ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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‘Now I can die in peace’: After long waits, new pilgrims ready for COVID-free hajj

After 3 years in which pandemic limited attendance and long waiting lists swelled further, Muslims from Gaza, Indonesia and the US prepare for once-in-a-lifetime visit to Mecca

Huda Zaqqout reads from a large copy of a Muslim holy book at her home, a few weeks before she is slated to travel to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj, in Gaza City, May 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
Huda Zaqqout reads from a large copy of a Muslim holy book at her home, a few weeks before she is slated to travel to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage of hajj, in Gaza City, May 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

This year’s hajj is a landmark: the first full pilgrimage after three years when the COVID-19 pandemic sharply reduced the scale of one of Islam’s holiest rites.

Millions of Muslims from around the world will start converging on Mecca in Saudi Arabia next week to begin several days of rituals. For pilgrims, it is the ultimate spiritual moment of their lives, a chance to seek God’s forgiveness for their sins and walk in the footsteps of revered prophets like Muhammad.

It’s a mass, communal experience, with Muslims of every race and class performing it together as one. It is also deeply personal; each pilgrim brings his or her own yearnings and experiences.

The Associated Press spoke to several pilgrims from across the world as they prepared for their journey.

Gaza

It’s been hard, raising 10 children on her own in the Gaza Strip, blockaded on all sides and torn by multiple wars. But Huda Zaqqout says her life feels like a miracle because she is surrounded by her family, including 30 grandchildren.

And now, at 64, she is finally going on hajj. It just so happens that now, after an easing of Saudi policy, more female pilgrims can participate without a “mahram,” or a male relative to escort them. It’s serendipitous timing for Zaqqout, who has waited years for this opportunity, and her sons cannot afford the long, arduous trip from Gaza to Mecca.

“Gaza is like a prison. We are locked up from all directions and borders,” she said.

Zaqqout registered for hajj in 2010 but had never been selected. So this year she went on an umrah, the so-called “lesser pilgrimage” to Mecca that can be done at any time.

Huda Zaqqout shops for hajj a few weeks before she travels to Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage, in Gaza City, May 31, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

After she returned home, Zaqqout tuned into the radio broadcast that announced who this year’s hajj pilgrims will be. She cried with joy when her name was announced.

For Gazans, the trip is particularly hard. The tiny Mediterranean coastal territory has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007, when terror group Hamas took over in a bloody coup. Though pilgrims are allowed to travel, it is a bureaucratic nightmare. Then the bus ride to Cairo Airport takes at least 15 hours and sometimes twice that due to long waits at the border and Egyptian checkpoints in the Sinai Peninsula.

That hasn’t dampened Zaqqout’s joy. Her neighbors congratulate her. She watches YouTube videos to learn hajj rituals and goes to physiotherapy for her feet, which often hurt, knowing she’ll be standing and walking a lot.

At her house in Gaza City, her grandchildren thronged around her. At one point as she told her story, Zaqqout started to cry; the children hugged her and cried with her. When she went shopping for gifts, prayer mats and clothes, one grandson insisted on accompanying her and holding her hand.

Zaqqout feels hajj is the last thing on her life’s to-do list. She has no debts, and her children are married and have families. “After that, I don’t need anything from life.”

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Indonesia

At a rural intersection outside Jakarta, 85-year-old Husin bin Nisan stands guard, his hands nimbly signaling for vehicles to stop or proceed. It’s a blind curve; approaching traffic can’t see what’s coming.

Husin is a “Pak Ogah,” a type of volunteer traffic warden found across Indonesia. Nearly every day for more than 30 years, he has directed traffic in a poor village called Peusar, living off tips from drivers equivalent to a few dollars a day.

The whole time, he has been saving coins for his dream. After 15 years of waiting, Husin is finally going on the hajj.

Husin bin Nisan, a volunteer traffic attendant, stands on a street where he directs traffic for a living in Tangerang, Indonesia, May 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Husin tearfully recounted the prayer he often repeated: “I beg You, God … open the way for me to go to Mecca and Medina. Please give Your blessing.”

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, has a staggeringly long line of citizens wanting to go on hajj; wait times can last decades. It backed up even more when Saudi Arabia barred foreign pilgrims in 2020 and 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2022, when Hajj reopened but with age restrictions, less than half of Indonesia’s quota could attend.

To catch up, Indonesia received from Saudi Arabia an additional 8,000 spots this year, reaching an all-time high of 229,000. Authorities are giving special preference to the elderly. Nearly 67,000 of this year’s pilgrims are above 65; the eldest is claimed to be a 118-year-old woman, though lists of the world’s oldest people whose age is verified don’t include anyone of that age.

A father of four and grandfather of six, Husin still works every day. Thin, with thick white hair and beard, he walks to his intersection and sometimes stands directing traffic for 12 hours a day.

In early June, Husin packed his suitcase, including the white robe that male pilgrims are required to wear. Then he put on his best clothes and said goodbye to his family and friends.

“Now, I can die in peace at any time because God has answered my prayer,” he said.

Husin bin Nisan, second left, walks with other worshippers to circle a mock Kaaba during a hajj rehearsal in Tangerang, Indonesia, May 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

United States

A wave of emotions washed over Saadiha Khaliq as she reflected on the spiritual significance of her upcoming pilgrimage to Mecca, more than 11,000 kilometers (7,000 miles) from her home in the US state of Tennessee.

“It’s really this invitation and this honor,” said the 41-year-old Pakistani-American engineer, who lives near Nashville. “You just hope that you’re worthy of that honor.”

Undertaking the pilgrimage has been on Khaliq’s mind for several years; she would read and watch videos about hajj rituals and ask others who had gone about their experiences.

Her religious quest gained urgency during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The pandemic really put things in perspective,” she said. “Life is short, and you have limited opportunities to do things that you really want to do.”

This year, she applied for places on the hajj for herself and her parents. While they’ve been to Mecca before, this will be the first hajj for all three.

American Muslim family members including daughter Saadiha, right, mother Saeeda, seated, and father Abdul Khaliq, pose in Saadiha’s home, June 7, 2023, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. (AP Photo/John Amis)

“This is kind of a big, lifelong dream and achievement for them,” she said. “I’m just grateful that I get to be part of the whole experience.”

Khaliq was born in the United Kingdom. In the 1990s, her family moved to the United States and eventually to Tennessee, where her father is a mathematics professor.

As part of her preparations, she’s trying to go with a clean slate, from clearing financial obligations to working to make amends and seeking forgiveness from family members or friends whom she might have had issues with.

“It’s very hard to stand there [in Mecca] if there’s negativity in your heart… if you made space for things that are resentment or anger,” she said. “And I’m still working on cleansing that part of my heart.”

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