Companies Offer Pilgrimage Rehearsals

For Muslims, the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj, is the journey of a lifetime. And for the growing number of American Muslims who make this trip, it requires a lot of preparation. Few travel agencies specialize in the details of arranging a pilgrimage, but the number of companies in the United States offering such services to Muslims is growing.

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We're about to hear Muslims preparing for the pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj. It's the journey of a lifetime for them. It's one of the five pillars of Islam, as it's said.

And for the growing number of American Muslims who make this trip, it requires a lot of preparation - everything from getting tickets, to how to deal with massive crowds.

A few travel agencies specialize in these details and one group in Philadelphia recently held a practice Hajj.

NPR's Rachel Martin reports.

RACHEL MARTIN: Sunday morning at the Cheltenham High School track, just south of Philadelphia, 30 or so Muslim pilgrims gather here, but instead of the thin white robes and sandals they'll wear in Mecca, they're dressed in bulky sweat shirts and high-tech sneakers.

In Mecca, they'll walk a path of marble stone. Here. It's the red clay track around the football field and the call to prayer is all south Philly.

Unidentified Man #1: Is Baltimore in the house?

Unidentified Group: Baltimore is in the house.

Unidentified Man #1: Connecticut in the house?

Unidentified Group: Connecticut is in the house.

Unidentified Man #1: Jersey. New Jersey (unintelligible)

Unidentified Group: (Unintelligible)

MARTIN: The dry run is organized by the Al Mu'adhdhan Group, a travel agency that's been coordinating trips to Mecca for more than a decade. This year, an estimated 20,000 American Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage. And this company is taking about 40 of them.

Khalil Abdul Ghani is the director of the organization. Standing on the grass field in the end zone, he pops up a hand-drawn picture of the inside of the mosque in Mecca and the holy monument that's the focal point of the Hajj.

Mr. KHALIL ABDUL GHANI (Director, Al Mu'adhdhan Travel Agency): This is the tavern, of course, you know. This is the black stone here. We'll most likely be entering from this side over here. That's door number one, which is the closest one to our hotel.

MARTIN: The trip to Saudi Arabia can be grueling. Over the course of five days, this group will walk many miles in overwhelming crowded conditions, sleep outside in tent villages, deal with heat and exhaustion, security concerns and culture shock.

Some of these people have never been on an airplane. Most of them have never been out of the country. So there are some very basic questions.

Unidentified Woman #1: On those tents, is there electricity or…?

Unidentified Woman #2: What about the toilet?

Unidentified Woman #1: Do they have outside toilets?

MARTIN: These are the same questions Ghani gets every year. He answers patiently, and then it's time to move.

Mr. GHANI: Are we ready?

Unidentified Woman #3: Yes, sir.

Mr. GHANI: We done talk the talk.

Unidentified Group: Now, we gotta to walk the walk.

Mr. GHANI: See if you can walk the walk.

Unidentified Group: I don't know.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

MARTIN: They walked arm in arm around the track, reciting an Arabic dua, or prayer - women on the inside, men on the perimeter - in a protective circle. People die every year at the Hajj, many trampled to death by frenzied mobs. So Ghani explains how to handle overly-excited pilgrims who may try to throw themselves into their group.

Mr. GHANI: Usually, a hand or smile is enough to turn them away. And just asking them to go to another way. Some will almost insist on coming through, but you cannot cause harm.

MARTIN: For most here, it's their first Hajj. Some have made the journey before.

Ms. ALIN SHAJID(ph) (Pilgrim): I had to come to see this. Brings back so many memories.

MARTIN: Alin Shajid is a 60-year-old grandmother of 10 from Baltimore. She made her pilgrimage in 1996 and the prayers chanted here today transport her to that time.

Ms. SHAJID: (Unintelligible), here we come. We kept saying here we come, Allah, here we come. You invited us and here we come. When the bus came around I could see the minarets. And then I saw the (unintelligible). It's been there and it's just my time to see it. It was my time.

MARTIN: This year, it's time for 34-year-old Dawoud Abdul Aziz(ph). He's a construction worker from Philadelphia and he and his new wife are going to make the Hajj together.

Mr. DAWOUD ABDUL AZIZ (Pilgrim): There's not many words you can put it in, you know. I'm all excited, you know, me and my wife will stay up all night sometimes just talking, you know, we can't really believe that we're going.

MARTIN: After a few times around the track and more Q and A, Ghani gives a final crucial bit of information in case anyone gets separated from the group while they're in Mecca.

Mr. GANI: Now again, if you get lost, Kentucky Fried Chicken. That's where we'll come to look for you. Once you go out the gate, the biggest building is Mecca Towers and at the base of Mecca Towers, you'll find Kentucky Fried Chicken. And you'll smell it before you see it.

MARTIN: And with that, the group disbands and says their goodbyes. The next time they see each other will be December 17th, the day they'll leave for Saudi Arabia.

(Soundbite of Chant)

MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Chant)

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