Scoundrel Time

My Mother’s Pilgrimage


In September 2015—the year a crane collapse in Mecca killed 111 people, followed by the deaths of another 2000 in a stampede—my mother returned from the Hajj with flu and was immediately quarantined in a hospital in Indianapolis. It took her a full week to recover. When she finally reached her home in Los Angeles she announced to all four of her children that though the pilgrimage had been one of her life-long goals, none of us should ever attempt it. And for nearly a year she spoke no more of it.

When she finally opened up to me about her Hajj experience, she began with the hijab, the traditional Islamic head covering. My mother grew up in pre-fundamentalist Pakistan and has lived most of her life in Southern California. Like all the women in my immediate family, she finds the head covering and gown foreign. “The minute I put it on,” she tells me, “I feel uncomfortable.” But hijab is a requirement for women entering Saudi Arabia. Overcoming this incongruity is her first emotional hurdle.

She describes to me how just before boarding the plane to Mecca from Ataturk Airport, she went to the bathroom and pulled out the hijab from her handbag. She put on each piece: the headband, the cover for the head, and the long black robe. Although she’s mentally prepared, it is suffocating. When she and my aunt emerge from their separate stalls they stand first at the mirror, then turn to look at each other in silence. Suddenly they feel alienated from one another. But they push on because very quickly another feeling settles in, something akin to awe. What came before—the planning and the visas and the flights from Los Angeles to Chicago to Istanbul—were simply a prelude. The hijab is transformative and they are now truly embarking on their journey.

This feeling of awe persists, and so does the intensity of the desert. When she first sets foot in Mecca, the heat sits on her chest like so much gold that is to be found in every shop window. It is a struggle to breathe. She steps onto a bus destined for her hotel. The air conditioning is blasting but the sense of suffocation remains. This is how I will feel when I die, she thinks to herself. Traffic is jammed, the bus crawls. She gets down and walks the rest of the short distance. She looks up and sees all the other pilgrims. There are so many people they appear like waves breaking upon endless waves. As far as she looks to the horizon she sees nothing but pilgrims on foot. All speaking their own language so that the sound of their voices envelopes her like one indecipherable hum. Then just before she reaches her hotel the call to prayer comes and the waves topple. Every single person halts in the middle of the road, kneels down and prays. She moves with the wave, and it feels like starling murmuration.


In 622, the Prophet Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for Medina. This flight, known as the hijrah—which means “to migrate” in the Arabic—represented their physical movement towards belief. Throughout the 7th century, hijrah came to be understood as an obligation to migrate to a community where Islam could be freely practiced. After the battles of the early Islamic period ended, the obligation to migrate remained, but the impetus for it shifted. In the medieval period, hijrah was undertaken for the purpose of scholarship. Muslims routinely traveled to the cities of Spain, Egypt, Morocco, and beyond to study science and literature. By the 18th century, scholars again redefined the purpose of hijrah to encompass travel for the sake of trade.

The word muhajir is originally from the Arabic and means, literally, “immigrant.” The term is used to describe those who migrated from Mecca to Medina in the early period of Islam. These words, immigrant, and the act of being an immigrant, to migrate, hold the key to the rituals that comprise modern Hajj. In the Urdu, Muhajir means Muslims who migrated from India to Pakistan after the subcontinent’s 1947 partition. Though Muhajirs originated from ethnic backgrounds as diverse as Punjab, Delhi, and Kashmir, eventually in Pakistan all Muhajirs came to be seen as a single ethnicity. When my mother immigrated to America in the early 1970s she became twice a Muhajir—first as an ethnic Muhajir from Karachi, second as an immigrant in midwest Indiana.

Over the course of her adult years my mother migrated closer and closer to an American identity. But I surprised myself by moving further away from it. In 2008, I left Los Angeles for Wellington, New Zealand. I had called off my wedding at the very last moment, and a job offer presented itself. My migration was spurred by a search for knowledge—both professional and personal. My one year visa turned into eight. Eventually I applied for permanent residency.

My mother has always known she would go on Hajj. Like many Muslims, she views it both as an obligation and a peak experience—the culmination of her religious education and spiritual life. Her earliest memory of it is when her father went in the early 1950s. He traveled by ship and was gone for months. Her own mother stayed at home because the likelihood of not returning from Hajj due to the arduous nature of travel, crime and banditry on the desert routes, and the possibility of being trampled while performing the rituals were considerable. Plus, someone had to stay home and look after the children. Like her mother before, Hajj for my mother was an obligation preceded by one greater obligation: being a mother.

Ensuring your family’s financial security is a pre-condition the Koran lays out for Hajj. When my mother decided to go, she was in her mid-sixties. The time, she said, was never quite right before. But I suspect the real reason for the delay had always been the “settling” of her children. Never mind that I had been financially independent for ten years. My mother considers marriage the real sign of settling down to adulthood. My sister married in her late twenties, my older brother in his early 30s. My younger brother and I held out for a while longer. Me, because I questioned the institution of marriage, and he because his twenties were spent battling drug and alcohol addiction. When I finally met someone new and got married, my mother breathed a sigh of relief. Around the same time my younger brother checked into rehab. She called my uncle in Indianapolis—the time for Hajj had arrived.

In the year after my marriage, while my mother organized her Hajj, I had two miscarriages in succession. Now that my mother no longer worried about my marriageability, she worried about my fertility. I told her maybe I’m not the mothering type. She sighed and said what she always says, “Have faith.”


After the sun comes up and the early morning fajr prayers have been said, my mother and everyone traveling in her party don their identical robes and weave their way through high-rise hotel elevators and marble lobbies, past glittering gift shops, and into the massive dining room. Here they drink tea and eat their meals with other pilgrims who have opted for travel and accommodation in their same socioeconomic class. This is the first thing that surprises my mother in Saudi Arabia. Hajj is meant to be universal for all who participate—the robes, hijab, common prayers uttered in Arabic, and the consistency of the physical rites attest to this. But the experience is packaged and sold on a 0-5 star system. Zero for the poor of North Africa who arrive on foot and sleep in the streets, and five for the Royal Saudi family who can close an entire walkway around the Kaaba for a single prince. My mother has opted for three stars. Perhaps, she muses, as she looks over the opulent breakfast menu, which reminds her of the buffets of Las Vegas—this is the new universality: we all understand the metric between dollars and amenities.

The second thing that surprises her is how American she feels. Several mornings in a row, she is seated within earshot of a Pakistani-Texan doctor. The doctor lists off the offenses of America. He criticizes Obama’s drone policy and laughs at the arrogance of the American public. She knows that part of Hajj, and one of the tenets of Islam, is to submit. That of all places in the world, a woman confronting a man is not welcome in Saudi Arabia. But each morning the doctor continues his tirade.

During the day, the rituals are so demanding all other concerns fall away. My mother has always been physically fit. Her preference for Jane Fonda-style outfits, complete with matching tights and leg warmers color memories of my teenage years. She did step aerobics in our kitchen while waiting for the meat to thaw. But in the last few years she developed knee pain and her mobility has suffered. She’s frustrated when performing the Tawaf, in which pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba seven times. Thousands of people press themselves against the black cube, making it impossible to touch or even get close to the Black Stone housed within. So she treads along at her own pace on the third tier of a walkway that hovers above like the arching onramp of a California freeway. She marvels at the sea of people who move like so many hands of a backwards clock. She carries her unease in her halting footsteps.

When my mother imagined herself doing Hajj, she anticipated the way the slick cold stone would feel against her fingers. Now she frets that the moment is not evoking the correct emotional response. She’s too far from the action. Below, she sees the tear-streaked faces of pilgrims overwhelmed by the moment. They jostle to get closer to the stone. But for her the experience remains cerebral. “I just felt that I lacked [that] spiritual awakening. I was not having it, and what was wrong, I couldn’t figure it out.”

In her essay, “The Pilgrimage Remembered,” Barbara D. Metcalf, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, writes, “…to present the Hajj is to present a certain kind of self.” Hajj doesn’t just invite participants to undergo the experience of travel and ritual. It demands an empathy that arises out of the act of migration, even if that migration is temporary. The claustrophobia my mother feels—inside the veil, beneath the scorching sun, and among the millions of pilgrims—serves the dual purpose of evoking discomfort and building spiritual awareness, even if the long anticipated “ah-hah moment,” does not readily arrive.

For three mornings in a row, the doctor’s laughter can be heard at the next table over. He fires off fake fatwas against America. My uncle puts a hand on my mother’s arm. He knows she’s on edge. The unease the doctor evokes stays with her. After breakfast she calls home to check on my younger brother. Whenever she leaves home she imagines the worst—a DUI or hospitalization. But he assures her he’s working his program.

On the final day of the Hajj my mother and uncle decide to get closer to the Kaaba. They want to participate in the Stoning of the Devil ritual from the ground floor. They head towards the Jamaraat Bridge, a massive pedestrian walkway that can hold a million people. As soon as they set out they are lost. Since 2006, the Bridge has been under constant construction. New on-ramps, off-ramps, and tunnels are engineered yearly to streamline the flow of traffic and make passage safer. The signs are written only in Arabic, and the closer they get to the ground floor, the more frenetic the energy. They stop a Saudi policeman to ask for directions. But he doesn’t speak English. He becomes frustrated and shoves my uncle onto the street, sending him reeling into the crowd. My mother is in shock. When the policeman sneers at her she yells the only words she knows they will both understand, “Janhanum, Jahanum!” The consequences for telling a Saudi policeman to go to hell are unlikely to be good. My mother and uncle give up and make for an exit. The stampede on Jamaraat Bridge takes place a half hour after they get back to their hotel.

The next day is a somber one. Among the 2 million pilgrims leaving Mecca, there is the sense that each has narrowly escaped death. But death during Hajj is considered an honor, so there is also an undercurrent of guilt in every departure.

That morning my uncle leaves the breakfast table early. My mother drinks a second cup of tea. The Texan doctor appears unfazed by recent events. His voice booms across the room. His fellow travelers listen enraptured. My mother gets up and approaches him. “Why don’t you go back to your village that you came from?”

He looks up at her, surprised. “Pardon me, sister?”

“You heard me. Just because you are hoarding money in America, enjoying the good life there, and then you talk badly about it? Go back to Muzaffarabad.” She’s riffing now. She has no idea which village he’s from or if in fact he’s hoarding any money. But her ire is up and she’s on a roll.

The doctor is too flabbergasted to speak. My mother takes this as proof that she’s touched a nerve. Then she becomes attuned to the pin-drop silence of the room. She leaves with all eyes on her, disappearing into the sea of veiled women.

In the 120 degree temperature streets of Mecca, my mother thinks about her inability to submit. Of her insistence upon American values in a place that prides itself on its resistance to change. She thinks of all the homeless pilgrims who sleep in the streets of Mecca. She thinks of the Saudi policeman who refused to help her but in a strange way saved her life. And she thinks of the Texas physician who shirks his American identity. Then she decides she will tell her children not to perform Hajj. They will not understand that though the pilgrimage is an ancient ritual, it has become compromised by culture clash and the economics of tourism.


In 1869, Nawab Sikandar Begum, ruler of the Indian princely state of Bhopal, was the first woman to undertake the Hajj and write a book about it. Her memoir briefly mentioned the rituals of Hajj. But mostly she wrote about the inadequacy of leadership and city planning in Saudi Arabia. Everywhere the Begum went she investigated the local ways and compared them to her own. On several occasions she clashed with the Sherif of Mecca. She found little in common with her fellow pilgrims, but emerged from her travels with deeper convictions about her identity as a leader and British subject.

Like the Begum of Bhopal, my mother’s modernity, worn subtly at home in her everyday affairs, became amplified against the rigidity of Saudi customs. Both women felt less overwhelmed by the spiritual unity of the Muslim Ummah than by their own inner journeys: the realization that the locality of their consciousness was, respectively, Britain and America. In the first year I lived in New Zealand, I too was struck by this locality of my consciousness. In New Zealand, that locality presents itself subtly. People speak English, and American pop culture is everywhere. Yet I felt foreign, and I clung to my American sensibility as an armor against this seemingly subtle difference.

A year after her Hajj, my mother visited me in New Zealand. She loved it here and we talked about how wonderful it is to see the world. I reminded her that she advised me never to travel to Saudi Arabia. She became thoughtful when I pressed her to talk about her experiences. Now that we sat face to face, she found it easier to explain the complexity of what she hadn’t been able to talk about before, “I was very upset at that time—angry at the way the Saudi government treats women and foreigners.”

She found also that the “ah-hah moment” she’d been waiting for was a slow burn; the mind migrates more slowly than the body. Some people go to Hajj to wash away their sins—they’re looking for forgiveness, or a spiritual awakening. My mother’s internal struggle during Hajj was not just that she was trying to reconcile her identity as a Western American woman with that of an Eastern Muslim woman. She had a much more personal and specific agenda. When I asked her outright why she went, she finally admitted that it was for her children. This seemed like a contradiction to me—to go for her children but then advise us not to go. “No,” she said, “you don’t understand. I went to pray for my children.” She took a deep breath and her voice dropped to a whisper. “If I hadn’t gone there and prayed for him, he would be dead by now.” And it is true. For the first time since he was a teenager, my younger brother has been clean and sober for a full year.

She picked up my baby boy, now three months old, and looked at me, then into his eyes with satisfaction. “When it comes to my children,” she said, “God always answers my prayers.”

When my son was born late last year and I filled out his birth certificate, I had to find new terminology for his ethnic and national identity. Pakistani—Puerto Rican. South Asian—Latin—Kiwi. New Zealand—American. I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and have always just been Pakistani and American. Now there are so many hyphens as I try to pin down who we are as a family. The longer I stay away from home the more home becomes a fluid construct. One thing, however, remains constant: like my mother, I have now become twice a Muhajir.