We left to Arafat at dusk while I was burning up with fever

Having a few days left before heading to Mina, we stayed in a building at the outskirts of Mecca. Usually, it’s a twenty minutes’ drive to the holy Haram — where the Kaaba and the mosque are — but due to the crowded times of Haj, it took almost an hour to reach.
The building was old and shabby. They had booked us three floors of the building (six flats). The men were on the first floor and the women on the two upper ones. Each flat had two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen. In our flat, each room was fitted with seven single beds around the wall. The beds were either unstable (like my mom’s) or with a mattress that had a deep depression (like mine). Each night I was reminded of the princess and the pea story; I hardly slept and woke up with a sore back in the morning.
We shared the room with the same three sisters and their old neighbour who attended the Umrah with us. Mom struck an instant friendship with the middle sister. She was the shy type who always kept to herself. We learned later that she’d lost her eighteen-year-old son in a car accident a couple of months back. She went through severe depression and her sisters had arranged this Haj trip just for her, in hope of helping her find some peace and comfort. We were provided with three meals a day plus a tea break in the afternoon served on the ground floor.
The women who attended us were Saudis. Each year, hundreds of Saudi men and women of all ages — especially the ones living in Mecca — would volunteer to help the Haj performers. They believe in the grand reward granted to those who serve the “guests of the Merciful” as they called us. They’d do different things from cooking meals and serving them to providing directions in designated areas. The ladies who served us food were really sweet and helpful. Mom and I always chatted with them and admired their hard work — especially when the rest of the ladies grumbled about the tasteless food given to them. The ladies always made you feel as if they were on a vacation in the French Riviera instead of being on Haj in Mecca.
We were super lucky to get good food and drink during our stay. Despite that, Mom had a severe food poisoning. In Haj there are two inevitable illnesses: food poisoning and the infamous Haj flu that doesn’t clear off till almost a month later (with proper treatment back home). Makes you wonder about the point and effectiveness of the painful jabs you’re obliged to take before Haj. My brother and I caught the horrible flu. I remember mine starting a day before heading to Mina, while packing my things. I was feeling feverish and dreading the journey ahead of us. We were supposed to go to Mina at noon and from there head to mount Arafat after the morning prayers of the next day.
We’d stay in Arafat the whole morning till sunset. Mina was a huge ground that housed thousands of white tents organised in a perfect order. Ours was huge that contained women from both groups (locals and expats) and a portable bathroom at the back. Right next to us was the men’s tent, from where I could hear my brother’s nasty cough. The day was spent in prayers and introductions to new faces from the expat group. We left to Arafat at dusk while I was burning up with fever (to be continued…)
Rasha al Raisi is a certified skills trainer and the author of: The World According to Bahja. rashabooks@yahoo.com