Yemeni rituals for Hajj & Eid Al-Adha [Archives:2007/1012/Reportage]

January 1 2007
Hajajs` clothes are hung on swings while their families swing and sing in their absence.	photo by Arwa Othman
Hajajs` clothes are hung on swings while their families swing and sing in their absence. photo by Arwa Othman
Fatima Al-Ajel
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Nawal Zaid

When one declares his or her intention to perform the Hajj, family, friends and neighbors come to visit and say goodbye, most often requesting prayer for them in the great house during the Hajj. A big ceremony takes place with special traditional activities for the pilgrims', in Arabic known as hajaj departure and reception.

Accompaniment on departure day

On the day of departure, others will go with the departing pilgrims, who look like the kings or queens. Mostly, people accompany the hajaj to the airport.

People gather at the door of the hajaj's house to say goodbye, while a man specialized in singing religious songs comes to praise and repeat verses of folk poetry. He then calls for the moment of the hajaj's leaving for Allah's house. It's an emotional moment, as the hajaj ask relatives and neighbors to take care of their house during their absence.

When the vehicles set off, the hajaj begin chanting verses of folk poetry recited in a chorus. Cassettes are available on the market containing songs and anthems expressing their relatives' emotional state, thus providing them some solace. While the pilgrims are gone, their families and relatives wait impatiently until they return safely.

Traditional al-madraha (“the swing”) activities for the hajaj

After the pilgrims leave for Mecca and during their absence, families at home set up a swing (“al-madraha”) either inside their yard or in a nearby public garden, especially in Sana'a. While children enjoy the swing, grownups use it as well, and it's interesting to note its association with the solemn and serious religious ritual of the Hajj.

Families, relatives and others swing until the pilgrims return, chanting poetic verses verbalizing their feelings and emotions and praying for the hajaj to return to their families in a good health.

The swing's rhythmic movement symbolically represents the relatives' inner worry and longing for the absent pilgrim, whose clothes sometimes are hung on the swing. They also ensure that the swing is strong enough, as there's a belief that if it breaks, that's a bad omen that the pilgrim might be at risk or in danger.

Habits during the first Hajj/eid days

Especially in Sana'a, one finds habits specific to only Yemeni society. In the final days of December, which is the 10th day of Dhu'l-Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar, Yemenis, especially those in Sana'a, burn special incense throughout the entire house, believing it may drive out any evil in the house during those blessed days.

“I used to burn firebrand in the evening and ask my husband and children to burn incense as well, then I did so for all the rooms in my home,” Sana'a grandmother Fatima Al-Habial explained.

Most animal sellers select their best ones for eid sacrifices. Some used to use henna on them to distinguish them from the others, as well as being a type of caring toward the animals.

Two or three days before the eid, Yemenis feed those animals to be sacrificed a lot of salt because “it's good for the meat after slaughtering – it makes it more tasty and easier to cook,” Al- Habial asserted, adding, “We believe that salting animals before slaughter blesses their meat.”

Sharing the animal sacrificing is a habit among neighbors and relatives, which even the rich do, with each group from the neighborhood sharing a bull or a camel. At the moment of sacrifice, if there are more animals than the one to be slaughtered, the butcher requests the others be taken away until he finishes, as a mercy toward the other animals so they won't see the process of sacrificing. His knife also must be very sharp.

Meat from the Eid Al-Adha sacrifice mostly is given to others, such as relatives, neighbors and the poor. Women especially prepare huge meals for their relatives, while others prefer to distribute the meat and that's enough.

Eid days

Like Ramadan's Eid Al-Fitr, Yemenis visit each other to exchange eid greetings, but the first visit is later because people are busy sacrificing, so mostly women await their relatives' visit, excusing them if late. During such visits, many sweets, chocolates and cakes are presented to guests. The three first days of the eid are for making meals for family, friends and other relatives.

Celebrating the hajaj's reception

Many Yemeni areas celebrate the hajaj's return, according to a long-established tradition that a pilgrim must be hailed when he or she arrives from the Hajj. Large quantities of fireworks are used, especially in cities, large quantities of fireworks are used and guns are fired into the air in rural areas, as a festival marks the occasion.

Greeters also use fireworks and sound systems used at weddings to add flavor to the pilgrim's reception and reflect how lucky they are to have performed one of Islam's five fundamental pillars and visited the holy shrines.

When a pilgrim arrives at his or her neighborhood, Yemenis in some areas slaughter goats or sheep and hold a feast to honor the returnee and those guests who accepted the invitation to come and welcome the hajaj. From the windows of their houses, women express their happiness at the hajaj's arrival with loud songs called, “mahjrah to the hajaj,” while others offer special flowers called “shathab.”

Afterward, they gather in the hajaj's large sitting room (diwan) to listen attentively to the pilgrim's narration of his journey to the sacred land. Women pilgrims sit with their fellow women in a separate place.

Pilgrims most often return with a large bag of gifts for all of the visitors who come to see him or her, especially children, distributing these special gifts from Mecca on the day of his or her arrival. Most visitors await a gift of Zamzam water, considered the best gift, because such water is believed to be medicine for whatever its drinker wants to be cured from.

Other Hajj gifts include prayer rugs and prayer beads, as well as hats and other tokens for children.