While traveling to meet Tess in Venice I had a 6 hour lay-over in Istanbul. I decided it would be best to just find my gate and start reading. Little did I know the book I brought was a quick read, and what was going on in the terminal was so much better. I was in one of the many international terminals; however, I would like to call it the Hajj Terminal.
This year the time for the Hajj falls during the end of November. Because of this it is difficult for anyone else to even gain permission to enter Saudi Arabia unless one is a pilgrim. Pilgrims are also at the top of the list for the H1N1 vaccine, followed by those at risk and health care workers. When I started noticing individuals that I assumed were traveling for the Hajj it did not surprise me. I first noticed a group of about 15 men in their late thirties all awkwardly dressed in white robes. These men looked a little uncomfortable, they did not carry the white garment with the same attitude and posture as the men I am used to seeing in thobes. Because of this difference I made an assumption that they might not wear this garment regularly. The garment worn by the first group of men I passed was not the Qatari Thobe, but the ihram (the traditional garment warn by those on the hajj) it is cross between the home-spun garment of Gandhi and a toga. It suited them well, but also made a dramatic statement against the more “western” dress of those around them. As I kept walking to my terminal I was thinking it would be really interesting to sit down and talk to them about their pilgrimage – but I wimped out and just kept walking.
When I got to my terminal I went through security and did not pay a lot of attention to the people around me. I was diligently looking for signs to point me to my gate and then went in search of an empty chair. It was not until several minutes had passed that I noticed most of the people around me were dressed alike. When I looked past my gate to other gates I noticed groups of 10-20 were clustered together all wearing the same clothing as their travel companions. There were several groups from Africa in similar outfits, but the patterns for each group were different variations of green, read and yellow. I then noticed another group from Europe where the women all wore a tan dress (not an hijab or abbiya) and a floral shaila and the men wore what I first thought were large towels wrapped around them. As they walked passed me and took seats near by I noticed that the fabric was similar to a towel, but thinner and closer to a very thick sheet. Lastly a group from either Pakistan or India (I am guessing) came with the men in the same tan, short thobe with pants underneath. These groups all had some type of advertisement on them related to the tour company that was organizing their Hajj. One of the African groups all had the same head coverings with the tour company written across the forehead. Another group from Africa had white shalls that had the tour company’s name and information written in large letters across the back. The group from Europe all had badges with numbered, colored stickers to help identify them as being in the same group.
I watched with a little bit of excitement and a little bit of awe as these various groups began interaction with each other. I have no reason to believe they knew each other; realistically there is not way they knew each other. Despite this as the hours passed and they waited for their flights the groups began to mingle and were looking at each others itineraries. I had been there about 3 hours when the first flight to Saudi Arabia boarded. The flight loaded with all of the groups I had been watching with interest. I did not see anyone else board that flight, but I would have loved to have been on it. I cannot imagine getting on a flight with a few hundred strangers knowing you are all going to do the exact same thing. The closest thing I can compare it to in my life is when I flew to the Ohio State National Championship game and the flight was full of Ohio State fans. Thankfully I am aware enough to recognize that my experience would not mirror the connection those on the flight would feel.
After the flight boarded and the terminal was much less crowded I settled in to read again. It was not long until the second wave of Hajj travelers arrived to take their turn in the waiting game. I was only able to spend about half an hour watching this group, as I had to board my flight, but I am sure they will make the same connections with the other groups of pilgrims that the previous flight was able to form.