COVID-19 Denied Her A Pilgrimage, So A Maryland Muslim Woman Made A Drive-Thru Version Robbed of the Hajj by the coronavirus, Muslims in Montgomery County have organized a drive-through pilgrimage.
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NPR logo COVID-19 Denied Her A Pilgrimage, So A Maryland Muslim Woman Made A Drive-Thru Version

COVID-19 Denied Her A Pilgrimage, So A Maryland Muslim Woman Made A Drive-Thru Version

Hadi Rahnama, 77, walks around a homemade Kaaba at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Md. It was meant to emulate the shrine in Mecca at the heart of the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

This story was updated July 28 at 9:55 a.m.

Mona Eldadah had planned to visit Saudi Arabia this week as part of Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. She would wear the long white embroidered tunic and pants her mother-in-law wore there 30 years ago, circle the Kaaba shrine seven times and sleep in the tent city in Mina.

Then, the pandemic hit. By March, Eldadah, 43, scrapped her plans — but not her hope. Being grounded inspired her to search for a substitute.

"We wondered, how could we create something that could still have the meaning and connection and bring in the community in a safe way?" she said.

Eldadah, the creative director of the Next Wave Muslim Initiative, a group that meets in community centers in Montgomery County, found her answer on the sprawling grounds of the Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring, Md. Families could pull in and follow a short track, with stations symbolizing all the rites they were missing from the traditional pilgrimage.

On Sunday, Eldadah wore the heirloom clothes and a face mask and waved drivers toward a homemade Kaaba.

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'The Beauty Of The Whole Thing'

Muslims around the world grieved after Saudi Arabia announced that due to rising COVID-19 infections, only 1,000 people could make the Hajj this year, a dramatic cut from the roughly 2.5 million people who usually make the annual pilgrimage.

In the D.C. area, the pandemic already shut down mosques and forced solitude on the normally social Ramadan fasting month. Four months into the pandemic, Muslim parents, like the rest of the region, were hungry for new ways to entertain their children.

To recreate the Hajj, Eldadah built an eight-foot-tall Kaaba using PVC pipe draped with black flannel. She placed it in the middle of a traffic circle where parents usually pick up their children, making it easy for drivers to motor around it.

Mona Eldadah, center, poses with her husband Basil Eldadah and their son Yousef, 14 and daughter Aiya, 9, outside the replica Kaaba at the center of the drive-through Hajj in Montgomery County, Md. Courtesy of/Akbar Sayed hide caption

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Courtesy of/Akbar Sayed

Her father had a different vision. As the sun beat down, Hadi Rahnama, 77, plodded around the miniature Kaaba, performing the ritual walk known as Tawaf.

"No, Daddy, the idea is that the car is actually going to do the Tawaf," Eldadah said.

Rahnama relented and stepped into the shade. He thought of the three Hajj pilgrimages that he'd made with millions of fellow travelers from around the world.

"They come in and they all are the same because they wear the same clothes. And so nobody knows whether they're poor or rich," he said. "And that is the beauty of the whole thing."

A Ritual In A Parking Lot

The Hajj reenacts the steps of the forbears of Islam: Ibrahim, his second wife Hajar, and their son Ismail. (The three are known in the Bible as Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael.) Islam holds that Ibrahim left his wife in the desert, where she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa searching for water for her baby. Finally, God caused water to appear in the form of the Zamzam spring.

To evoke Hajar's plight, Eldadah erected a slalom of traffic cones between two "mountains" propped on tables. She included an "almost like Zamzam water" stop.

Pilgrims sleep in a massive tent encampment in the city of Mina; Eldadah erected white pop-up children's tents in a parking lot. In an echo of Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Mohammed gave his last sermon, a father and son chanted the prayer known as "Duaa Arafat" underneath a tent.

In Saudi Arabia, Muslims collect stones in the desert and hurl them at three pillars to drive out the devil. Visitors to the drive-through Hajj received plastic bags of pebbles as they approached a "pillar" of bricks Eldadah built out of cardboard boxes. On it, she marked the traits she hoped visitors would drive out of themselves.

"We've put things like racism, and prejudice, and jealousy, and things we want to rid our hearts from, and we are stoning those things," Eldadah said.

Yaseen Khan, 6, throws stones at a homemade "pillar," meant to evoke the stoning of the devil during Hajj. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

Faisal Khan, 41, drove a white Honda Odyssey while his son Yaseen, who is 6, leaned out of the back window and chucked stones at the pillar. Another son dozed in a car seat. Khan said he was grateful for a way to teach the rituals while he avoided mosques due to the pandemic.

"It definitely feels much more safe when we're in a car, not close to a bunch of people," Khan said.

A Moment Of Grace

In Saudi Arabia, the Hajj culminates with Eid Al-Adha, the feast that celebrates God's testing of Ibrahim. According to the Quran, God told Ibrahim to sacrifice Ismail, but at the last minute, swapped him for a ram. To mark the occasion, Muslim pilgrims pay to slaughter thousands of sheep to donate to the poor. By contrast, the Maryland Hajj ended with rented sheep ambling in small petting enclosures and a station where Eldadah said families donated a total of $2,000 to Americans in need.

The holiday gained special resonance this year after the Montgomery County School Board announced it would not hold classes on the day, in consideration of its Muslim students.

For Silver Spring resident Fatimeh Asi, 38, driving with her three daughters was "magical."

"It really felt like I went through each of the steps and experienced it in some way," she said.

IMG_7417Mona Eldadah holds a bottle of water she rebranded as "almost like Zamzam," which visitors collected as part of their drive-through Hajj. Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Daniella Cheslow/DCist/WAMU

Still, it could not deliver the full weight of a pilgrimage — or even of a tight-knit Muslim society. Ranwa Abdelnabi, 43, moved from Egypt about two years ago with her husband Haithem Trabeek and their daughter Sereme.

"I had fun, and my dad told me the story, and I thought it was very interesting," Sereme said.

Abdelnabi said she had found it harder to connect with the community during the pandemic.

"Having conversations with people, that's what helps with building a relationship," Abdelnabi said. "And even though this is very nice, it's not happening."

Speaking with a reporter, she remarked, "This is the longest conversation we've had."

This story was updated to reflect the correct spelling of Mona Eldadah's surname.

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