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Saturday, January 31, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Journey to Mecca spiritually fulfilling, physically taxing

By Mary A. Jacobs
The Dallas Morning News

Shakar Mirza, right, of Carrollton, Texas, laughs with her friend Norine Carroll while riding stationary bikes at the Carrollton Senior Center. Mirza will be making her second hajj when she travels with other Muslims to Mecca.
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DALLAS — Preparing for what may be the biggest physical challenge of her life, Shakar Mirza got into shape by eating healthful food, walking every day and attending weekly aerobics and yoga classes.

The event? The hajj — the annual pilgrimage that draws millions of Muslims to Mecca.

Mirza, 68, of Carrollton, Texas, left last week for her second hajj. While the journey has profound spiritual significance, it's also physically taxing, especially for older Muslims. Many pilgrims must cross half a world just to get to Saudi Arabia, then travel from city to city, at times sleeping in tents or under the stars, with temperatures as high as 110 degrees.

Having made the trip four years ago, Mirza knew what to expect: jostling crowds, intense heat, long days.

"You sleep on the bare ground, on a mat or in a sleeping bag," she said. "Everybody's there; there are people as far as you can see. It's amazing.

"I'll be there 2-1/2 weeks, and the whole time, it never lets up," she said. At one point in the pilgrimage — when she will walk around the Kaaba, the Islamic holy shrine in Mecca, seven times — she estimated that she will walk 16 miles in a single day.

"I want to be in good shape," she said. "I'm traveling with a group, and I don't want to slow the group down."

To prepare, her fitness routine included daily 1-1/2-mile walks and weekly aerobics classes. She drank lots of water and dieted so she'd carry a little less weight. She took yoga to keep herself limber.

Facts about hajj

What: Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and other sacred sites in Saudi Arabia. Every Muslim is to make the trip at least once, if health and finances permit.

When: The hajj must be performed during the period ending with Eid al-Adha, the eighth day of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijja. This year Eid al-Adha begins at sundown tomorrow.

Preparation: Pilgrims undergo ritual cleansing before entering the sacred space of Mecca. The ritual includes stating one's intentions to make hajj and, for men, donning the ihran (a simple white garment). Women wear modest clothing of their native lands.

Key cities: From Mecca, the pilgrims travel to Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah and then return to Mecca. Before or after the hajj, some also will visit Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried.

Key rituals: Pilgrims walk around the Kaaba seven times and run between two hills near Mecca, signifying the desperate search for water by Abraham's wife, Hagar. At Muzdalifah, pilgrims gather 70 small pebbles, which are used the next day to stone the three pillars of Jumrah, representing Satan. On the last day, animals are sacrificed.

"Our prayers require you to kneel and then stand up, over and over again, so it's very difficult if you are stiff," she said.

The hajj culminates at sundown tomorrow with Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, which commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God's command.

The hajj centers on Mecca — the city of the Prophet Muhammad's birth — and the Kaaba, which Muslims believe is the shrine built by Abraham when the site was given to him by the angel Gabriel. But the pilgrimage also takes hajjis to three other cities: Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah.

The Saudi government expects 2.5 million Muslims for hajj this year, with half from abroad — more than 170,000 from the United States and Europe. (While the number of Muslims, now about 1 billion worldwide, is growing, Saudi Arabia limits the number of special hajj visas issued each year, because of capacity constraints.)

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. All Muslims in good health and financially able are required to make the journey at least once in their lifetimes.

Many pilgrims are elderly, if only because the cost of the trip may require a lifetime of savings. (Travel packages from the United States cost $2,000 to $5,000 or more.) Borrowing money to make the trip is frowned upon in Muslim tradition.

Keeping pilgrims healthy presents a major logistical challenge for the Saudi government.

Twenty hospitals have been readied to meet pilgrims' needs; almost 10,000 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel will be deployed for the event.

Although only one hajj is required, some Muslims make additional trips.

Often, this is done for the sake of a parent or other relative who has died or is unable to travel. For Mirza, an administrative assistant at Texas Woman's University, it's simply a matter of wanting to experience it again.

"There's an intense feeling of unity, of the grandeur of faith, of the majesty of the lord," she said. "You feel close to the creator, and it is a beautiful feeling. I wanted to go one more time while I have my health."

Her first hajj, in 2000, came shortly after her husband's death. A sister invited her.

"I told her no, but she said, 'Don't say no now, wait until the end of the day,' " Mirza recalled. "Then my other sister, who is 10 years older than me, said, 'If you go, I'll go,' so I decided to do it."

Despite the rigors of the journey, her voice was wistful as she talked of the moments of sharing and kindness — pressing money into the hands of impoverished pilgrims from India — her homeland — and the gratitude on their faces. She recalled a friend who, in making ablutions in preparation for prayer, couldn't reach the basin. Without being asked, a pilgrim picked her up and another washed her feet for her.

"It's unbelievable, the caring and sharing you see on the hajj," she said. "You are energized by the experience."


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