For an American pilgrim in Saudi Arabia, a discovery of fellowship

By Rubaina Azhar, Los Angeles Times

We arrived in Mecca near dawn last November, shortly before Fajr, the first prayer of the day.

In Mecca, a crush of Muslims can be seen circling the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, in the early morning. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

In Mecca, a crush of Muslims can be seen circling the Kaaba, Islam's holiest site, in the early morning. (Rubaina Azhar / Los Angeles Times)

Although the hajj pilgrimage was not yet officially underway, the crowds were so thick that we could not even enter the Grand Mosque.

So I made my first prayer in Mecca outside the Abraj al Bayt shopping mall in front of one of the mosque’s gates. Here I was at age 39 prostrate in Islam’s holiest city, in the shadow of the world’s largest clock and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.

For some time I had pressed my parents—both hajj veterans—to make the journey with me. I try to observe my faith. But it’s not always easy being a Muslim in America. A year ago, I was keenly feeling the hostility toward members of my religion.

A taxi driver in New York (the city of my birth) was repeatedly stabbed after he told a passenger he was a Muslim. An Islamic center planned near the site of the World Trade Center towers met with protest. A Florida pastor threatened to burn copies of Islam’s holiest book, the Koran.

My whole life I thought it must be easier to practice Islam in Saudi Arabia, the cradle of my religion. Now I was here, with my parents and my younger sister, to fulfill a once-in-a-lifetime requirement for all Muslims who can afford it.

Before us the throngs exiting the mosque made it impossible to enter. Electronic signs with red-slashed circles indicated no one else would be admitted for some time. We returned to our hotel to take showers and to eat. I was eager to perform my first umrah, a series of rituals that includes circling the Kaaba—the cube-shaped structure that sits in the center of the mosque—seven times. More info and photos

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