American Muslims Prepare for Hajj

The annual Muslim pilgrimage of the Hajj officially begins on Sunday. Some 2.5 million people are expected at the holy sites in Saudi Arabia, including more than 12,000 Americans — a number that is growing steadily each year.

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The annual Muslim pilgrimage known as the Hajj officially begins on Sunday. This event has already been marked by tragedy. Dozens of people were killed when a hotel across from the Grand Mosque in Mecca collapsed. That will not stop about 2.5 million people who are expected at the holy sites in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. The number includes more than 12,000 Americans, a number that keeps increasing every year. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY reporting:

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to the birthplace of Islam, one that every good Muslim should do at least once. It's a spiritual journey and by all accounts it's also a huge hassle: 15-hour bus rides, living in tents, sometimes sharing bathrooms with dozens of people. And then there's the feeling of being packed in with millions of other pilgrims. Nasrin Rahman, who works for Maryland's Department of Planning, was a bit concerned last year when she saw the crowds. She says she's short, claustrophobic, and was unused to the required headdress or Hejab.

Ms. NASRIN RAHMAN (Department of Planning, Maryland): And I said, oh, my gosh, I'm going to die because, you know, I'll be so claustrophobic wearing the Hejab and being with so many people. Guess what? I didn't even feel anything.

HAGERTY: Nothing, she says, except cleansed of her sins, which is the point of the Hajj. Indeed, before going to Mecca, Muslims are supposed to pay off their debts, write a will and ask forgiveness of those they may have wronged. Salema Abdullah(ph), a nurse in San Francisco, says that's practical advice, too. In past years, hundreds of people have been killed in stampedes or other accidents. Abdullah says she got her affairs in order before going two years ago just in case.

Ms. SALEMA ABDULLAH (Nurse): If you die there, you're buried there. And you--you know, it's said that you will go to paradise. So a lot of people seem to put themselves in positions for that to occur. They're pushing and shoving, they're praying in the middle of thousands of people. It's just a really unsafe thing.

HAGERTY: Of course the vast majority do the Hajj without incident and without too much discomfort, thanks to travel agencies that have found a market in Muslim pilgrimages. Typical is Rendezvous in Washington, DC. According to Ashraf Theramaui(ph), whose father owns the business, this year's tour sold out fast.

Mr. ASHRAF THERAMAUI: We didn't even get the brochures out for it because, I believe, we booked up probably within two or three weeks of even starting the list for the trip.

HAGERTY: As the American Muslim population has grown, so have the bookings. Like other agencies, Rendezvous' tours make the hardships a little softer and safer, with air conditioning, catered food and religious instruction. The economy tour is $3,000. It's 3,500 for slightly better hotels. And then there's the $4,500 deluxe package.

Mr. THERAMAUI: For the highest one, you start off in Medina, five-star hotel for three days, then you go to Mecca, five-star hotel for four days, and then you go to Jeddah for a five-star hotel as well.

HAGERTY: Still, what Nasrin Rahman recalls is not the luxury accommodations but a moment praying in the Grand Mosque when she realized that all Muslims are equal before God.

Ms. RAHMAN: The whole experience was out of this world. To pray with so many people at the same time and to look around and see that there was no race, you don't know who the person sitting beside you is--could be the queen, it could be a beggar on the street.

HAGERTY: Salema Abdullah could not agree more.

Ms. ABDULLAH: I have no questions now. I don't need anything to be proven to me. Not that I did before, but for me I felt God's presence there and I felt at one and I knew also that all the other people felt the same way.

HAGERTY: And for those who hope for that experience in the future, the packages for the next Hajj are filling up. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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