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In the Name of God بسم الله

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Salams

I’m inviting members to share brief travel stories along with select pics about the wonderful places they have visited and the things they experienced there.

The reason for starting a new thread is that I’d like to focus on individual experience, personal observations, and examples of cultural exchange and shock etc as opposed to the more general to-do and to-see lists which, in the age of the internet, anyone can look up online about any place on Earth.

Reports of pilgrimages or religious travel are welcome but this is by no means the main or exclusive focus of the thread.

I was in transit at Oakland airport (OAK) when I saw this appear on a digital screen with a background of an unknown snow-covered mountaintop.

“We travel not to escape life but for life not to escape us.”

It struck a chord.

I’ll start with some observations from my Umrah trip. Until then here's something to think about:

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Saudi Arabia 2018

My family and I performed Umrah last year, Allah be praised. It was my first but my family had been there before. Words can’t describe your feelings when the Kaaba comes into view for the first time!

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Our friends advised us to visit right after the resumption of Umrah visas after the Hajj proceedings are concluded, because that is the least busy time of the year and you don’t have to share Masjid al-Haraam with the rest of the Ummah. We couldn’t travel on the desired dates due to work obligations so we visited in late winter. It was still supposed to be not so busy. We performed the Umrah at the time of Tahajjud prayers when most pilgrims are apparently back in the hotels, resting. Even then this is how it looked during the Sa'I on Safa and Marwah:

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My hometown is famous for scorching hot summers but back home we were using blankets and duvets at night. In Makkah we needed to switch on the one-and-a-half ton window air conditioner to contain the heat. It was only 15th February and the last I checked Hijaz was in the Northern hemisphere. Ya Allah!

We were advised to find a secluded spot for prayers wherever we went outside Masjid al-haraam because apparently the mullahs pester you if they see you praying with open arms and try to make you fold them. This made us conscious so we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible and avoided any unpleasant encounter.

I wanted to hop on a cheap flight to Riyadh to see a friend but I learned that we are only allowed to visit Jeddah, Makkah and Medina on Umrah visa. (Recently, the authorities have decided to allow pilgrims to travel to other parts of the country after obtaining special permits but this policy wasn’t in force when we visited) Technically, we couldn’t even visit Taif which is close to Makkah, but our friends who speak perfect Arabic took us there a couple of times to see the mountains and enjoy the stunning change of weather just after a drive of an hour or so from Makkah city.

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It was cold, wet, windy and foggy in Taif, which is a rare combination but in line with that time of the year. We went as far as Mount Dakka for the views and a small picnic of tea and sandwiches and returned after the sundown to our air conditioned rooms in Makkah. I experienced two completely opposite weather conditions in a single day.

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On the second occasion when we’re returning late at night our car was stopped at a checkpoint. My friend told me to sit quiet and tight and took out his ‘iqamah’ and driving license and managed the situation. “What would have happened had they found out an Umrah pilgrim here on the road to Taif,” I asked my friend. “Nothing, they’d have warned you and told you to get back to Makkah at once.” So the policy of preventing Umrah visa holders from visiting at least Taif isn’t strictly enforced. But I learned that cab drivers usually refuse to take pilgrims to Taif due to fear of incurring fines.

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In Medinah it was disheartening to be herded like animals in a tight queue to the shouts of ‘keep walking’ and ‘don’t ask the Prophet’ by the mullahs and the policemen installed around the burial chamber. Some desi Sunnis of Barelvi stock recited “naats” (What’s the Arabic word?) loudly to the great annoyance of the mullahs. I paid my respects, prayed in heart, and came out the other side to see more mullahs who wanted everyone to pray to “Allah only” as though all the pilgrims present there were a group of idol worshipers.

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(Sunrise in Masjid-e-Nabawi)

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(It is not until you see the dome of the Prophet from up close that you realise how old and fragile it is. Apparently it was erected by the Ottoman administration, was originally white in colour and bedecked in jewels. The Saudis ripped away the decorations after the conquest of the Hijaz and only spared the the dome on the orders of the Saudi Emir who feared backlash from "ignorant" Muslims)

I thought hijab was strictly enforced in all of Saudi Arabia. Not anymore. There used to be the ‘moral police’ (what’s the Saudi term for that?) who patrolled public places to enforce compliance with the approved dress code and public behaviour, and punish perceived infractions, but the crown prince has drastically curtailed their activities. They have been removed from big malls and other public places. We saw many women in Jeddah whose heads were completely uncovered but they did wear the abayas. Now women can display their hairdos in public and I suppose the foreign expats are enjoying the loosening of the leash

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of social change – or so it seems. As per new regulations, stores and businesses are required to employ a certain percentage of female employees or face fines or shutdowns. Native female workers are more visible than ever before. Another set of new regulations have put a tremendous stress on the expat communities. The annual fees to renew residence permits have shot up, which the middle class workers like shop owners find hard to afford and many are leaving. The purpose is to reduce dependence on foreign workers and to get the local and jobless - and some would say lazy - natives to start working.

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(This was an old administrative building in Makkah that dates back to the Ottoman times. Saudi destruction of monuments of religious significance is well-known but the regime has also let their heritage go to dust. In any other country this would have been a museum worth a visit)

No travel report is complete without some mention of the food! There is a fast food chain which is very famous among the visiting pilgrims and locals alike: Al-Baik. Everyone is advised to try their chicken and our friends were also insistent on taking us there. I found their chicken to be absolutely useless. Thanks to globalisation, spicy tasteless deep fried chicken is now considered food worth eating. I asked our friends to recommend us something authentic and local. We settled on what is called Qalaba, and it was excellent. Apparently lentils slow cooked over a long time until it looks like this:

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Later on we went to this Saudi restaurant which has cabins and carpets but no chairs and tables. You're expected to sit down and eat your food. The proper local way to eat rice is to empty the rich dish on the plastic mat and partake of the food with hands. There will be no plates and bowls for individuals. That was a bit...difficult for me as I am not familiar with this kind of "group eating." We were three people.

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I’ll finish with an anecdote – apparently a true story - someone told me in Makkah:

A man went on a business trip abroad. When he returned home he got a letter from the police requiring him to pay the fine for overspeeding at this and this date on this and this road. The man thought it was a terrible mistake because he’d been out of the country and, since he was the only adult male in the house, there is no way anyone else could have driven the car while he was away. So he challenged the penalty in court. During the proceedings the police produced a picture of the car and a reading of the speed cam. He saw his wife sitting in the front seat. The man who was driving the car was his colleague. It was well past midnight.

The man paid the fine and went home. The rest is history.

 

PS: I am an amateur clicker and use an average phone camera to take pics. So bear with me.

Next destination: Bosnia & Herzegovina.

 

Edited by Marbles

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@Marbles the slow cooked lintels, are those cooked in the same pots they were served in? Are they clay, stone, or ceramic? I don’t want to turn this into the eat, ate, eaten thread, but I’m desperately trying to get my hands on stone pans / cauldrons for my slow cooking obsession now a days. I heard people could buy those made from some rock in Mashhad. 

Right now my pans of choice are those heavy cast-iron for everything grilling, baking, stirfry, and curries, even omelettes. 

Nice post, may Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) accept your Umrah. 

Edited by Irfani313

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7 minutes ago, Irfani313 said:

@Marbles the slow cooked lintels, are those cooked in the same pots they were served in? Are they clay, stone, or ceramic? I don’t want to turn this into the eat, ate, eaten thread, but I’m desperately trying to get my hands on stone pans / cauldrons for my slow cooking obsession now a days. I heard people could buy those made from some rock in Mashhad. 

Right now my pans of choice are those heavy cast-iron for everything grilling, baking, stirfry, and curries, even omelettes. 

Nice post, may Allah (سُبْحَانَهُ وَ تَعَالَى) accept your Umrah. 

I am not sure if the food was cooked in the same pots but they were as heavy as clay pots back home. I don't think it was stone. I'll try to find out and get back with more info if I can.

And it's okay. You are welcome to discuss anything related to the content of the posts, food including.

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:salam:

I would like to write a short travel story but I always find a problem with the size of the pictures allowed by the forum.

I have to resize them like 3 times it is so annoying...

And yes, a travel story without pictures is kind of lame...

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