Ramazan in the city of the Prophet

This is my first time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I never expected to break into tears when the plane landed. The moment it touched down, tears began trickling down my cheeks. All kinds of humble thoughts consumed me – more than anything, the realisation that Allah had given me the opportunity to set foot in the city that my Prophet (sws) once walked about in.

Our hotel here is very nicely situated. It takes us just about a minute to step into the courtyard of the mosque. It is a beautiful, aesthetically pleasing structure. But we can’t see the Rawza e Rusool (the tomb of the prophet) from this end. We need to walk down two corners before it comes into view. So last night, mum and I made an emotionally charged trip across the mosque. We were in deep conversation along the way, took a break for some yummy, chilled zam zam, but as soon as the iconic green tomb came into view, it’s as if we were pre-wired to go into silence. We stopped our conversation midway, and stared. Stared. Stared. Stared. Prayers for the prophet came oozing out. Very nearby, lay our beloved. He must have walked the land we were standing on. He must have. It is so easy to cry here. Tears come naturally and they feel therapeutic.

And then, there are tears of pain. Unfortunately, the mosque is managed in a very male-centric way:

  • Men are allowed to visit the Prophet’s grave 24 hours a day. On most times, they can casually walk in and casually walk out. Women are simply not allowed.
  • They are not allowed inside Jannat ul Baqi either.
  • Access to Riaz ul Jannah is so much more difficult and complicated for women than it is for men. There are stampedes. I heard there were 6 casualties on the 27th of Ramazan. Women need to plan hours in advance in the hope that they might get a chance to get insid. They either need to find a place during or after tahajjud, or at zuhr time. A random door is opened in their section at these times, and whoever can wrestle their way in, get the chance. As a result, they behave like primates, pushing and shoving, trying to get in before the doors are closed again. The animal within is unleashed. How ironic, but all hell breaks loose. And I blame it on the management.
  • The mosque has 40 (or so) gates. Women get access to 4 of those gates. I have been exchanging notes with my husband, as well as have been observing from a distance myself. Men get to take a polite stroll inside, and find a place of choice to occupy for prayers. Women again need to wrestle their way in. Today, on the 28th of Ramazan, I couldn’t find a spot inside the mosque or its courtyard, to offer asr prayers. I joined the congregation half-standing, and I wept and I wept. I felt so traumatised. My husband said finding a place was no problem at all – the usual for men, I suppose.
  • We are travelling with our 6 year old son. The first time I made my way to the mosque, I was dealt another shock. He wasn’t allowed in the ladies’ section. 6 is an interesting age. He is neither too young to create a ruckus nor too old to be considered a non-mehram. And yet, here I was, stranded outside the mosque because my husband couldn’t feel his phone vibrating as I tried to get in touch.

Tonight is the 29th of Ramazan and I am not going to even attempt to get into the mosque. I will stay put in my hotel room. Allah is everywhere.

But the Saudis do need to reconsider the arrangements they’ve made for women. We are equal Muslims. We need to be able to access the mosque just as easily.

Finally, never choose to come in Ramazan if it is your first time here. It is too much of a heartache.

In the spirit of fairness, one must also give full credit where it is due:

  • If you are in or around the mosque at Iftar time, you will always get plenty of food and drink to break your fast. The government as well as many individuals give so much, you can’t ever be empty handed. You won’t need to go to the food; it will literally be brought to every one of you.
  • The cleaners have a tough job on their hands. People don’t clean up after themselves and the assigned workers are at the job tirelessly and continuously.
  • The government provides chilled zam zam to all pilgrims. You will get water whenever you want it. There are thousands of water coolers inside the mosque and hundreds of taps in the courtyard – there is never a dry spell.

Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik…

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3 Tips for Planning a Trip to Japan

Over the past two months, I have been asked numerous times about my recommendations for Japan, my itinerary and if I had any tips to share. It turns out that a lot of my friends are planning to visit Japan this year! I thought it would be a great idea to share a couple of tips and advice based on my experience planning for the trip.

1. Get a JR Pass (Japan Rail Pass) to travel around Japan.

If you plan on visiting multiple cities in Japan, I highly recommend getting a JR Pass. You might be hesitant to get one because of how pricey it is, but it’s worth it. A 7 day JR Pass cost roughly the same as a round trip ticket from Tokyo to Osaka/or Kyoto. You pretty much break even and you get to use the pass on all JR lines (subway/rail) and the JR Narita Express (from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station). Since I was in Japan for 2 weeks, I opted for the 14 day JR Pass and used it visit Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. I definitely took full advantage of the pass and you should too if you’re planning to visiting other cities: https://www.japan-rail-pass.com/jr-pass (Note: if you’re planning to get it, make sure you order it before you get to Japan because they will mail you the documents you need to pick up the pass when you get to Japan.)

2. Rent Pocket Wifi and stay connected 24/7 so you can share your adventures on Instagram and Snapchat in real time (jk but not really).

It was honestly one of the best investments for the trip. I was able to use Google maps, look up/research spots on the go and start this blog on my train ride to Osaka. It comes with a portable charger as well and it’ll only cost you ~$6/day, which is a bargain.

3. Save some room in your luggage for souvenirs if you’re staying in hotels.

If you’re staying in hotels, you will get basic toiletries – toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, lotion, slippers and some places will even provide razors and body sponges (loofahs). I packed travel size toiletries that I didn’t even touch – aside from my contact lens solution.

Bonus tip: If you’re planning to visit the Ghibli Museum, make sure you buy tickets in advance (more than a month in advance).

You can’t buy the tickets at the museum, you can only get them online or at a Lawson convenience store in Japan. The tickets only go on sale during a certain time each month and you learn more about it here. I wish I knew about this when I was planning my trip – I wasn’t able to get tickets a month before my trip and when I was in Japan.

Guest Post by Explore with Kenneth