May 8th, 2017, 08:50 PM

Lost Boys In Search of Faith

By Safian Ado-Ibrahim
Image Credit: Abdullah Shakoor
A journey of conviction and self discovery

You’re never really told quite what to expect. On the contrary, you’ll probably be presented with an assortment of stories and recollections of pilgrimage, some romanticized and others accompanied with more daunting undertones. Either way, I’ve certainly heard it all. Often times I avoided the conversation altogether. I never felt well versed or knowledgeable enough to hold my own or contribute to this type of conversation; one that centered on religion and it’s many intricacies. Why bother those around me with my unsolicited nonsense?

I grew up with a Muslim father and a Christian mother, and while she did convert to Islam during the time of their marriage, my parents made sure that my brother and I experienced both sides. As such, Thanksgiving turkey, Eid, artificial Christmas trees laced with complementary faux snow, and failed attempts at fasting during the month of Ramadan by my brother and I, were some of the practices that were in rotation. The year was 2006. Or was it 2008? Or maybe in between? Bare with me, please; piecing fragment of the memory together is challenging. In any case, it was quite a few years back and my step-mother thought it would be nice to have my brother and I join her and my step-siblings, along with their extended family, on a trip where we would experience our first pilgrimage. We would go to Kano (Nigeria), where we would then travel to Jeddah for a few days, then to Mecca for Umrah.

Image Credit: Google Maps

I knew nothing about Umrah, neither had I heard of it before my stepmother told my brother and I about it prior to the trip. The “lesser pilgrimage,” as it is sometimes referred to in comparison to the Hajj, Umrah can be undertaken at any time of the year. However, Umrah is not a substitute for Hajj, which is one of the five pillars or basic mandatory acts of Islam. It is also important to note that Hajj is a duty that must only be carried out by adults who are financially and physically capable of undertaking the journey.

We made our way to Kano where we met up with the rest of the family; I recognized most of the faces but forgot most of the names. I always experienced an ever-present feeling of slight shame whenever people remembered my name but I could not, for the life of me, remember theirs. I felt less embarrassed this time as the number of cousins, aunts, uncles and house helps were just too much for anyone to grasp. The family is huge! Regardless, we familiarized ourselves with one another once again as we unpacked small things from our luggage and then had dinner.

The next thing I remember was being on a plane, strapped into my seat anxiously as we experienced rounds of very frightening turbulence. Fear is expressed in various sorts of ways; I’m the silent type. On the surface, everything appears fine, but on the inside, it sounds like Wall Street when the markets crashed. One of the older boys who sat next to me started talking to me—my calmness must have deceptively drawn him in—and explained that the turbulence was due to the mountain we were flying over. When strong winds flow perpendicular to mountain ranges, the air flowing over the top of the mountain produces turbulence.

Image Credit: Peter Dowley

Many things after that, and most parts of this story, remain a blur; but what I remember remains vividly engraved in my memory. There was the building we lived in once in Jeddah; a block of flats owned by my stepmother’s father. Groups were formulated naturally: the older boys got rooms close to one another, so did the girls, and the younger kids kept to themselves. We all had an allowance that varied depending on age, and there was a lot of excitement amongst the kids whenever they grouped up to ask their mothers for pocket money for snacks, toys, or clothes. It felt like we were in a camp, and the bond between us all grew from day to day. But while it was a family reunion for all of them; for my brother and I, it felt like another world.

There was this freedom to roam around the city that we didn’t have back home; the parents felt it was safe, as long as we moved in groups. I have fond memories of playing football with the local kids on sandy concrete as the sun hung directly above us. We used whatever we could find around us to make goal posts and play a little five-a-side. Later that night, I remember going up to the rooftops with some of the older and younger kids, where we found a bunch of relatively new looking wheelchairs. I never found out what they were for, but there were about eight of us up there doing wheelies in wheelchairs underneath an amber-colored sky.

Image Credit: Léola Lozone

But it wasn’t all bright and colorful. There were things I experienced there that I had never before; selective discrimination for instance, towards darker skinned people. I could never stop a cab, and neither could the others. What we ended up doing, and it worked like clockwork, was to ask a relative that was fairest in complexion amongst us to stop a cab. He would stop it, and then we’d get in. There were also incidents inside the mall where the staff would look at us askance and once asked one of the boys to leave to the mall for no apparent reason. One explanation for the mall incident, as my cousin explained, is that malls there “usually have family only nights—and usually ask single men to leave. But racism could also play a role as they’re probably less likely to ask a single Arab man to leave.”

Moving on, the day we left by car to Mecca was a strange one for me. I was nervous and didn’t know what to expect. Suddenly we were pilgrims heading towards the holy city to perform a series of ritualistic and symbolic acts, of which I knew very little about. We got there and I must say, it was beautiful in all its movement. Street vendors selling food, garments, shoes, and all sorts along either side of the road as we made our way over to our hotel.

Image Credit: GLady

The events leading up to the moment of ritual have escaped me, but the boys were in their Ihram clothing, which consisted of two white un-hemmed sheets. The top is draped over the torso and the bottom is worn like a towel covering the waist down. We were preparing to perform Tawaf, the circling of the Kaaba, as well as Sa’I, where we would travel back and forth seven times between two small hills (Al-Safa and Al-Marwah) in order to commemorate Hagar’s (Ibrahim/Abrahams) search for water.

This is when the pressure got to me. My stomach clenched, my senses were finely tuned and I felt an overwhelming sensation in me. People of all sizes, backgrounds, races, all gathering and standing equal under God’s eye. What a spectacle it was. “The unity and submission of all those people towards one cause always makes me think ‘how can people deny the existence of God?’”

Image Credit: GLady

I had my questions, I had my doubts and as my brother and I at one point, barely moving ourselves through the function of our feet, were instead being swept by the crowd circling the Kaaba, as if levitating between earth and space. Then, I wondered: how did these people find their faith? Better still, how many of them truly found faith, and what did they go through before experiencing this epiphany? I needed to know, for I had yet to experience such a sensation, yet there I was, standing in complete awe. At the end of it all, I felt a strong sense of camaraderie with the family and a great pride from the achievement, but not much else.

Faith is not learned, (but this is how most religious teachers I've come across have framed it to me) and I do not agree with this; I want to know and not just believe. It is a trip I will never forget as it presented me, above all else, with a task I took upon myself. I need to learn, study and understand the religion I was born into, as well as other religions. I don’t expect to be satisfied, but I do expect to achieve a greater sense of clarity that will help me shape the way I live moving forward.