By Farwa Ali
Published on December 11, 2015

In April of this year, I had the privilege of traveling to Saudi Arabia with my family to perform ummrah, a pilgrimage to Makkah that is outside the timeframe of the better-known hajj. It was my first trip in nearly a decade, and I approached it with bright-eyed naiveté and excitement. Given the religious nature of the trip, I was expecting it to be life changing — which it was, but for many reasons aside from what I had anticipated the most, which was religious enlightenment. One of the greatest things I recall is the feeling of solidarity with other Muslims contrasted with the heavy sense of how foreign I was; the simultaneous feeling of belonging and not belonging.

The trip began with the restless 12-hour flight to Jeddah, which I spent watching an unintentionally comical and heavily censored version of Nightcrawler in my effort to tune out children who might be best described as demonic. I had wrongly assumed that everyone on the flight was there for the purpose of the pilgrimage, but many of the passengers were Saudi nationals and international students. This became increasingly apparent as the plane approached the miqat, the point where all pilgrims were expected to put on the ihram, which can be understood as a toga-like uniform for ummrah. Out of the hundreds of passengers, only a handful wore their ihram, monopolizing the restrooms while doing so. Many passengers were frustrated, and I heard many mumbling with anger about the annoying hajji (pilgrims). One man I heard expressed his derision for traveling with pilgrims, lamenting that it was impossible to find a flight without them.

by Farwa Ali

Migrant workers outside the grand mosque. Photo by Farwa Ali.

Once in Jeddah, it became apparent that the way one would be treated would be based on their nationality. A man at the Toronto Pearson Airport had told my dad to be cognizant and untrusting of the “circulating Bengalis” at King Abdulaziz airport. “Only buy SIMs from Arabs,” he had said. He was correct about one thing: there were in fact many Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani nationals in Jeddah, working menial jobs at the airport. Many skilled South Asians and labourers were sent by their government to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, and in the case of Pakistan, these were also efforts to promote foreign policy and foster relationships between Islamic countries. Indeed, South Asians in Saudi Arabia were as ubiquitous as thobes and ghutras.

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The Holy Kaaba during morning prayers. Photo by Farwa Ali.

One of the most disconcerting aspects of traveling to Saudi Arabia was the constant questioning, which always started with: where are you from? Whether you were hailing a cab, checking into a hotel, or trying to find espresso, everyone would first ask to see your passport and then ask where you were from. “Arabi?” was the first question, followed by a list of other places where you looked like you could be from. I had trouble answering this question: am I Canadian or am I Pakistani? This led to further internal questioning: why does it matter? When I tried answering with the former, many did not know what Canada was, so I had to substitute with “America”, which was unanimously understood, but not a satisfactory answer.

I remember waiting in line for a smoothie when one of the vendors, a unicorn of sorts since he spoke fluent English, asked where I was from. I answered with “Canada,” and much to my chagrin, he proceeded to ask where I was really from. I am frequently asked this question in Canada as well, but there is something particularly unsettling about someone you deem more foreign than yourself casting doubt about your belonging. When I responded with “Pakistan,” his response was confusion followed by an offhand comment about how clean I was. For him, the narrative of Pakistan centred around the numerous migrant workers who cleaned the haram, or the area surrounding and including the grand mosque. He tried to assert that his thinking I was different — or rather, better — than the average Pakistani was in fact a compliment, and that I should revel in how un-Pakistani I seemed. In retrospect, I realize my initial anger was directed towards his ignorance, but I never stopped to consider my own.

A lot of my energy was squandered lambasting others’ geographical imaginations, while completely overlooking my own. My geographical imagination of Makkah was of a microcosm of Islam, despite my constant condemnation of virtually every action of the Saudi government. I didn’t realize that I had holed Makkah in a box similar to the one I felt I was holed in. Perhaps it was the naiveté mentioned earlier, or a bout of uncharacteristic optimism, but I truly expected a homogenizing ‘melting pot’ experience, which is why I was surprised when it was anything but. Furthermore, I had limited myself to a single narrative regarding the ummrah experience, failing to consider that I could have a religious experience and a unique worldly experience that included angry passengers, curious vendors, and constant questioning of my identity and location.

by Farwa Ali

View from the upper bridge. Photo by Farwa Ali.

The only time I disregarded thoughts about nationality was during tawaf, which is the circular movement around the Kaaba, considered the house of God, seven times. While it seems easy enough, when factoring in thousands of people attempting to do the same thing at the same time, mobility is severely restricted and the atmosphere is intensely claustrophobic. During one particular round, I couldn’t decide if my movement was one of conscious volition or if I was being propelled by the movement of others. Those were the moments I felt the closest to myself, to God, and even to the throngs of people surrounding me. The questioning about nationality that I grew to hate was replaced with the quiet humming of prayers, which managed to sound harmonious; the experience itself was trance-like. In those moments, it was easier to overlook any previous grievances, as came the dawning realization that in that particular moment in that space, we were the same.

Works Cited

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Farwa Ali is a 4th year university student who leads a conventionally average, if not mundane, existence. Her interests include global healthcare, specifically the provision of healthcare services and the underlying political economy, and research targeting diabetes. She identifies as a feminist and proponent for equality, and finds great bafflement in why anyone would oppose equal rights. Her hobbies include attempting to learn new languages, researching the lives of serial killers, and managing semi-frequent existential crises. She hopes for the opportunity to travel more in the near future, especially to Cairo.