Labbaik Allah humma labbaik (here I am at your service, o my Lord, here I am). These are the words chanted by millions of Muslims from around the world when they are on their way to perform the pilgrimage to Makkah (also spelled Mecca); either for Hajj, which is performed annually and lasts for a minimum of 5 days, or for Umrah (also known as Hajj Asghar or small Hajj), which can be performed in a few hours and can be performed year round. Last week we were one of the blessed ones to perform this sacred ritual.
Our visa to Saudi Arabia was granted in 10 days; there are several agencies in Doha which will compile all necessary paperwork and obtain the visas for a nominal fee. We had specifically applied for an Umrah visa, as opposed to a visit visa; which is more difficult to obtain. We had planned to drive; hence we applied for a driving visa. Incidentally, a driving visa is separate from a flying one, but one needs to be driving their own car (as opposed to a bank owned one). Also, only one family per vehicle is permitted. Insurance to drive in Saudi Arabia is obtained at the border, and is quite reasonable.
Driving to Makkah, though arduous, is not unfeasible; many people I now have done so. The distance is about 1,286 km or about 800 miles - one way. The roads are similar to freeways/highways in any developed country, with plenty of rest stops and refueling stations along the way. The scenery is, of course, of desert vistas of various hues, with Bedouin tents and camels speckling the sandy and occasionally rocky terrain. We crossed the border in approximately 1 hour without any obstacles. We did go through some unfamiliar procedures, mainly on the Saudi side, but overall everything went smoothly.
After an 8 hour drive from Doha to Riyadh- the capital of Saudi Arabia, we realized we did not have enough time or energy to go any farther, and decided to forgo the additional 10 hour drive. We then booked a flight on a local Saudi Arabian discount airline called Sama and flew to Jeddah (1 ½ hours), from there we drove to Makkah which is about 1 hour away.
The feeling one has when entering the gates of the Masjid Al Haram, the mosque which surrounds the Ka’aba (the name Ka’aba comes from the Arabic word muka'ab meaning "cube") and beholding it is beyond description. The range of emotions one feels is intense and overwhelming. This is something every Muslim who has had the great fortune to witness knows, and one who has not, yearns for. I had been there a few times as a child, but for K and the children it was the first time.
After spending 3 peaceful days in Makkah, we started our journey back home. We met several family members along the way, whose gracious hospitality was greatly appreciated. On the drive back to Doha we stopped at a Saudi truck stop. It had a small restaurant with a separate room for families; here we sat on mats on the floor and enjoyed a simple, delicious and memorable meal.
As I have written before, the reasons for our move to Qatar were many, being in lose proximity to the holy cities is one of the more important ones. We are now back home and are looking forward to our next visit. It is every Muslims belief it is Allah who calls upon us to come to Makkah. I pray he calls me many, many times throughout my life.