Dr. Elamin Elamin came to Illinois from Egypt 16 years ago. He is now director of the Critical Care Division of Pulmonary Medicine at Southern Illinois University's School of Medicine. In 1999 he joined millions of Muslims on the spiritual pilgrimage known as the Hajj. The pilgrimage is one of five Pillars of Islam, and all Muslims who are able must perform the Hajj at least once in their lives. This Monday Elamin talked with writer Traci Moyer in his office about making the trip. Not a scrap of paper was out of place on his desk and photos of his family neatly adorned several cabinets and tables.
"If you want to go for Hajj, you build yourself slowly there. You cannot just say, 'Oh, today is the day I will to go for Hajj.' It doesn't work this way. I was planning for a long time to go. When I went, I was 39. I went by myself. . . . I will go again for sure because I have to take my wife. For women to get there, they have to be accompanied by a related man.
"Usually there are tour companies which arrange for this trip. They send you ads. You have to get a visa to go to Saudi Arabia and also get some immunizations. With the number of people coming there from everywhere, chance of infections are high.
"I started the trip from here and went to Chicago. We met with some more people going to Hajj, then we flew to Frankfurt, Germany. We took another flight to Gedda, a port on the Red Sea. Everybody goes there for Hajj. That is the closest seaport from Mecca. Boats to planes, whatever, everyone meets there.
"By the time you get there, you are really tired. From Gedda, people can go either way to Mecca or Medina. Different arrangements, different tour companies, but at one point everyone has to meet.
"We went to Medina. It was very nice, very peaceful. We have to pray very early in the morning. I will never forget this: I open the door to the hotel, and three in the morning who would be in the streets? The streets were full. I couldn't believe it. It took a few minutes to realize that many people could be in one place. Everybody--at three in the morning! So we go there and we pray. It is not like someone telling you, you just feel it in your heart. There is some kind of tranquility that descends on you. . . . It's like minutes and hours of just purity.
"After the prayer, what I did for the next three days was praying and reading the Koran. Koran is not a story; it is more about how we live--your interactions with people, between husbands and wives, family and parents. It is all written there. . . . I was able to finish reading the Koran two times, actually. You can probably see my schedule here is so hectic--you have to talk about too many things, too many phone calls, and all of a sudden it is like time out, and the only thing you are doing is praying and reading the Koran.
"Then we went to Mecca. We took a tour bus. . . . It took us 24 hours or so from the time we left to when we actually arrived in Mecca.
"There are certain boundaries around Mecca where everyone has to change what they are wearing. For all men you wear big sheets, like towel sheets. Of course, for some of us men, we have never worn a skirt before. Everyone was 'How to walk in this?' For women, they wear their normal clothes, but primarily white. For men, it's death clothes-- whatever you are wearing is what people wear when you die.
"When a Muslim dies . . . we cover them with a white sheet. In a sense, at the time I am dead, it doesn't matter who I am. It's the same idea. I might be whatever I am here, but once you go there, everyone is equal. After a few days it's dusty, so your clothes are not that clean and everyone looks the same. You can wash it and change it, a change of towels, I should say, but the main thing is no one looks any different than anybody. That way you don't concentrate on anything you do in life. You are not supposed to shave, you are not supposed to cut your hair. When you come here, you leave your life behind you.
"We arrived after midnight. There is a big Mosque there and a place to wash yourself and take a shower. You have to wash again and you have to pray there. At that point, you are starting the Hajj. We get back in the bus. You cannot imagine all those people going to the same place at the same time. I was very impressed with the organization.
"By the time we arrived to Mecca, it was afternoon on Thursday. Every Muslim would like to see this Kaaba. Since you are a kid, this is something you dream about seeing. It is a huge Mosque and they keep expanding it. So you have to walk a long, long hallway before you actually see it. People are praying all around you and finally, when you see it, you get goose bumps on your skin. After that many years, how many times have you heard about it? How many times have you seen it on TV? Finally you see it and you just kind of stop. It is so mighty. It is a few minutes before you realize you are actually here.
"Everyone has to start from one point and make seven circles around it. People try to avoid bringing children, because it is so crowded, you can't imagine. Matter of fact, you stay together so you don't lose anyone. You can't believe it is actually that big. No picture can translate this. No one can translate this, you cannot explain it or show it to someone, you really just have to go see it.
"There is a certain ritual to do this. Some people cannot do it--the elderly or handicapped--so there is a service there that will carry you. Then you pray at a certain point . . . between us and the Kaaba. Everyone will pray at that point, it might be a mile behind. I didn't try to go all the way to the Kaaba because you should not harm anyone. I never touched the Kaaba myself. I felt there was no way I could do it without pushing someone.
"The next morning is the day of Hajj. You wake up before dawn, everyone wearing the same clothes--towels--and you head towards Arafat. There is a mountain there called the Mountain of Mercy, where Prophet Mohammed was standing the last time he gave us his sermon. We go there and we pray and pray and pray. It's an open area and it can be hot. But they have tents with air-conditioning. Technology has reached everywhere. You don't have to be in the Mosque; you have to be in a certain boundary. At that time every single person has to be in that certain boundary and everyone that day makes Hajj.
"The organization of Saudi Arabia, it is unbelievable that they can do this, to get everybody in one place. Supplies, food, everything. All this just to get five or six million people in one place at one time.
"You don't have to climb the whole thing and you don't have to stay there all day, but at some point you have to get there. God tells us we have to be there that day. There is a lot of prayer, a lot of reading Koran, and then the priests come and actually talk to us, give us a ceremony. It is very, very touching and to the heart. Everyone was crying there, including myself. I think all the days come slowly, and then the day and all your life comes before you. Whatever you did right and all you did wrong comes before you and you ask for forgiveness. It is a very, very emotional day for everyone. You feel really after that day that you are changed, not exactly the same.
"You leave from Arafat after you pray the sundown prayer. We get back on the buses and you can't imagine the traffic jam. You have never seen anything like it in your life. I went to New York City, I drove cars in Europe and Egypt, and there is no traffic jam like this. The surprising thing is everyone made it out of this at the same time.
"There is an open field, a huge one. Everyone will go there for the evening prayer. You spend the evening there until the next dawn. You can sleep if you want to on the bus or on the ground. At dawn, there is an area that you go to throw stones at Satan. It is a pit and a column in the middle for people to kind of aim at. Some of the ladies cannot do it because it is crowded and they give the stones to us to throw. You collect seven for three days, but you just throw one at a time. I threw seven for me and seven for a woman with us. You throw the stones and then you go rest. You are supposed to stay in this place called Mina.
"After you throw the stones you have to slaughter an animal. There are a lot of poor Muslims and what the government does is if you go there to pay money they will slaughter the animal and can it and send it to Muslims throughout the world. I saw the sheep; there is a sea of lambs there. But I paid the money and they did it for me and this way it becomes more organized, because it is taken to people that most need.
"People sit and talk and build friendships . . . people from Turkey, United States, and South Africa. That has been going on for the last 1,500 years. After three days, you are done. Then we went back to Mecca. We stayed in a hotel for three more days.
"The last thing you are supposed to do is to go around the Kaaba again seven times, which was the toughest thing to do. After this many days you don't feel like leaving. You have your family, work, and life, but you don't want to leave. You become attached to it and it was very hard for everyone to do--to go back to life."