A friend drew our attention to this video on CNN Turk about going to Yayla (highlands) in Black Sea, Turkey. Even if you can’t understand Turkish it is still good to watch because it shows what life is like up there. My own mother goes up every year; indeed she headed off just last week to spend the summer up in the cooler mountain air. Tim wrote about his trip up the mountain a couple of years ago, but he didn’t have any photos to accompany it because we forgot to take our camera. Hopefully this video fills the gap.
In Turkey, Eid al-Fitr is known as Seker Bayram, meaning sugar festival—and for good reason. After a month of fasting in Ramadan, the day is spent feasting on cakes, sweats and baklava. Here a relative of ours is making fresh baklava the day before.
So we are making our escape, setting down in Istanbul on Saturday afternoon.
That sprawling metropolis bridging Europe and Asia.
InshaAllah we will pray Tarawih in one or two of the grand mosques.
But soon we will be moving on. If we fly, we will be in Trabzon, eastwards along the Black Sea coast an hour or so after our departure from Istanbul. If we take the bus, we will arrive sixteen hour later. It all depends what we can afford.
We won’t stop long in Trabzon.
We’re on our way to Hopa, close to Georgian border. That’s a five hour drive from Trabzon, even with Turkish driving. But go there we must.
We will pass through Rize, Cayeli and Findikli on the way, the dark waters on our left, the steep mountains on our right.
When we arrive, we may stop in town for a while, but soon we’ll be on our way again, onwards into the hills.
We’re heading for Basoba, our village in the forested hills
You can just see the side of our house on the left of this picture, the red brick next to the school building. There is a mosque up the road in the other direction. I guess I’ll join the old, grey toothless ones for Tarawih there as well.
Keep us in your prayers.
I must say this rather bothered me on my recent pilgrimage to Mecca: the construction of a monstrosity that already overshadows the Kaaba, even as its construction continues. When it is finished in three years’ time it will be the world’s seventh largest building – it can already be seen for miles around on the approach to Islam’s holiest site. Either I’m missing something, or the architects are. Could anyone conceive of a shopping mall being constucted 200 metres from the doors of the Abbey on Iona? Could anyone imagine a skyscaper being built next door to Cantebury Cathedral? There are people in the Muslim world who need their heads looking at if they think Mecca is in need of a landmark like this. Wait until you get inside. You’ve guessed it. At the spiritual heart of Islam, just four hundred feet from the Kaaba you will find all those favorites of the British high street: Boots the Chemist, Marks & Spencer, Next, British Home Stores, Accessorise and Starbucks. Thank you very much. The spirituality of our age is telling.
There is an article about this in The New York Times.
21 December 2006: It is our forth day in Medina in the warming heat of Arabia according to our own grand master plan. Shortly we will depart for Mecca and the wondrous House. Planned months in advance and carefully financed—ihram sourced a month before departure, suitcases packed two weeks before—but though we plot and plan, Allah is always the best of planners. Here I sit in my own study, warming myself against the icy air beside the radiator, the fog outside covering the hill across the valley, the house across the street obscured by this hanging haze.
Our flight was last Sunday, but it left without us. Awaiting our visas, Tuesday was the next available flight, but still our visas failed to materialise. We planned, hopefully, for Wednesday, but even if it had all come through our plane would have been grounded by the heavy fog suffocating Heathrow airport. Now we plan for Friday, our visas secure we believe, but the meteorologists think the fog will hold for another day or so. Perhaps we will fly on Saturday. Perhaps not. Perhaps we will fly to Mecca direct and there will be no Medina for us this time. Perhaps not. We plot and plan, but Allah is the best of planners. And Allah is ever with the patient.
We finally got on our way on Sunday 24 December after a couple of false starts, making our way to Stansted airport at half a day’s notice. How lovely to meet with our companions again, each face beaming despite the draining tensions of the past week and the many miles travelled my some of them to get here on time. An evening of further delays could not knock our patience now; we knew we had been called.
While preparing for Hajj, most of the advice I had received had seemed overwhelmingly negative, my well-meant counsellors insisting that they only intended to prepare me for the inevitable. Yet, good though their intentions were, their guidance merely filled me with gloom, undermining my emotional preparations for this incredible expedition. When I set out on my own journey, therefore, I was determined not to moan or fret and to count Allah’s blessings instead. And there were many, even before we arrived: the kindness of friends who dropped everything to take us to the airport, the generosity of airport security staff who took us back to the main terminal for food after the shops closed on Christmas Eve at our satellite gate, the free sandwiches from Pret. Not to mention beautiful company.
We arrived at Medina in the morning, circling the city and sending our salams to the Prophet as we glided above his mosque, its white minarets a centimetre apart, and descended through the cloudless cobalt sky for an easy landing. Alhamdulilah: another blessing. Although we were only able to stay there for two days, our visit was filled with great bounties. We spent wonderful moments in the Prophet’s mosque, visited Uhud and other significant sites, stocked up on provisions for our journey and found ourselves very well fed. It is strange to find that our stay was so short, for my memories could fill a week. How grateful I am to one of my companions who pulled me from my slumber before Fajr on Boxing Day: wearied by my lack of sleep, I would have snoozed until the last athan had he not reminded me where we were and the reward attached to it. Instead we hurried to the mosque to pray tahajud and contemplate on the magnificence of God’s creation, setting in place a routine for the remainder of our stay on sacred soil.
I was soon to discover that our expectations do not always mirror reality. On route to Mecca by bus, we found that the famous golden sand dunes depicted on the big screen in The Message were the product of artistic licence; we found a rock strewn, grey-brown volcanic landscape. After entering the state of Ihram our journey took all day, passing by with relative ease until our arrival at the outskirts of Mecca. There was plenty of cause to say Alhamdulilah: I was taken by the generosity of the charities that provided packed lunches and bottles of water for every pilgrim passing through. That feeling of gratitude was to repeat throughout our Hajj as we encountered the generosity of others.
Our Hajj however was not without its difficulties. In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.
Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But what of the businessmen who sell Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims only to leave the worshipers high and dry? Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship, just as with every period of hardship there came ease. Thus the most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’
Though we travelled as a group, we were all tested as individuals. Personally I found great ease—to the extent that I now fear my Hajj was wanting—but others in our group found our Hajj deeply challenging and a great test. Walking the Hajj made it for me, but was difficult for others. Our stay in the tents at Mina as orphans to another group was a beautiful experience for me—there I discovered one of my closest friends from England as well as folk from the two villages I lived in as a child—and yet it was an uncomfortable period of tension for others. Where there was difficulty though, it was always possible to see good and if not good at least humour: at Arafat I asked Allah to aid me in controlling my tongue and the very same night I lost my voice. In any case, I think all of us drew great inspiration from the most senior member of our group, whose great strength and perseverance throughout was a lesson for us all.
I do have regrets of course. The first is that I did not go to Hajj with a firm grounding in Fiqh. This personal preference arose after a snap decision that I made during the course of my Hajj rites which I immediately regretted and which continued to bother me until I had paid a penalty of compensation. Other regrets are more personal. At the end of the day, however, we can only do our best and overall my Hajj was a wonderful experience, even as the illness that started on my return from Arafat began to change my mood. On Hajj expectations rarely mirror reality: the image of Arafat in my mind was very different from what I found there, while Mudzalifa could not have been further removed. But more than that, I found myself often impressed when I had been prepared to be disappointed, humbled by the efforts of those who helped to make our pilgrimage what it was and grateful to have been invited to the House when I thought I was not ready. Labbaik Allah humma labbaik. Labbaik la sharika laka labbaik. Innal hamda, wan-ni’mata, laka walmulk. Laa sharika lak.
As the days pass by—it is now two weeks since we returned from our Hajj adventure—there is a sense of regret which overpowers me: one of our leaders’ voice echoes in my head with ever greater frequency. “Come on, get up and get to the Masjid,” Batool told the ill amongst us, “Wallahi, you will regret the moments you missed praying in the Haram when you get back to your homes.” Yes she was absolutely right, I realise now; yes, I did miss some of my prayers, performing them in our hotel room instead of in the grand mosque when I got ill. I really regret that. On other occasions I got up and sauntered down despite the temperature that mostly confined me to my bed. When I had no energy to come back to the hotel for a rest, I sometimes stayed from Asr time until after Isha, taking with me my medicine, sandwich and empty bottle which I would soon fill with Zamzam to drink. That was when my husband got worried and queried about me from my friends, scared that something had happened to me in the overwhelming crowds. My friends forgot that I had said that I would not come back between the prayers and that I would be in the mosque. Imagine his relief when I returned from the Kaaba, oblivious to his concern.
Our fist destination was Medina. We had a wonderful time and did lots of things that we originally planned to do in one week in just two days. Thirteen of us flagged down a passing minibus and convinced the driver to take us to various holy sites. Those two days felt like a whole week and the weather was so pleasant. The blessed moment for me in Medina though was the little miracle that Saika, Nadiya, Julie, Joan and myself encountered in the Prophet’s Mosque: with the help of the guards in the mosque we were able to get to the site where the Prophet (saw) is buried. This is the area when crushes happen as so many people wants to get there and pray two units of prayer. Its carpet is green not red like the rest of the mosque.
The guards told us that they noticed us within the sea of people of many nations because we appeared the most patient, listening to their instructions as we asked others to be patient and not to push each other. We sat down when they told us to sit and moved when they told us to move, so as a reward they took us along some path known only to them straight to our noble Prophet Muhammad’s resting place (saw). We could not believe that it had happened. When we were doing our prayers there we could only cry. Here we were in the place that our Prophet said is a part of Jennah—Paradise. O Allah! Thank you for those moments as big as your name. Alhamdulillah that was a miracle for us.
The most exciting moments for me were when we first caught sight of the Kaaba on our arrival in Mecca. Leaving our main group behind, we had split into small groups to make our Umrah in the mosque as instructed to by our leaders Erica & Batool. Our friends Joan and Bayan accompanied my husband and I into the precinct of the mosque for our fist visit at about 10 o’clock in the evening after our late arrival from Medina. We prepared ourselves for our first ever tawaf—circumnavigation—of the first house ever built for the worship of One God. The instant of entering the mosque and seeing the Kaaba was such an emotional moment that we could not help but cry like a child who had lost his parent and found them there. We stood for about ten minutes just watching it. For me it was so Beautiful, so Peaceful and yet so Simple. We completed our seven tawaf and seven passes between Marwah and Safa by one o’clock in the morning. When we returned to Kaaba for the first fajr prayer we went to top floor as it was more crowded by then. If you watching people circumnavigating anti-clockwise around the kaaba for the first time you will feel dizzy watching them, as if the ground is moving underneath you. It was an amazing site and nothing like watching it on TV.
And then the Hajj began: we moved on to Mina then to Arafat, then to Muzdalifa and then back to Mina and our tents. On the first day we walked all the way from Mecca to Mina. By the end of our first 4 hours walking I got bad blisters and both of my feet got swollen. I could not walk with my group after that and travelled by bus instead, which made me very sad. So my advice to prospective Hajjis is listen to your leaders and invest in the best walking/hiking sandals before you go for Hajj. I joined the elderly and disabled people in the Dome Tours Group, who sheltered, looked after us and provided a bus for those who could not walk. They were wonderful people. When we got to Arafat I met my group again—they had walked from Mina to Arafat and had arrived there long before the buses. There we did not miss an opportunity to seek forgiveness from our Lord and to ask for His help, making our supplications from midday until after sunset. The evening on the plain of Arafat was beautiful with a wonderful view of the sunset as the sun fell peacefully between the two minarets of the mosque in Arafat to the accompaniment of congregation supplications. Everyone one was begging Allah the most merciful of the merciful, with tears running down their cheeks. May our Lord accept our supplications. Ameen!
In the night the cold of desert plain penetrates your bones; even more so in Muzdalifa as you sleep under the open sky. And you especially shiver if you forget to take your sleeping bags with you—as I did—and have no blankets either. Unfortunately you can loose your concentration in the mayhem of getting from one place to another and easily forget the most essentials items. Not only did I forget my sleeping bags, but I also left my husband’s behind, having insisted that he unpack his from his bag before he left so he had less to carry—and he only had two pieces of ihram for the whole night and no blankets. I was so upset because he relied on me to carry the stuff as I was going to travel by bus and he was on foot with the rest of the group. We got separated again and I could not meet with them in Muzdalifa. I shivered the whole night from cold and to warm myself up started picking up little stones for the Jamarat at some point and started doing extra prayers.
Returning to Mina and the fist scary moment of going to stone our shaitans: it was at the Jamarat where the most accidents and death of many hajjis occurred in the past. We walked from Mina to the Jamarat and there you see the masses and masses of people coming from all directions after Arafat. Floods and oceans of people, and you easily loose the person who are walking with. On two occasions I could not help but being swept away from the hand of my husband. I quickly grabbed his hand again after a real struggle. Another occasion I missed Batool who was holding my hand and she was just swept away from me. I could not see her for long time. Fortunately our greater group leaders had big Orange flags on both side of our groups so we were reunited and directed to safety after completing our stoning Alhamdulillah! I still have the images of these masses of people coming over me in my dreams. I think if were not for our faith, people would need some sort of counselling after the Hajj. It is very powerful and you have got to be prepared for it psychologically as well as physically. To be on the ground is very different than to be told about it or to read something in a book.
After we had finished our hajj rites and had returned to Mecca, I had one or two unpleasant experiences inside the Grand Mosque. One evening my husband and I went to the roof for Maghrib and sat down to await the call to prayer. Shortly afterwards a self-appointed I-don’t-know-what came up and rudely moved me from my prayer mat in an attempt to relegate me and some other women to the back. It was so upsetting, so I will not go into details. But I do want to know where they get their knowledge about hajj practices from, since as I understand it this is a place where there is no segregation. Indeed, women are not allowed to cover their face and hands on Hajj, but that was not case. Unfortunately the aggressive behaviour to move women out of the way happened to many others as well. May Allah guide us all to Prophet’s way alone. Ameen!
By the time we reached the end, almost every body was ill. I was concerned that my chest infection would prevent me doing my goodbye Tawaf, but alhamdulillah, by the mercy of Allah our flights were delayed so we had time to do two more tawafs and were able to rest in the Hotel so we felt a little better. We completed our hajj at 00:00 midnight and left Mecca at 4am for Jeddah. We arrived in the UK at 8am on Friday 12 January 07 very tired, ill and confused. We even forgot to say goodbye to some of our friends and leaders. The next moment we were concious and remember things was 3.30pm on Sunday 14 Jan 07. Our generous friends from London came and fed us, did our shopping and returned our car from wherever we left it before we went to Hajj. And our good neighbours, Dorothy and Alan who are members of the local Free Church went to the chemist to get medicine for us. May God reward them in the best way. All the people were a real mercy for us on our return. And thank you to Batool and Erica for helping us, guiding us and giving courage throughout our once-in-a-life-time journey. May God (swt) give you the best in this life and the best place in the hereafter. Ameen!
If I wanted to describe the whole experience with its challenge and demands—physical, emotional and spiritual—I would say three words. Extraordinary, Amazing & Challenging.
In days of old the tribulations faced by the pilgrim on his journey to Mecca included the assault of ravaging bandits determined to make quick profits by pillaging the winding desert caravans. In our own age, say some, the road to Mecca is easy, a comfortable voyage by jetliner to comfortable five-star accommodation. That may be so for some, but others of us unlucky enough to encounter the twenty-first century bandits know that all of us are tested by degrees according to our intention and will.
Today’s bandits come in different guises. Some may claim to be mujuhideen, while others ascribe to themselves Islamic legitimacy unaware even to themselves that they are no more than petty criminals. But the bandits we encountered were the suave businessmen who sold Hajj Packages to hundreds of eager pilgrims, pocketing tens of thousands of pounds and leaving the worshipers high and dry. There were those who never left these shores, who stayed behind when they were told that their Hajj visas had been rejected. There were the others who arrived in Arabia only to discover that no accommodation had been arranged for them, and no transport, and nowhere to rest in Mina or Arafat. We met many of these despondent folk along the way.
Our own Hajj was filled with great blessings, too many to enumerate: the kindness shown to us by others, the generosity of strangers, the beauty of our two days in Medina, the ease with which we completed many of our rites. We were truly humbled by the experience. Yet with every period of ease there was hardship and with every period of hardship came ease. The most frequent thoughts that recurred in my mind over and over again were those words of the Qur’an: ‘Do the believers think they will say, “We Believe” and will not be tested?’
Our agent would have had us believe that the Saudis were sitting on our visa application and were dragging their heels. Only, the leader of our group discovered that the Embassy did not even have our passports and had received no application on our behalf. Were it not for the kindest soul from another agency who came to our rescue to take these Hajj Orphans under his wing, we would have had no hope of standing on the Plain of Arafat or kneeling by the Prophet’s minbar. Blessings and trials. There was great beauty in our Hajj, great ease at times and bounty. And still sometimes there was hardship, even if only for moments.
Do the believers think they will be left to say, ‘We Believe’ and will not be tested? We have had our tests. But I wonder if the bandits — ancient and modern — realise that we are a test for them. Do they not think they will be asked?
I often make fun of the eating habits of the Eastern Hemşinli people, who reside in Artvin Province, Turkey — the group to which my wife belongs — but I am only joking. I make fun of their taste for Black Sea Cabbage, for every meal seems to involve this pale-leafed brassica, and I am often heard running off a list part truthful, part made up. Boiled cabbage, stuffed cabbage (dolma), cabbage kofta, cabbage soup, cabbage fried with onion, pickled cabbage… It’s a variation on the old yarn about the Englishman’s love for the potato: baked potato, boiled potato, roast potato, mashed potato, potato chips, potato waffles and potato crisps. It is only jest, though, for I have a lot of respect for those who have managed to maintain their traditional diet, warding off the possibilities of consumerism. Cabbage and Hamsi — the prince of all fish known to Turks — is my staple diet whenever I go to stay in our village in that forested valley several miles inland from Hopa. Meat is not eaten all that much and I have a feeling that this is how it should be.
They say that the traditional English dish is “meat and two veg”, but in fact the meat element only has a history spanning a few hundred years. Cabbage was probably a staple of the English diet for epochs as well. Unbearable to us in our modern age, I appreciate, given our love of meat in particular. Not only are we used to great choice on the culinary front, but we have also come to expect it. Demand it even. We live in a society which has made food one great plank of consumerism and sadly — it seems — British Muslims have fallen for this modern sunnah, adopting the norms that surround us without question.
Vegetarian Muslims are sometimes lambasted by the majority for their abstention from the consumption of meat — some zealous individuals even go as far as to say that not eating meat is haram. Yet it seems to me that vegetarians are much closer to the sunnah of our deen than most of us. In the olden days, wealthy Muslims used to eat meat once a week, often on Fridays, while poor Muslims would consume it on the Eids. Most of the meals that the Prophet (peace be upon him) ate, did not have meat in them. My friend who eats meat very rarely is simply following the model of the best of us.
I suspect the reason why some Muslims react so strongly to people who eat little meat has less to do with a concern for the prohibitions of our religion and more to do with the desires of our tongues and stomachs. Count the fried chicken shops along the length of the Uxbridge Road from Shepherd’s Bush in London to Uxbridge out west: these mostly Muslim-run establishments tell us of an insatiable demand. The delightful spread of the generous host for his guests is almost always a lavish stream of birianis and curries, chicken, lamb and mountains of meat-laced rice. The daily filling and emptying of the counters in the halal butchers tells us that we are a people who really do “do meat”.
But maybe we should control ourselves. Maybe we should “do meat” a little less. Consider the words of Umar as recorded in the Muwatta: “Beware of meat, because it has an addiction like the addiction of wine.” Well we see this all around us. The trouble is, our problem today is not just the addiction: what are we going to say about the way our food was farmed, the way the animals were slaughtered, the way it was cleaned, the way it was sold and the way we eat it? Consider the vast acreage of refrigerated units in our supermarkets always fully stocked with plump chickens: now and then, when I really think about it, I find it quite abhorrent. But I guess, the small counter of my local halal butcher is not much different. Why abhorrent? I am not a vegetarian; it is just this insatiable demand of ours. I visited a commercial slaughterhouse one Eid and was horrified by the production line they had going there, but that’s how it has to be in a culture that demands meat as much as ours. When I was studying Geography and Development Studies a decade back, one of our lecturers — an expert in water politics — predicted that the next war in the Middle East would be over water. He may not have predicted the intervention of a non-regional army seeking out WMD or oil, but he made a strong case nevertheless. Much of it comes down to our demand for meat: the production of the tons of grain required to rear animals is dependent on the availability of adequate water supplies after all.
In our household, our consumption of meat has lessened slightly. Some days we eat wholly vegetarian dishes, some days an egg quiche, some days some trout or sea fish and, yes, sometimes some lamb or chicken. I started eating very little meat after my visit to the abattoir and suggested we became vegetarian. Over time, the meat returned in larger and larger quantities, until our next attempt to re-evaluate our habits. Latterly, our desire has been to find a supplier of meat that takes the welfare of animals seriously, that slaughters on the small scale, taking the kind of care that is impossible in a production line situation. While we bought our milk and fish from Abel & Cole, we could never buy their organic meat because it is not halal. So we have just found ourselves eating less meat instead. But alhamdulilah, times change.
Two organic halal meat suppliers to get us started:
The meat is obviously more expensive that the supermarket or butcher’s alternative, but if you only intend to eat it a couple of times a week, it needn’t be of concern. When we return from Hajj — insha Allah — I know that I’ll be placing an order. There has always been wisdom in the saying that we are what we eat, whether we like it or not. If we care about our spiritual wellbeing, we have to realise that our religion has a lot to say about the food we eat. And if we are sincere, we have to act on it.
In any case, guess what: in my humble opinion, Hemşinli dolma is far tastier than its vine leaf equivalent. Yes, cabbage is nicer than you imagine.