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…


Europe via Rail or by Air?

A question often put forward by eager travelers planning their first trip to Europe. I am proudly biased in favour of rail travel. Here’s why:

  • European airports are situated outside the city centre. You need to get to the airport at least 2 hours prior to your flight. When you add the time and money it takes to get to the airport in the city of departure and from the next airport to the city of arrival, you will have wasted a lot of time.
  • All central and major stations are situated in city centres. They are easily and cheaply accessible.
  • With train travel, there is no requirement to check-in so you can very easily arrive within 10 minutes of departure time.
  • You can even transit in cities on the way. Just leave your luggage at a locker facility on the station, step out to roam the city, and then, catch a later train for your final destination.
  • Seeing Europe by rail also allows you the flexibility of keeping your schedule spontaneous. Buy tickets (or supplements, if required with your Eurail pass) when at the station. For most routes – especially within one country – this is very doable. It keeps the element of surprise alive.
  • For longer routes, it is also possible to take a night train. These will offer flat beds. Since those won’t be as expensive as a hotel room, by next morning, you will have saved money and welcomed a new dawn, a new city.
  • Budget airlines have extremely stingy luggage rules and limitations. With train travel, the weight and/or dimensions of your bags and accessories, are not a hindrance.
  • Eurail pass holders, do not forget that you get perks (like hotel discounts) and complimentary ferry / cruise travel. Be sure to check what is on offer.

Have we missed something? Please use the comments section below.

I Shoe’d Have Tried Them

In the weeks leading up to your vacation, shortlist the most comfortable walking shoe options, and wear them for at least 2 weeks prior to departure. Nothing else matters…almost.

That’s the tip! If you are interested in my story, read on.

Everything can wait. Everything but trying and testing for the right shoes to go with eager legs. I learnt this the hard way.

Having always trusted a certain brand for comfort, I dropped in, and bought a good looking pair of walking shoes, a couple of days before our departure. All I thought I needed to ensure was that they were my size. And I did. Our first stop was Amsterdam. A day in the city, and I found myself limping. I recall sitting on the floor of the Anne Frank house, like, well, a desolate Anne Frank. How I envied people around me who actually managed to stand for the audio-visual rendezvous into history.

With bad sores, I bought a flip flopfor 8 euros, from a street vendor at the Damrak, to take me through the remaining three weeks of our trip.