“I’m dead!” said the Afghani elder shrouded under blankets on her tiny cot. “No, you’re not dead, Auntie.” I tried to assure her that the air conditioning would not take her life. Her comfort was always at odds with the menopausal Pakistani aunties at the other end of our crowded tent. Between the young and old, healthy and ill, wealthy and middle class, there was always a conflict to be resolved in the group of nearly 100 women. Each tenant had only a thin mattress, about the size of a beach towel, to occupy. For sleeping, eating and praying, this little rectangle was the only place to call your own and, by necessity, it was constantly invaded like an insecure territory. After several days, everyone started to lose their temper and get snappy. I felt my own patience evaporating in that valley of Makkah and wondered why no one briefed me about how difficult this part of Hajj would be.
For crowds, pushing, stealing and shoving, I was thoroughly prepped and prepared but more challenging than any invasion of my personal boundaries was spending several days keeping the peace between the women of my tent in Mina. I didn’t volunteer for this charge but at five foot six, I stood above most of my fellow female pilgrims. It started with simple requests: “Can you turn on the AC?”, “Can you turn off the lights?”, “Can you reach my bag overhead?” Before I knew it, I was distributing boxes of food, relaying health needs and mediating problems. Every day these responsibilities continued, and I welcomed them as one of the younger and more energetic pilgrims in the group. This role came naturally to me as I was raised to respect and assist my elders, but on the eve of the Day of ‘Arafah, I went into a panic. Tomorrow is the Hajj, the Day of ‘Arafah where prayers are answered, sins are forgiven, and the Divine gaze is upon us. Was I ready to spend the day in prayer? Had I repented for my sins and wrote my list of prayer requests? I found a few quiet moments to read Qur’an before duty called once again. I prayed that night asking Allah (SWT) to prepare me and realised that my Lord had been preparing me all along.
Often, we believe our blessings and rewards lie in the actions we complete and check off on our lists, the prayers and pages we recited with or without presence of heart. But for me, the realisation of my Hajj was both simple and difficult – it was service. In serving the pilgrims of Allah (SWT), the very guests personally invited by the Most Merciful, I found my Hajj, my repentance and my goal’s end. Even as I recall those days in Mina and standing on the Mount of Arafat, I still weep at the honour of knowing that out of all the people chosen to serve these esteemed guests, the Host chose me to serve, and I was the most honoured of them all.
Chantal Blake is a wife and mum from New York City, currently living and travelling abroad. Woven through her writing are themes of spirituality, environmentalism and holistic health.