Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLVI (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-VII)

After saying good bye to my sister we left Makkah next day early in the morning. On the return journey I was keen to see the place of Badar where the Muslims had fought their first battle. For this one has to take the old Makkah-Madina road as it does not fall on the motorway. The road is somewhat narrow and passes through a mountain valley. We reached Badar around noon. It was quite hot. Salah-ud-Din took us straight to the grave yard of the martyrs of Badar. It is as simple as the Janat-ul-Baqi in Madina. No tombstones! Only pieces of stone to mark the graves! However, outside there is a huge stone panel on which the names of the martyrs are written. The stand dunes near Badar resemble exactly the scene of Badar shown in the Message film by Moustafa Akkad. Badar is a small town. From here we took the valley route to Madina. Just before Madina Salah-ud-Din showed us the tomb of Hazrat Hamza, the uncle of the Prophet (PBUH) who had stood by him always and who was martyred in the battle of Uhud. Later on he took us to Masjid Sittain. These are seven small mosques associated with various people connected with the Prophet (PBUH). From here we went again to the mosque of the Prophet (PBUH), the Masjid Nabwi and offered prayers. The ride back to Hail was smooth and we reached late in the evening. We had a very rewarding journey of few days and I was able to visit most of the historical places. The film Message had created scenes of earlier times when the Prophet (PBUH) was himself participating in various campaigns. Comparing these with the present day conditions made me think about the people of those early times. They must have had tremendous faith to travel for weeks on camels and horseback through the desert to reach these places. Now we have air-conditioned cars, hotels, chilled soft drinks, and ice creams and still feel hot! I had travelled through the Arab world but the modern Arabs seemed to be given to ease and luxury. They had got used to all the artificial things and had in fact been addicted to eating sweets, drinking colas and ice creams by the Americans and the rest of the western world! However, I was also able to see some Bedouin tribes who still had faith and stuck to old ways! The present day “Arab Spring” is in fact a revolt against the luxury and materialism to which the Arab Youth have been got addicted by their rulers dwelling in criminal luxury bordering on absolute corruption and debauchery. The revolt is against the Kings and Sheikhs who have imposed themselves on these people in total disregard to the basic tenets of Islam. They have been helped in this campaign by the western world which is primarily interested in the energy sources of the region. But a change is sweeping these Sheikhs, Kings, and dictators off their feet and there is bound to be revival through the new generation. After spending a couple of days in Hail with my brother and his family, I left for Riyadh on way back home. I spent a day with Dr. Sofi and other friends where I recounted the experiences of my travel. The same year, I had another occasion of visiting Saudi Arabia and I again repeated the travel with Salah-ud-Din but this time I was alone as my two nephews were busy in school. It was a refreshing experience. An anecdote of the second travel was about the Saudi visa which I had obtained in New Delhi. I mentioned to my very good trekking friend Sir Robert-Wade Gerry, the British High Commissioner in India that I wanted to visit my brother and sister in Saudi Arabia. I requested him if he could speak to the Saudi ambassador to give me a visit visa. He did this and the Saudi ambassador called me and gave me a visa for visiting the entire Kingdom! When I landed at Riyadh airport, the immigration officer got confused. He asked me to whom I was going to visit as the visa did not mention this. Normally, all visas issued in India indicate the person to be visited. Mine only said “visit”. Moreover, the visa has to mention the name of the sponsor. In my case, it simply indicated that it had been issued under “orders”. The immigration officer consulted his superior who told him to allow me to go! I had the same problem while entering the checkpoint near Madina. The Policeman asked almost the same questions and even said that the Embassy in Delhi had committed a mistake. When I forcefully demanded to see his boss, he got panicky and let me go. I was first time able to travel with authority in the Kingdom where most of the people from the sub-continent are given second class treatment. I am closing the series of “Travels in Foreign Lands” with this episode. I travelled through different countries. It has been very nostalgic for me to remember all these travels, sometimes quite thrilling bordering on real adventure. Many of my friends have suggested that I compile these in the form of a book with pictures. I would definitely like to do that but need a reputed publisher to accomplish the task in a decent way. I would be grateful if my readers could suggest a publisher and put me in touch with him. Apart from travels abroad, I have already written about journeys through different parts of the State on both sides of the Line of Control. There are still some memorable travels which I undertook across India. I may write about these after sometime to complete the picture of my lifelong travels! (Concluded)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLV (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-VI)

During the night, Salah-ud-Din asked me if I would like to visit the Kaaba. It was the best time to go there as the crowd was less and we could see everything at ease. So two of us walked to the Masjid Al-Haram. As we neared the gate, I was in for another surprise. The view inside from the gate looked as if the Kaaba was in broad daylight! The lighting inside had been positioned in such a way that there were no shadows and it was as bright as the daylight. From a distance one gets confused whether it is day or night. We offered prayers and sat inside for an hour or so. It was very peaceful and serene. Next morning we got up late and did not also observe the fast as we had to climb a number of hillocks of historical importance. Salah-ud-Din had promised to show us most of the places. We started with Jabal-e-Noor, the mountain of light where the Prophet (PBUH) was revealed the holy Quran. It is a rocky mountain visible from a distance. We had climb up through a trail going up along one side. In the beginning the trail was gradual but then it became steep and it was quite tiresome to walk in scorching sun. Near the top of the mountain is the cave, Gar-e-Hira where the Prophet used to pray and receive revelations. One has to descend a few steps to enter the cave. After going inside the cave and offering prayers we climbed to the top. Sajju and Tuffy were by now quite thirsty. Luckily on top there was a man with a huge ice-box selling cold drinks. He was very happy to know that we were from Kashmir. He too came from Kashmir but from the Pakistan Administered side. I thought to myself that only a Kashmiri is capable of selling cold drinks on top of such a holy mountain! From the top we had a panoramic view of Makkah and could see the Kaaba in the distance. From here Salah-ud-Din showed us another mountain, the one called the mountain of Saur which was our next stop. After crossing a number of fly-overs and driving some distance we came to the foot of Jabal-e-Saur. One has to go inside a locality to reach the base of the mountain. The climb was steep right from the start and went straight up. The rock had a strange print on it and appeared like printed cloth! It took us almost half an hour to reach near the top. There are a few caves on left and right near the top. Just below the top is the famous cave where the Prophet (PBUH) took shelter with his companion while he was being pursued by the people from Makkah. After the persecution of Muslims had reached its peak, the Prophet asked them to migrate to Madina which had offered to take all Muslims in. He also left but was being pursued by the Quraish from Makkah. They had announced a prize for anybody who would kill him. Before proceeding to Madina, the Prophet took shelter in this cave on the mountain of Saur. Once they were inside, a spider had woven a web on the mouth of the cave and also pigeons had put up a nest there. The pursuers searched all the caves but did not go inside this one because of the spider’s web and the pigeon nest! Thus God had protected the Prophet (PBUH) and he was able to proceed to Madina. After going inside the cave, we went on the top. Again we had a panoramic view. On the top the wind was making a whistling sound. We stayed on top for 20 minutes and so and then descended back to the road. From here Salah-ud-Din took us to the plain of Arafat and to the Jabal-e-Rehmat. This is the mount on which the Prophet delivered his last sermon. This mount is quite small compared to the other two. It is also sandier and there are bushes on it. There is an obelisk on top. We also visited the place where people stone the devil during Hajj. Those days the passage was quite narrow and there were many accidents during Hajj due to stampede. Now the way has been streamlined and there is absolutely no crowding. After visiting all these historic places we went back to my sister’s flat. It was already late in the afternoon. Before going to the flat we went round market to see what all souvenirs people were taking. These were mostly electronic items. The shopkeepers in Makkah seemed to be arrogant and unfriendly compared to the people of Madina! Their attitude was, “ if want to buy it, do it or get lost!” My sister had offered to take us to Jeddah to sea the waterfront in the evening after breaking her fast. The drive to Jeddah on the motorway took us about an hour. One can even drive at high speeds during night because the highways are usually fully lit in almost all Middle Eastern countries. One does not need to switch on the headlights! Jeddah is a modern city with lights and shopping malls. There are quite a few Europeans and the people of other nationalities moving around. The waterfront is quite long. Kilometres upon kilometres with palaces and recreation areas. There are also many sandy beaches. There were crowds of people enjoying the lights and the fountains on the water front. We went along the area for sometime and then had a round of Jeddah before proceeding back to Makkah. This had been the longest day so far. Next morning we planned to leave early as we wanted to make it back to Hail in one day! (To be continued….)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLIV (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-V)

Next day we did not get up for “Sehri” (the early morning meal) as it was very hot and we had to travel about five hours through scorching heat. We decided to forego fasting for the day. Even though the vehicle was air-conditioned yet it was stuffy inside. The window panes were hot to touch. Even in early May the temperatures were in forties! Before starting for Makkah on the motorway, Salah-ud-Din wanted us to see some important mosques. These were the Masjid Quba, and Masjid Qiblatain. The first is the oldest mosque in the world and the second one is where the direction for prayer was changed. We drove straight from the hotel to these mosques which are adjacent to each other. Quba mosque is very elegantly designed. We offered prayers there. I would like to quote the description of these mosques given in Wikepedia. “The Quba Mosque (Quba' Masjid or Masjid al-Quba), in the outlying environs of Medina in Saudi Arabia, is the oldest mosque in the world. Its first stones were positioned by the Islamic prophet Muhammad on his emigration from the city of Mecca to Medina and the mosque was completed by his companions. Muhammad spent more than 20 nights in this mosque (after migrating) praying qasr (a short prayer) while waiting for Ali whose house was behind this mosque. According to Islamic tradition, offering two rakaāt of nafl prayers in the Quba Mosque is equal to performing one Umrah. Quba Masjid is the first mosque built in the history of Islam and was built as soon as Muhammad arrived on the Hijra. Muhammad used to go there, riding or on foot, every Saturday and offer a two rak'ah prayer. He advised others to do the same, saying, "Whoever makes ablutions at home and then goes and prays in the Mosque of Quba, he will have a reward like that of an 'Umrah." This hadith is reported by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Al-Nasa'i, Ibn Majah and Hakim al-Nishaburi.” “Masjid al-Qiblatain (Mosque of the two Qiblas) is a mosque in Medina that is historically important for Muslims as the place where the Islamic prophet Muhammad, leading the prayer, is said to have been commanded to change the direction of prayer (qibla) from Jerusalem to Mecca. Thus it uniquely contained two prayer niches (mihrabs). Recently the mosque was renovated, removing the old prayer niche facing Jerusalem and leaving the one facing Mecca. The Qiblatain Mosque is among the three earliest mosques in Islam's history, along with Quba Mosque and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi.” After this visit we went outside Madina to another small mosque where pilgrims can put on Ahram, the white cloth wrapping prescribed for performing pilgrimage to Makkah. The Ahram has to be put outside the jurisdiction of Makkah. Most of the people coming from Madina and other places in cars do it in this mosque. There are quite few bathrooms and the Ahrams are sold outside. We took showers and put on the Ahram and then drove back on the highway to Makkah. The drive was very smooth. In spite of full air-conditioning we were feeling hot and thirsty. We did consume lot of water and juices while driving towards Makkah. Finally, we reached there around four in the evening. After parking the car, we walked up to the Masjid Al-Haram within the precincts of which is the Kaaba. After taking off our rubber sandals, we stepped on to the marble floor around Kaaba. I was apprehensive that the marble would be too hot and we might burn our feet. However, to my utter surprise the marble floor was cool! Subsequently, I learnt that the white marble has been specially imported from Italy and it has the property of not absorbing any heat from the Sun! There is also a cooling system underneath consisting of huge chillers as otherwise the stone cannot remain cool in such high temperatures. In earlier times people used to wear canvass covers while walking on the floor during tawaf (circumambulation) of the Kaaba. Saudi rulers are spending massive amounts to improve these places. After tawaf we kissed the Hajra Aswad (the black stone) embedded on the side of Kaaba. There was a queue to reach the spot. However, it was not very long and we got a good chance to observe the embedded stone. It is blackish in colour with small greenish stones embedded in it. It is considered to be of heavenly origin and was put there by Prophet Ibrahim who first built the Kaaba. Next we offered prayers at Muqam e Ibrahim (place of Ibrahim) where the foot marks of Prophet Ibrahim on a stone are encased in glass. After this we went down to see the spring of Zum Zum and drank the water which was very cool and sweet! Those days one could go near the spring and see it behind a glass wall. Now, it is not allowed. Moreover, one would not see huge crowds at the Kaaba but now during the month of Ramadan, it is as crowded as during the annual Hajj pilgrimage! Next we performed the ritual of Safa-Marwah. It is making seven rounds of two rock outcrops in remembrance to the search for water performed by Hazrat Hajra, wife of Prophet Ibrahim who had been left in the desert with her infant son by the command of God to test their faith. The place where Hazrat Ibrahim left them was between Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. When their provisions were exhausted, Hazrat Hajra went in search of help or water. To make her search easier and faster, she went alone, leaving the infant Ismail on the ground. She first climbed the nearest hill, Al-Safa, to look over the surrounding area. When she saw nothing, she then went to the other hill, Al-Marwah, to look around. While Hajra was on either hillside, she was able to see Ismail and know he was safe. However, when she was in the valley between the hills she was unable to see her son. Thus Hazrat Hajra would run while in the valley between the hills and walk at a normal pace while on the hillsides. Hazrat Hajra travelled back and forth between the hills seven times in the scorching heat before she returned to Ismail. When she arrived, she found that a spring had sprouted forth from the crying baby kicking at the sand with his feet. This spring is now known as the Zum Zum Well. The final part of the pilgrimage was shaving of head but we only got a small lock of hair cut as is done by quite a few people during the lesser pilgrimage of Umra. During Hajj it is obligatory to completely shave off the hair! Having performed the Umra we went to my sister’s house who had been waiting for us. She lived very near to Masjid Al-Haram in a flat next to her hospital. She was working there as a paediatrician. She was very glad to see us. As she was fasting so we joined her in breaking the fast. It had been a very hectic day! (To be continued….)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLIII (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-IV)

The most important highlight of my journeys to Saudi Arabia was the visit to Madina and Makkah. Before leaving Kashmir, I had seen a number of times Mustafa Akkad’s film, the Message. I was keen to see all the places connected with the birth of Islam. Incidentally, I arrived in the Kingdom just at the start of the holy month of Ramadan. We decided to start for Madina on the very first day of the month of fasting. Hamid’s driver Salah-ud-Din would take us in his Toyota Land-Cruiser. Sajju and Tuffy would accompany me. Salah-ud-Din had already performed Hajj six times and had been a regular transporter for all the visitors going to Makkah and Madina. He had performed the lesser pilgrimage, Umra, over a hundred times! He knew all places connected with the Islamic history in the Kingdom. There could not be a better guide than him! He also had a powerful vehicle to drive. We started early in the morning after taking the morning meal of Ramadan known as “Sehri”. It was still dark and we had to drive with headlights on. The drive was first through a two lane road with the opposite traffic coming on the same road. We had to be very careful as Saudi Arabia has history of many road accidents especially cars and trucks smashing into camels and so on. Soon it was light and we saw the landscape which was almost barren except for some green fields on the way. We also passed an abandoned camp site. Salah-ud-Din informed us that it was a camp of some American company which had given up a project half-way and runaway. The Saudis had tried to stop them in Jeddah airport but had failed due to intervention of Washington. Somehow, I felt that the Saudis, the members of the royal family, were powerless before the western powers especially the United States of America. Rather their survival depended upon Americans! However, for their personal protection they had roped in Pakistani elite forces! After driving for about couple of hours on the highway we came to the junction where the highway connects to the Riyadh-Jeddah motorway. There were traffic police checking various vehicles. The motorway had six lanes with three lanes either way. On two sides was barren desert landscape. However, the motorway was not fully enclosed on two sides. It made driving in the night hazardous as one would encounter stray camels on the road. We saw many skeletons of smashed or burnt cars on two sides at a number of places. These were the remnants of night time automobile smashes! There were many long trailers on the road carrying machinery, equipment, and even food items. On the motorway there are wireless telephone booths after every kilometre or so where one can ask for assistance. There are also continuous highway patrols. Just before entering Madina, there is a passport check on the highway. There are overhead and sideways road signs for a passport check to enter Madina. The signs also say that only Muslims are allowed in. For non-Muslims there is re-routing to bypass Madina. Similar signs are outside Makkah. One has to follow the motorway straight to proceed ahead to Jeddah. For us the check was simple and fast. They checked our passports and Salah-ud-Din’s work permit and allowed us to pass. As soon as we entered Madina, we drove along an avenue with well groomed Palm trees on the road divider. It was the most beautiful avenue of date Palms I had seen anywhere! We drove straight to the mosque of the Prophet (PBUH). We offered prayers inside the mosque. Salah-ud-Din showed me the spot where the Prophet (PBUH) used to pray. He said if any one prays there, it is equivalent to one hundred thousand normal prayers! A belief strongly held by people coming from the sub-continent. There was a queue at the spot and one had to wait few minutes to get a chance to pray there. Then we went close to the spot where the Prophet (PBUH) is buried. It is enclosed by wooden grill. Some people were trying to peep in but there were religious police known as Mutawa who were preventing people not only from going near the place and touching it but also they were stopping people from raising their hands in prayer towards the spot. I requested Salah-ud-Din to talk to Mutawa and ask him why he was stopping people from raising their hands in prayer. He replied that all his life the Prophet (PBUH) taught us that God was great and almighty and we should pray to Him. Now, if we pray to the Prophet (PBUH) instead of God, it will hurt him. He said we should raise our hands towards Kaaba and prayer there in Makkah! After offering prayers we visited Janat-ul-Baqi where the companions of the Prophet (PBUH) are buried. There were no tombstones or name plates. Just a piece of stone to show where the head of the buried person lies! Quite a contrast to massive and decorative tomb stones we use back home in Kashmir and most of the places in the sub-continent. I found lot of difference between the religion of Islam being practised in Saudi Arabia and the one we are following in Kashmir. It seems we have not converted to Islam but adopted some teachings of Islam to our way of life! After these visits we checked into a hotel very near to the mosque of the Prophet (PBUH). In the evening we once again visited the mosque for evening prayers. The mosque used to be closed those days in the evening till the morning prayers and no one could stay inside for the night. However, I understand now it is open all night and people can go inside whenever they like. The nights in Madina are pleasant in summer and cold in winter. The people of Madina are also very soft spoken and polite. Madina is also famous for some special type of dates called the Ajwa dates. These are supposed to have been blessed by the Prophet (PBUH) and are having special healing powers. These are also the most expensive dates available in Saudi Arabia. The Prophet (PBUH) had planted eleven Ajwa date trees but these have been cut by the Saudi authorities as they feared that people may start worshipping these also! (To be continued….)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Travels in foreign lands-XLII (Journeys to Saudi Arabia-III)

After the morning visit to Governor’s office, I spent sometime with Dr.Sofi at his hospital. I was amazed see the set up there! It was the most modern with best possible equipment. The inside as well as the surroundings was so clean that I felt ashamed about our own institutions back in Kashmir. One wonders how these people keep everything so neat and clean. May be it is the strict discipline imposed by their western trained bosses? Dr. Sofi showed me a diabetic patient lying on a bed. He had sores all over his body and had been bed ridden for quite sometime. I told him that back home the guy would have passed away long time back! On his subsequent visit to Kashmir, Dr. Sofi told me that the guy went home walking up to a car! Well, one must give credit to the health care in the Kingdom. In the evening, Dr. Sofi dropped me at the airport to take a flight to Hail. I had spent very interesting couple of days in Riyadh. The flight to Hail took about an hour and a quarter. The most interesting thing in Middle East is to watch the lights of various cities from the air. I remember while flying during night in India one only sees some blinking lights but here in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries one sees bright spots everywhere. On landing one can see roads clearly with cars driving over these. Power generation is oil based which these people have in plenty! We too have a similar resource and that is water. However, unfortunately, we are the most power starved area in this part of the world. May be the fault is our own? Finally, we landed at Hail airport which reminded me of the Jammu airport of old days. A short runway with a small terminal building. My brother Hamid had come to receive me. We drove straight to home. Kids, Sajju (Sajjad) and Tuffy (Muzaffar) were happy to see me. Hamid had been working here in Kadi Establishment which was setting up electrical projects in different parts of Saudi Arabia. At that time they were laying transmission lines to different pockets of population. There was an interesting anecdote. The King wanted every village and population pocket to be electrified. He wanted the people to see the artificial “light”! However, Hamid told me that as soon as they reached the village, the people would run away and set up a new village. They preferred their own spiritual light than the King’s artificial “light”! It was the same situation as with the multi-storey apartments constructed in Riyadh. Another bit of interesting information I gathered from Hamid was about the manner of executing various works in the Kingdom. He had been coming home very late during my stay in Hail. He was engaged in a tough project. Kadi, the company for which Hamid worked were the contractors for setting up the transmission line but the government had also engaged consultants to check that the work was being executed strictly as per specifications. These were two different agencies. It ensured the quality of work and its timely completion. They had to dig out transmission poles at random in scorching heat to confirm that the specifications had been strictly adhered to. I wish we too had a similar procedure for construction of such projects which normally drag on for decades and then the quality is not maintained at all! I did do a lot in Hail except visiting a village supposed to be the birth place of Hatim al-Tai, the famous character in the Arabian nights. Hamid’s driver Salah-ud-Din who was from Pakistan, told me about it. He drove Sajju, Tuffy, and me to the village. We branched off from the Hail-Madina highway and then drove for about half an hour deep inside the desert. There were bushes and date trees all over. The village had a number of wells and for the first time we ate dates right from the tree itself! The story of Hail and Hatim al-Tai is well described in Wikepedia which is reproduced here. “Ha'il is largely agricultural, with significant grain, date, and fruit production. A large percentage of the kingdom's wheat production comes from Ha'il Province, where the area to the northeast, 60 km to 100 km away, consists of irrigated gardens. Traditionally Ha'il derived its wealth from being on the camel caravan route of the Hajj. Ha'il is well known by the generosity of its people in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world as it is the place where Hatim al-Tai lived. Hatim al-Tai was a famous pre-Islamic (Jahiliyyah) Arabian poet, and the father of the Sahaba Adi ibn Hatim and Safana bint Hatem. He was a Christian, and belonged to the Ta'i Arabian tribe. Stories about his extreme generosity have made him an icon to Arabs up till the present day, as in the proverbial phrase "more generous than Hatem". There is a hill overlooking the city of Hail which has a reproduction of the campfire he lit to welcome his guests, which is turned on every night and can be seen from the center of the town. According to legends in various books and stories, he was a famous personality in Tai (Najd province in the central part of the Arabian Peninsula, now in Saudi Arabia). He is also a well-known figure in the rest of the Middle East as well as India & Pakistan. He travelled to dangerous, distant places to solve the seven questions that he faced, in the cause of justice and truth, and to help the poor and the weak”. After Hail, I went to Madina and Makkah which I will relate in the next episodes. (To be continued….)