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….)

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