Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Shoe bags

(This is a story from The Female Cell by Rumaizah Abu Bakar.)

Kak Teh and I take off our rubber slippers and put them in two lime green shoe bags with our name tags and tighten the strings to secure it. Our travel agent has provided them to us when we checked into the hotel and advised us to take them to the mosque. It is common for pilgrims to lose footwear left outside.
    At the entrance, a woman security guard in black looks into our bags. She mumbles something in Arabic as she returns them and gestures for us to proceed. I take my sister's hand as we enter we admire the floral motifs carved on the entrance arch, the walls are of white marble that have light grey strokes in them, the high ceiling is carved in arabesque and the white marble floor we walk on while pilgrims shuffle around us hurriedly.
    We ignore the shoe racks around the pillars as we have our footwear in our bags. Yesterday, we had trouble finding our shoes at the racks. We have, also, carefully hidden our flat purses in the deep pockets of our robes as a precaution. We go up a flight of steps to another large area and down again to another. The joints in my knees wobble from fatigue and I see that Kak Teh is a little out of breath.
    We had planned this journey for a long time, depositing a part of our monthly salary into our Tabung Haji accounts. When we learned we had made the Malaysian hajj list for the season, Kak Teh and I were very excited. Tabung Haji also appointed an ustaz from the group as our muhrim as we had no male family member with us. After our husbands passed away, we have both been on our own.
    The giant cube at the central courtyard looked majestic Al-Haram mosque takes my breath away. The Kaabah is fifteen meters high and is draped in black silk with gold-embroidered calligraphy. According to Islamic theology, Al-Baytul Ma’mur was built by angels before the creation of mankind as ordained by God, to be a place of worship on earth to reflect the one in heaven.
    I feel like the Kaabah is waving at me, welcoming me to the house of God. I wave back and move closer. Thousands of pilgrims are performing the tawaf, going around the Kaabah seven times, keeping their left shoulders parallel to it. It is crowded. Pilgrims walk back to back, with chests touching the backs of those in front, chanting in high spirits, “Allahuakbar! Allahuakbar! Allahuakbar!”
    We see the Hijir Ismail, separated by four foot high semi-circular wall on the Southwest side of the Kaabah. It is the place where one asks God to grant one’s wishes, but we have to skip it as it is too crowded.
    It is a clear and sunny outside, a warm dry day in December but everybody seems oblivious to it. There is much hustle and bustle as people hurry around the mosque, but it is neither chaotic nor noisy. I look around and absorb it all. It feels serene.
    It is still two hours away from the Zohor prayers, but rows of people are already seated. We find a space on the floor next to three young women. From their crisp white embroidered telekung and baju kurung, we know that they are Malaysians.
    “Assalammulaikum,” We greet them and extended our hands in the customary salam.
    They smile and rise a little, offering their hands, “Waalaikumsalam.”
    We spread our sejadah to face the Kaabah, the qiblat. Outside Al-Haram mosque, jemaah or group prayers are performed in straight rows with everybody standing behind the imam. However, here people stand in circles around the Kaabah.
     “Where are you from?” I ask one of the young women.
    “Kuala Lumpur, and where are you from Auntie?”
    “Kedah. You can call me Mak Su. This is my sister, Mak Teh.”
    “I’m Iza and these are my cousins, Siti and Ayu.”
    “How long have you been in Makkah?”
    “Two weeks. How about you?”
    “We arrived two weeks, as well, but today is the first time we have come by ourselves. Our roommates will be here later for maghrib and isyaq prayers. ”
    “I see.”
    I open my copy of  Quran. Kak Teh takes out her tasbih beads and starts to recite the zikir. Halfway through the first chapter, I look up and see waves of water approaching us. I hear a whistle and a man shouting, "Hajjah! Hajjah!" He gave instructions in Arabic. People already seated rise and hurry towards the steps nearby. The three young women next to us get up, grab their sejadah and bags, hold one another’s hands and rush behind the crowd. I struggle with my stuff, help Kak Teh and dash for the steps as well.
    Though I have witnessed this scene several times, it never seizes to amaze me. The group of men in jade green uniforms march closer with a tanker mounted vehicle. I see the words ‘Haram Captor’ printed on it.    Three men hold up a thick red rope to isolate the area being cleaned. One man pours pails of soapy water onto the floor while two others mop. Then, finally, a machine with bristles at the bottom polishes the white marble to a shine. They are quick and efficient and they do not leave behind a strong smell of detergent when they are done.
    This troop is responsible for keeping the grand mosque clean twenty four hours a day and seven days a week. They have to work while pilgrims go about with their devotional duties and the grand mosque is never empty. I am amazed at how enthusiastic they are. I have never seen another bunch of janitors so proud of their work.
    I smile and turn around to say something to Kak Teh. To my horror, I see a stranger stands behind me. My sister is nowhere to be seen. Panic overtakes me. I run around  like a headless chicken, yelling, “Kak Teh! Kak Teh! Where are you? Kak Teh!” Heads turn to look at me. I run from one pillar to the next. I go around in circles, as they all look the same. I sweat profusely and my heart beats violently. Where is she?  An old woman in black speaks to me in Arabic. Several more approach, all talking in Arabic. Their voices are kind but I cannot understand a word they say. Tears flow down my cheeks.
    Then, I catch sight of three familiar figures in the middle of the mosque where rows of zamzam water containers line the floor; Iza and her cousins. I approach them, panting, and tap Iza's shoulder. She turns around, startled and looks at me.
    “Have you … did you see my sister?”
    She shakes her head. “Wasn’t she with you?”
    “No, she was holding my hand when we rushed up the steps. Then, when I turned around, she was gone.”
    “Oh, dear!”
    “I have looked around this area already.”
    “Mak Su, why don't you wait here? We'll look for her.”
    Having seen her only briefly, I am worried that they would not recognise her. But they are sure that they would know my sister from the silver embroidery on her white telekung that they had so admired, and her matching bag. Iza talks to the other two women.
    “Let’s try that floor,” she points up the steps. “You can take the left half and I’ll take the right. We meet here in twenty minutes.” She points to the steps on the other side of the mosque, across the circular courtyard downstairs. “You see the sign there?” The four corners of the Kaabah roughly faced the four cardinal points of the compass; Hajr-al-Aswad, Rukun-al-Iraqi, Rukun-al-Shami and Rukun al-Yamani.
    They look up, squint and nod.
    “We meet at Hajr-al-Aswad.”
There is a long queue where she points. Pilgrims are waiting for their turns to touch and kiss the sacred black stone that is set four feet above the ground towards the east of the Kaabah. It is believed to have been white when it fell from heaven and turned black from absorbing the sins of millions of pilgrims. Now cracked and in pieces, it is held together within a silver frame.
    “Recite the salawat while we look for her,” she says to me.
    I nod meekly as they spread out.
The Tabung Haji officer has told us that the Al-Haram is large enough to house almost four millions worshippers, indoors and out. The mosque was built around the Kaabah during the reign of Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab in 634 CE. It was rebuilt twice after natural disasters. To accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims, it has gone through at least four major renovations under several rulers, with more being planned. Currently, it has nine minarets and is one of the world’s largest air-conditioned buildings.
    I spread my sejadah on the floor, sit down and lean against the marble pillar. Kak Teh could not have ventured too far in such a short time. I continue reciting the salawat softly. I recall stories of pilgrims losing their way in the mosque. They say one has to watch one’s words in the holy land for Allah's punishment would come swiftly. I wondered if my sister had said something that she should not have without realising it. I should have held on to her hand instead of assuming she would follow me.
    It feels like a long time before the three women return. They are all out of breath and, to my horror, Kak Teh is not with them.
    “Oh my God! What do we do now?” I hope they would have a solution.
    The area around the Kaabah is crowded. People have laid prayer mats on the floor to reserve their places for the zohor jemaah prayers in one hour. The area upstairs, where we are, is full too. The walkaways are blocked; there is no way we can get out.
     “It’s impossible for us to go anywhere now,” Iza says.
    Tears stream down my face. “Oh, what about my sister?”
    “Let’s sit down and recite the solat hajat; may God help us find her and may she be okay. Afterwards, when the crowd will eases, insha’Allah, we look for her again then.”
    I nod, reluctantly.
We spread our sejadah on the narrow space on the floor between two Arab women in bright clothes. After completing our prayers, we wait for a while for pilgrims to leave before the group launches another search for Kak Teh. The three women tour the whole of the ground floor before checking the basement and the first floor.
    After a long while, they return to the big pillar next to the women’s entrance where I am.
    “Where do you keep your shoe bags, Mak Su?” Iza asks.
    “We will see if Mak Teh’s bag is still there. We will know then if she is still here. Maybe she met someone she knows and is back in the hotel.”
    I shake my head and show her my green bag. “We carried them with us into the mosque.”
    “Oh! Mak Su, let us take you back to your hotel. I think it is best that we report this to Tabung Haji, and get their help.” She tries to smile.


I sit on my bed and leaning against the wall. Six single beds with clean white sheets occupy the room, four in a row, with another two laid perpendicular to them. I am still dressed in my embroidered black robe. My white telekung lies next to me.
    My four roommates look at me from their beds, awaiting the full account of what happened to my sister.
    “I lost her at Al-Haram,” I start. “We were running from the cleaners. Then, when I turned around, she was gone.”
    “Ya Allah!” They gasp.
    “We’ve reported this to the Tabung Haji Officers. They’ve recorded her name and details in the Missing Person Log Book.” Then I start crying.
    “Be patient, Mak Su.” Minah gets up, sits on my bed and hugs me.
    “The Tabung Haji officer said they would notify the other hotels. Since she has been missing for less than twenty hours, they will not notify the Saudi Arabia authority yet.”
    “Oh dear.”
    “Yes, they say that many missing persons are found within a few hours, or a few days at the most.” I sob.
    After a while, everyone starts talking at the same time, shooting questions at me, curious about the incidence and concerned.
    “Do you think she is still at the mosque?” Minah says.
    I shrug, “I don’t know. I only hope she is safe.”
    I do not follow my roommates to the mosque when they leave two hours later. I am worried of Kak Teh coming back and not finding me here. There is not enough space to pray in the room, so, I spread my sejadah on the landing outside the door, with my tasbih beads at the right corner and with my Quran raised on a tissue box. After completing the mandatory maghrib prayers, I continue with others and conclude by reciting the solat hajat to, specifically, request God’s help to find Kak Teh and protect her from harm. I sit on the sejadah, with prayer beads in my hands, pleading to Allah to bring my sister back safely.


When I go downstairs for breakfast with my roommates the next morning, I do not feel hungry.  I see a black and white poster on the lift wall with an enlarged passport photo of my sister:

    Missing Malaysian pilgrim:
    Zalina Mohamad, 64,  staying at the Qurtubah Baraqah, has been reported missing on 23 December 2006. She was last seen at Al-Haram before zohor. Anyone who has seen her are advised to report to the Tabung       Haji Administration Office.

    My eyes filled with tears again. I have not slept at all. I have, instead, been up all night praying.
    “Don’t worry, Mak Su. Allah will take care of her,” Minah says and hugs me again.
    “Insha’Allah,” I nod.
    When we reach the hotel’s dining hall on the ground floor, four of them join the queue for roti canai and fried noodles while Minah and I proceed to the next counter to trade our beverage coupons for six mugs of hot teh tarik.
    We head for the only available round table in the corner where I sit next to Minah. For a long while, I can only stare at the food and drink in front of me, as my roommates open their plastic containers and start eating their roti canai and noodles. I, finally, sip my teh tarik.


It has been five years since I last saw Kak Teh at the Al-Haram Mosque. I have not stopped trying to find her. Tabung Haji Officials and various ustaz, tell me to pray for her soul, and hope that she is in heaven, Insha’Allah.
    I miss her so much.