The Turning of Arrival

A new convert to Islam undergoes the Tawaf al-Qudum ritual

| July-August 1997

In 1972 only 52 pilgrims from the Americas traveled to Mecca for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage required of every able Muslim at least once in a lifetime. But in 1990, when Californian Michael Wolfe—a new convert to Islam—made the trip, he found more Americans than that in his hotel. That was the first of many surprises on his mind-opening journey.  

Mecca lies 50 miles east of the Red Sea. It is a modern city of a half million people, splashing up the rim of a granite bowl a thousand feet above sea level. Barren peaks surround it on every side, but there are passes: one leading north toward Syria; one south to Yemen; one west to the coast. A fourth, a ring road, runs east to Ta’if. By day, the hills form a volcanic monotony. At night, they blend into the sky and disappear.

The first thing I discovered about Mecca was that I’d been spelling the name wrong. West of town we passed a fluorescent sign with glowing arrows and six letters sparkling in the headlights: makkah. The orthography threw me. With its two hard Cs, Mecca is the most loaded Arabic word in the English language. Without them, what is it? No one here said MEH-ka. They said ma-KAH. English-speaking Meccans insisted on it. “Do you pronounce Manhattan men-HET-en?” one of them asked me.

I fell in behind my fellow pilgrim, Mohamad Mardini, as we climbed Umm al-Qura Road. At the top of the rise, where the street was closed to cars, five thousand people moved up the pavement. Reaching the crest, I came up on my toes. Everyone knew what was down there, glowing at the bottom of the valley: the largest open-air temple in the world.

Soon I was being introduced to a Saudi guide named Shaykh Ibrahim, a professor of hadith at the local university. I asked him, twice, what the Prophet had said about the mosque. Finally he said, “Just remember: the Ka’ba is a sacred building. But not so sacred as the people who surround it.” Pointing to the ground, he made a circle with his finger.

“Whatever you do here, don’t hurt anyone, not even accidentally. We are going to perform the Umrah now. We will greet the mosque, circle the shrine, walk seven times between the hills, like Hagar. Think of it as a pilgrim’s dress rehearsal. Don’t rush, don’t push. Take it easy. Get out of the way if anyone acts wild. If you harm someone, our performance might not be acceptable. You might do it for nothing.”

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