Pilgrims’ homecomingmet with kinsmen’s joy [Archives:2006/914/Culture]

January 23 2006

By: Ali Al-Qadhi
Pilgrims travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform the pilgrimage rituals. They visit the holy shrines and circle the Kaaba. When they leave their homes, their families say goodbye to them, remaining on tenterhooks until they return. Last week, Yemeni pilgrims began pouring back by air, land and sea and were received warmly.

Haj Mohammed Hussein, 72, was received at a Sana'a bus station by his children, grandchildren and many other relatives. They had been sitting until the bus arrived from Saudi Arabia. Seeing him descend from the bus, they hastened to hug him with expressions of extreme joy overcoming their faces. The old man was supposed to have come a day earlier, but was delayed. Some others looked around for their returning relatives, but might have to wait for some time. Haj Hussein and his family got into a pickup truck and set off for their village in Dhamar province.

It is interesting the way pilgrims are hailed and welcomed. The joyous heartening reception at the bus stop is not the end of the welcome package.

Fireworks and gunfire

When vehicles set off, passengers begin chanting verses of folk poetry recited in a chorus. Greeters also use fireworks and noisemakers used at weddings to add flavor to the pilgrim's reception.

“We should celebrate the return of our pilgrims,” said 25-year-old Ibrahim Al-Maqdashi. “It is a well-established tradition that a pilgrim must be hailed when he or she arrives.”

Large quantities of fireworks are used, guns are fired into the air in rural areas and a festival marks the occasion.

When the pilgrim arrives at the village, they slaughter goats or sheep and make a feast served to villagers to honor the returnee. Afterward, they gather in their sheikh's large sitting room and listen attentively to the pilgrim's narration of his journey to the sacred land. Women pilgrims do not gather with men but sit with their fellow women in a separate place.

Pilgrims most often distribute rosaries, hats and other tokens bought in Mecca to their relatives.

According to 30-year-old Ali Ahmed, the reason for this extraordinary reception is, “In the past, going to Mecca was a very difficult task that entailed undergoing many difficulties such as fatigue, travel expense, food, etc. There also was the risk of being robbed by highwaymen. Only a few people could perform these holy rites. They had to prepare a lot of money to spend on the several-month trip by selling part of their lands or properties.”

He continued, “Thus, people held those who performed the pilgrimage in much respect and regarded them as very fortunate and pious. On the departure day, villagers would accompany departing pilgrims for some distance. While pilgrims were gone, their families and relatives would wait impatiently until they came back safely.”

Although today's pilgrimage doesn't require as much effort as it did in the past, people still highly respect pilgrims because, after all, they are lucky enough to have performed one of Islam's five fundamental pillars and visited the holy shrines.

Stampedes don't frighten pilgrims

Pilgrims consider themselves martyrs and wish to die in Mecca. Although a stampede may be a good reason for relatives to worry, pilgrims do not worry much about it. Haj Qayid Abdullah said he would be lucky to meet his fate in Mecca because it would bring him eternal happiness in Paradise. However, he admitted that a Muslim shouldn't intentionally put himself in harm's way because that would be committing suicide, which is forbidden in Islam. The risk of stampedes adds to the impatience of relatives and, hence, to the warmth of the returnee's reception.

The swing tradition

The swing is a game children like. However, this same game is used by grownups as well. It is interesting to note that it also is associated with the solemn religious ritual of pilgrimage.

After pilgrims leave for Mecca, families at home set up a swing either indoors, in their garden or in a nearby public yard, especially in Sana'a. They swing until the pilgrims return, chanting poetic verses that verbalize their emotions and feelings. The swing's rhythmic movement symbolically represents the relatives' inner unrest, anxiety and longing for the absent pilgrim. The pilgrim's clothes sometimes are hung on the swing. People also make sure the swing is strong enough, as it's a bad omen if it breaks.

Heritage conservation activists worry this tradition may disappear. With modern telecommunications, people can now know about the safety and conditions of their pilgrims. Unlike the past, today there is a national television team following pilgrims' movements, reporting on their situation and airing short interviews with some of them. Moreover, there are cassettes in the market containing songs and anthems expressing the emotional state of relatives, thus giving them some solace.

Unquestionably, performing the pilgrimage once in his or her lifetime is every Muslim's duty, if capable, but some do it more than once. Many pilgrims are old people who hope to erase their record of misdeeds and gain God's blessings, forgiveness and mercy. Nevertheless, the young are similarly committed and make up a good portion of the congregation.

It is important to note that the social traditions associated with this religious ritual are remarkable, as they show the spirit of togetherness and intimacy among Muslims and exhibit a facet of Yemen's long-lived social conventions.