MINA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — The 20-year-old American tells his hajj pilgrimage stories a mile a minute, his hands moving in excitement — about how he arrived in Mecca days ago, lost amid the massive crowds, and saw a man drop dead while circling the Kaaba.
“Dude, I saw it, the guy had the most peaceful smile on his face,” Adil Muschelewicz, performing the pilgrimage for the first time, said Sunday, his head shaved bald after a ritual a day earlier.
The young man from Easley, S.C., had arrived alone in Mecca because of a travel agent mix-up that prevented his family from arriving for three days. He was with hundreds of thousands of others circling the Kaaba, a massive cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth that is Islam’s holiest site, when he saw the elderly man fall dead. The body was quickly lifted out of the crowd.
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Muschelewicz didn’t know the cause of the man’s death — exhaustion maybe, he said — but it became one of the many powerful religious moments that have shaken him during the trip.
“I looked at his face and I looked at the Kaaba, and it was like he was happy, he’d gotten close to God. It just went boom, like this deep bass line in my heart,” he said. “It was so emotional. I was by myself, in this wild place I’d never been before.”
For young American Muslims far from home, the hajj pilgrimage is an awesome adventure that they say deepens their faith and connects them with the wide range of Muslim peoples.
The annual hajj is overwhelming even for those who have done it before.
Some 3 million pilgrims from all over the world move between the holiest sites of Islam, in and around Mecca, over the course of five days, tracing the steps of the Prophet Muhammad and Ibrahim — or Abraham to Christians and Jews — considered in Islam as the first Muslim.
Traffic jams are epic — it can take more than an hour for a bus to drive 200 yards.
Amid the hundreds of thousands of people moving on foot for miles, you can turn and find the friend by your side has disappeared. Pilgrims often go days on only a few hours sleep, snatched whenever possible amid the constant movement.
It is also a sensory overload, with a soundtrack in languages from around the world — Arabic, English, Turkish, Malay and Bahasa, Urdu and Hindi. Intense poverty collides with wealth, with some pilgrims sleeping on the garbage-strewn pavement and others staying in “five-star” tents with meals and other facilities provided.
More than 20,000 Americans are participating in this year’s hajj, a higher number than usual because the pilgrimage, which began Thursday and ends Monday, coincides with Christmas and New Year’s holidays.
At the hajj, Muslims seek forgiveness of their sins and meditate on their faith.
But for American Muslim parents, it is also a chance to connect their children with a religious heritage they have only heard about growing up in the U.S. Some of the younger pilgrims — children of immigrants from the Islamic world — may have occasionally visited their parents’ homelands. Others, whose parents are converts to Islam — like Muschelewicz — have less direct connection to the Middle East.
“This is really a learning experience for the young,” said Tabassam Qureshi, of Westchester, N.Y. He and other Americans were resting in their tent at Mina, a desert valley outside Mecca where Sunday and Monday’s rites take place.
His son Amir slept nearby, recovering from burst blisters on his feet. The elder Qureshi recalled their own adventures over the past few days: spending 16 hours on a bus caught in traffic between the holy cities of Medina and Mecca and sleeping outside on blankets in the dirt outside another holy site, Muzdalifa.
“Today, I put my hand on Amir’s shoulder and asked him what he’s learned, and he said, ‘sabr'” — Arabic for patience, said Qureshi. “They learn that you have to help each other to get through difficulty. And he’ll go back and tell his friends all about it.”
In the tent, the young men — women stay in separate tents — swapped tales about the past week. They talked about the awe they felt performing the rites, the people they had met — even about the Indonesian women pilgrims and how forcefully they push through the crowds. “They’re small, but if you get in their way, watch out,” one laughed.
Muschelewicz recounted how their tour bus was clipped by a Saudi army vehicle as they arrived in Mina two nights earlier. They had to abandon the bus and tried to walk to their tent camp.
“We got out of the bus and it was like a video game. You got this huge mass of people coming at you. This Saudi soldier was like, you can’t go this way, and I was all ready to go Keanu Reeves on him, I was ready to break the Matrix,” he said.
Not the usual hajj lingo — but it’s a common feeling among the pilgrims, confusion on which way to go amid the massive crowds.
His father, Ken, said he and his wife had been planing the trip for two years, a chance for his son and daughter, Aliya, and mother-in-law to experience the pilgrimage, which he first took in 1995.
“It’s been eye-opening for both of them,” he said.
Tahar Amrouni, a 21-year-old from Houston, said that “you realize the sheer magnitude of the Muslim world, how different all the Muslim cultures are and what they share.”
“I see people here with only the clothes on their back, and I thank God for what I have,” Amrouni said
As he spoke, his father came over and proudly handed him the knitted skullcap worn by “hajjis,” those who have performed the pilgrimage. Amrouni worked it down over the stubble on his shaved head.
“Does it fit OK?” he asked. “I can’t tell, is it on right?”