Three Thousand Miles for a Wish is one British Muslim woman’s account of going to Saudi Arabia to take part in the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Growing up in the UK her religion had become such a minor part of her life that she barely noticed that she’d lost touch with her roots. Succeeding academically, she trained as a lawyer and hated the tedium of the job. She went to nightclubs, drank and got a boyfriend. But ‘living the dream’ turned out to be more of a nightmare. When the dream boyfriend turned out to have a fiancé about whom she knew nothing until the other woman was screaming in her face, Safiya’s life started spiralling into dangerous depression. She ripped up her prayer mat, blamed God, screamed at her parents, abused her friends and family and was heading on the fast-track to self destruction. Then one day her parents told her they were going to Mecca for the Hajj and she found herself asking to go with them. If her parents were surprised it was nothing to how surprised she was herself but suddenly everything seemed to make some kind of sense for the first time in a long while. Three Thousand Miles for a Wish opens with Safiya sitting on a plane, scaring herself half silly about what she’s about to do, acknowledging that people die every year in pursuit of the absolution that their pilgrimage can give them. She wonders if she’ll make it back alive – or perhaps equally importantly, whether her post-Hajj self will be a better person than the one sitting on the plane.
About 20 years ago I got accidentally caught up in the Hajj – in a very peripheral way. I was flying from Malaysia back to the UK on Emirates, a lovely airline with marvellous staff but an annoying tendency to bob up and down around the world making some interesting detours. It was Hajj season and we stopped in Bangladesh and took on board several hundred pilgrims draped in white cloth. It was very unnerving but I was intrigued about why these men – and they were almost all men – had left their country to go to Saudi Arabia to join in the rituals that draw worshippers from all over the world. In the years since I’ve watched the news as multiple fatalities take place every few years. Mostly people die of crush injuries – trampled in the excitement or fervour of the process. I knew only the most basic things that happen – throwing rocks at pillars that represent the devil, circling the big black stone that represents the centre of the Muslim world which is called the Kabaa, and subjecting themselves to one of the most extreme climates in the world. As for details, well I was only guessing. I wanted to know a bit more – but possibly not quite as much details as the book gave me.
Apologies in advance to any Muslim readers if I get this wrong or if I cause any offence but I find Islam to be a fascinating religion and superficially quite a simple one. I love visiting mosques and appreciate the simplicity of the ways of worship. Whilst I have to admit my interest doesn’t stretch to any desire to actually get involved myself, Islam has the attraction of seeming to have been designed for ordinary people with rules that everyone can understand. I’ve frazzled my brain multiple times trying to make sense of Buddhism and Hinduism without really getting very far. There are just five basic rules – the Five Pillars of Islam – and one of these ‘pillars’ is the Hajj. Every Muslim should try to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his or her life – but only if they are sufficiently able-bodied to manage it and if they can afford to make the journey. That’s the sort of thing I rather like – the ‘Please do it but if you’re unwell or too poor, you don’t have to’. I think if I had my own religion I’d be putting in useful get-out clauses like that.
Back to Mecca and Safiya and her parents. I downloaded her book for my Kindle for just over £1.50 from Amazon and I started reading it on a plane. About 20% of the way in I was really quite enjoying it. When she described the ecstasy of her first visit to the Kabaa I was quite moved by her emotion. Her sense of being a part of a ritual that links almost one quarter of the world’s population was infectious. Her rush of feeling was fascinating. It’s not all religion though – I also liked reading about the practical aspects of the visit such as her surprise at finding the family were booked into a pretty nice hotel, buying KFC and giving extra portions to a poor lady on the street, even going shopping for prayer beads. The observations of just how surreal a place Mecca is were very interesting.
The problems for me started about one third of the way through when I realised there was still a lot of book to get through and I couldn’t sustain the interest in so much more ecstatic rambling. When you’ve read about the most amazing and emotional experience of someone’s life, it’s hard to read about the next one and the one after that and a few more as well. The impact of the ecstasy fades with each retelling and loses its impact.
I hadn’t realised that there was so much involved in the pilgrimage. Naively I thought you just turn up, join a big crowd, shove your way to the Kabaa and then go off and chuck some rocks. ‘Simples’ as the meerkat would say. I was SO wrong. The actual process took about a week and included the family staying in communal tents with scary, stinky loos in the middle of the dessert, shuffling about in crowds, driving back and forth to various monuments in buses and finally spending time just sitting around praying and thinking. I really had no idea that it was such a demanding process. Being surrounded by millions of other people who are just as determined to see and do all there is to see and do, would test the patience and piety of a saint and the sense of oppression (and compression) of being so crowded during the main ceremonies left me feeling breathless.
By the end of Three Thousand Miles for a Wish I felt I had learned quite a lot and had a much greater sense of what the Hajj involves, why and how people do it and a sense of something like admiration for the determination of people who put themselves through such extremes in order to prove their love for Allah. I like reading about people’s life-changing events whatever they are and wherever they happen but I found the second half of the book really dragged and by the end I just wanted to get it over with. I have to admit that my admiration for many aspects of Islam doesn’t change my very low opinion of Saudi Arabia by one jot. Nothing on earth would ever persuade me to spend one minute of my life of one penny of my money in a country that abuses people in general and women in particular as much as Saudi Arabia. It’s safe to say that Mecca isn’t on my ‘must see’ list.
I’d classify myself as ‘moderately’ interested in Islam and I struggled to get through this book. Anyone who is a Muslim and wants to read about a personal experience will probably find it quite a lot more fascinating than I did. But if you’re only slightly interested (or indeed not interested at all) or if you think Mecca is a bingo hall, then this is probably one to skip.
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