friend, Corinne, was based in Tehran, and we had crews flying in and out of Jeddah from various other Muslim countries

Before we left on this expedition, we had a special lecture to familiarize us with what was to come. We knew that, for the most part, our passengers had never been on a ‘plane before. In fact, take that a step further – had likely never seen a truck before, let alone a ‘plane. They would probably not know how to use a toilet and if they did, it wouldn’t look anything like the restrooms that we are used to in air travel. To prepare, the engineers took out all the toilets on board, so that only a hole in the floor remained (they left one for crew). They did not remove the mirrors, that most scary of Western necessities, which was a mistake. All the seats in the ‘plane were fitted with special plastic covers, and the floors protected with heavy-duty rubber. As cabin-crew, we had to wear our winter uniforms even though we were traveling to a hot climate. This meant that our legs were covered – we wore pants and tunics in winter – because a girl on a crew sent to Lagos the previous year had had a chunk taken out of her leg by a man who had never tasted such white meat before. We were told to take our white summer gloves, not black winter ones, and we were instructed to wear them all the time, a fresh pair every flight, to ensure protection against germs and sickness. Malaria and hepatitis pills were issued, and we also received a final off-the-record instruction – and seeing as that airline is now defunct, I won’t get sued for this: We were told that in any emergency landing, all training pertaining to the protection and saving of passengers went right out the window – just open that door, drop down that slide and run. And you wonder why I’m a bit funny about flying.

I’d never been to a middle-eastern country before, and loved the warm spice-scented air that brushed my skin as I stepped out onto the tarmac in Rabat. We had three days before our first flight out to Jeddah, and when it came, I stood at the top of the stairs watching our several hundred passengers amble towards the ‘plane, all in white robes with green bands holding traditional veils in place. Most were carrying old bags and sacks with belongings, one man tried to bring two chickens on board, another wrestled a pig. Many slumped to their knees to pray before the big white bird that would take them to their spiritual home. Others brought stones on board, signifying the earth, so that when they prayed (yes, people all around me on their knees), their foreheads would touch the ground. Most of the pilgrims were old, a village having saved for years to send an elder to Mecca, where it was expected he would die for Allah. I had to pull one man from the overhead compartment – he had never seen a seat before and did not know where to put himself – and three others had to be shown which way around to sit. And all the time people touched my skin, or my blonde hair, especially the woman, for they had never seen such fairness before. I had to soothe several woman who screamed upon seeing their own reflection in the restroom mirror, and of course, I took my turn at “clean up duty” – standing close to the restroom with a mop was never my idea of what being an airline stewardess was all about. And several years later, during an investgation into a deadly fire aboard an American airplane on the tarmac in Jeddah, a flight attendant, during questioning, reported that the fire started when a man took a camping stove from his bag, lighting it to make tea. The judge said he found it hard to believe that such a thing could ever happen, and I remember thinking, “Oh yes it could – I’ve seen it and stopped it!”

Then there was Jeddah. Oh, boy. I could write a book about it, though such a place changes from year to year, let alone in three decades, so I probably wouldn’t recognize the place, though I am sure I would know the smell. Even in the bus from the hotel to the airport, I could see people living in shelters made of boxes, and if they were lucky they graduated to an abandoned car, often a perfectly good Mercedes Benz, left at the side of the road when the horn packed up – spend rush hour in Jeddah, and you know how that can happen. When you went to the markets, small boys – perhaps aged four or five, each with a clutch of plastic shopping bags over his shoulder, desperately trying not to trip over his wares, would tug at your skirt, trying to make a sale. And if they didn’t succeed, the boss, a boy of about seven, would come along and whack them around the ear. Then there was the gold souk. Oh, my. Apparently, pilgrims cannot enter the country without proving that they have a certain amount of money on them – a very high certain amount of money – which they were expected to spend, for the love of Allah, before they left. You’d see poor women from small villages all over the middle east and Africa dripping with gold – and of course the prices went up, just for the duration of the pilgrimage. The souk was one narrow alley flanked with merchants, many of whom dragged their lips from their hookahs only to give you a price on a necklace, or a bracelet. And the gold - it was as if Midas himself had graced the alley with his presence. I looked at beautiful rugs, exquisite fabrics, the clothes, jewelry – and every single thing had a deliberate error, whether a stitch dropped, a pattern not repeated, or a slight ding you could barely see, because only Allah is perfect.

I have many, many stories about that short period of time, now etched in my memory as if it were yesterday. I came to know something of the people because I’m curious, I ask questions (some things you didn’t ask questions about, for example, why the rich Saudi Arabians can throw parties where alcohol flows readily in a “dry” country – been there, seen that). Years later, during the first Gulf War, George B. the First gave a press conference where he spoke of the Iraqi people, and their support of Saddam Hussein. “What these people have got to realize ....” he said, before going on a rant about Hussein, and how his people didn’t understand this, or that. I shook my head, wondering why on earth there was such a lack of understanding, that “these people” for the most part thought of Hussein as tantamount to anointed by Allah – it wasn’t a case of liking him or not. Everything Allah does is perfect, even if it’s painful, even if it hurts.

So, when Saddam Hussein was executed last week, even though there were Iraqi people reportedly dancing in the streets while his supporters grieved, I worried about the fallout from the death of a man whom many in his former land consider to be Allah’s chosen, effectively, a son of God. I’m not saying it was right or wrong – I’ll leave that to the likes of Tom Friedman, or someone who has a greater depth of understanding of the region than I will ever have. Hussein was a tyrant, a merciless killer. But it was a terrible decision to have to make, because the death of an anointed one is a fast ticket to martyrdom. I didn’t watch or read reports of Hussein’s death, but for some reason one memory came immediately to mind when I saw the headlines – the noise, the shrill, almost terrible sounds that issued from our passengers on take-off, as that big white bird took to the air towards Mecca. I clamped my white-gloved hands around my ears – I had never heard such passion in my life before. And that was to express sheer excitement. What screams must issue forth, every day in Iraq, in the name of terror, of pain, of despair? And I’m not talking about simply us, or them. Just humanity.


  1. Beautiful post! What a fascinating life you've had. Can't you send Maisie on a pilgrimage to the Middle East so we can read more about those experiences?

  2. from Jacqueline

    You know, Maisie may well be traveling a bit in the future - I have plans! I could make her into a sort of Freya Stark or Gertrude Bell character. What fun that would be to write! Glad you liked the post.

  3. Jackie, just found this site and fascinated by your memories of that time when you were an airline stewardess. You should and certainly could write a book incorporating your experiences. I think it would be hilarious as well as educational. Ruby.....
    ps looking forward to the next Maisie...

  4. from Jacqueline

    Welome to, Ruby! The site has been up and running for quite a few months now, so you should have a scan through our archives and see what we've been up to. And in the interests of full disclosure to other readers of this blog - Ruby is my aunt (I have quite a tribe of them), which means she knows exactly how hilarious that time in my life really was! And I think she's single-handedly responsible for sales of my books in Canada.

    Thanks for looking in on us, Ruby.

  5. Yep, 'twould be very fun to read about Maisie in that part of the world. I can barely keep straight what happened in that part of the world after WWI ended and how the Ottoman Empire broke up. I bet Maisie could.

  6. Welcome, Our Jacqueline's Aunt Ruby!

    What an extraordinary life you have lead, Jacqueline. Thanks for sharing such a fascinating time with us.

    Oh, I think Maisie is going to figure on the edges of the Intelligence community prior to the onset of WWII. :-D


  7. How nice that you have put this on the internet but it's so different than I have experienced this year on hadj 2007.

    I've just been back in The Netherlands for 2 days and I'm a muslim maself. A daughter of a converted muslima and all praise to God a teacher of proffession.

    What I saw is that the muslimsociety is grown so much in many years. Most of the people I met where high educated and even if they did not they where on a high level of thinking. I bought a lot of books about Islaam, and I noticed that the Islam is soo far in education which even here in the West is not revealed yet.
    A lot of people think that Muslim people are oldfashioned and because they pray 5 times a day with their faces on the ground they are less than people who don't. I come from a high class family but with all my love I pray for the One who made me and guided me.

    I'm not in shock of white hair even worse I'm born with it but right now it''s covered with a scarf. Sometimes people see that as oppression though I see it as my freedom.

    I love the way you wrote this article, though my English is not that good I understood every word. But I also wanted to make this comment to show the people who read this that there are many muslim in this world who are high educated and are very cleaver but still they make the journey to Mecca and learn something they have never ever learned. They learned that with the help of God you are a very happy person nomatter where you come from or who much money or education you have. Eventually it's all about the hart!!!

  8. And about Saddam I think a lot of muslims didn't like him too. But it's strange to see the killer killing another killer and he becomes a hero.

    In my religion, the Islam, is doing good to another a must. Even when I was in hadj I couldn't even kill a big because God told us to honoured life. I hope muslim or not don't look down on eachother but learn from our difference and live toghether in freedom and respect.