I was biting my nails in confusion when my family decided to go for Hajj this year (2016). My father advised traveling to Pakistan and going through a reputable group he had traveled with last year from there. It was an extra expense that I would have gladly traded for an upscale US Hajj package. Hajj is a Muslim’s biggest achievement of a lifetime and comes with major physical, emotional, financial, and logistic challenges. I was hearing horror stories from friends about Hajj groups not living up to promises despite the high package price. Miraculously, I was recommended Dar El Salam Travel by a friend who went for Hajj last year (2015) through a different Hajj group from the USA. Her ‘deluxe package’ fell short of expectations and she advised; considering my mother’s spine injury and physical challenge, that I don’t book her group. In her words, throughout her Hajj trip there was one group that she observed was treating its Hujjaj with maximum care and their arrangements were “a world of its own”. She recommended the name as she had read on their exclusive Mina camp – Dar El Salam Travel. It took me a meeting with my family, a consultation with a DST representative over phone, and a night’s Istikhara to book Executive Program 6 with DST.
The Comfortable and Convenient Choice
My family was assigned Program 6B and my decision to choose the Executive Program was influenced by Sister Sahar Kadoura, the Operation Manager, who suggested that is was the most comfortable option to take. Considering my mother’s wheelchair situation, she recommended that we opt for the program that would accommodate us at walking distance to both Harams i.e. Masjid e Nabawi in Madinah and Masjid Al Haram in Makkah. Also, the itinerary was designed with choices that had been revised with Islamic scholars for correctness. The package allowed for adequate rest at the hotels, and breathers between the Manasik to make the journey easy.
The Authentic and Entertaining Scholarly Leadership
It is of prime importance to have authentic scholarly leadership accompanying a Hajj group. We had that and it came with a dash of humor and entertainment. Sheikh Reda Bedeir and Sheikh Riad Ourazazi were our resident scholars and together the duo delivered several informative lectures throughout the trip. They are associated with the prestigious Al-Maghrib Institute and are internationally renowned for their powerful lectures. They trained the group for the Manasik of Hajj and also became the tour guides/ commentators during sightseeing. The honorable Shaikah Hanaa Gamal was with us as well! It was such a treat to have such a creme de la creme Islamic leadership supervising our group, MashaAllah. And I realized how humble they all were. I still remember the Shaikah pumping her fist in the air and saying a successful “Yes!” when I fangirled over her and told her she was practically the only Muslim Shaikha I have known!
Sightseeing of Mazarat and Special Miscellania
Apart from Hajj itself, we found ourselves spellbound as DST arranged for sightseeing trips in Madinah of Masjid Qiblatain, Masjid Quba, Mount Uhud, Masjid Saba (Seven Mosques at Khandaq) and the site of the Battle of Trench (Khandaq), and the 100 Names of Allah Exhibit right next to Masjid Nabawi. I could feel myself immersed in those special experiences. All my life I had read about Prophet Muhammad SAW and his companions RA as mighty warriors who stood tall and strong in Allah’s name. I was walking on the same holy grounds they had fought and spilled their sweat and blood on. It felt like we were connecting to our roots and becoming a special part of that history. The DST buses were equipped with microphones and our group leader Brother Saif Murad – a student at Madinah University – was narrating the legendary magnificent history behind the Mazarat as we got off at each one of them. The Sunnah way of offering Nafil prayers at both Masjids was also revised. Sheikh Reda was our guide on the grounds and he was instructing us about the duas to recite for the martyrs of Uhud as we stood beside their burial ground before the towering mountain of Uhud.
Groups were also escorted for the Ziarah of the Rawdah daily according to the designated hours of sisters and brothers at Masjid Nabawi. There were guided tours of the Haram as well. And a special inclusion was that of the 100 Names of Allah Exhibit next to Masjid Nabawi. It was a beautiful display of digital media showcasing the Names of the Almighty. Brothers also enjoyed the privilege of visiting Jannat ul Baqi graveyard; it is the resting place of many members of the Ahlul Bayt and Companions of the Prophet SAW, with Sheikh Reda.
Manasik of Hajj
Hajj is overwhelming because if you think about it you are appearing in the Court of the King of All Kings and you want to be doing that in the most perfect manner. I was worried about perfection because there were a lot of logistics to worry about. DST planned everything out so well that my family had the peace of mind they needed to make Hajj perfect.
Group Leader, Sister Menahal Begawala facilitated the negotiations with the Haram’s wheelchair staff that my mother used for her Tawaf. Sheikh Reda was our guide during the Tawafs. Sheikh Riad and other group leaders escorted tawaf groups as well according to whichever times they prefered. Sheikh Reda reminded us of the dua’s and the rituals throughout the Tawaf and Sa’ee, he arranged for all the brothers to fill Zamzam and offer it to the sisters after tawaf was over to fulfil the Sunnah before the Sa’ee. Low rush timings were chosen by all leaders and Sheikhs escorting tawaf groups and needless to say but I found myself praying right before the Station of Ibrahim AS.
All the exclusive DST camps were situated in proximity to commuting places. Arafat camp was a 15 minutes walk to the train station. Muzdalifah camp was a 20 minutes walk. There was a DST buggy transporting special needs hujjaj from the Mina camp to the buses parked at the further end of a mountain tunnel for commuting to the Makkah hotel.
We left a couple hours past midnight from Muzdalifah because according to Sunnah and owing to my mother’s health we were exempted from the night stay. This decision was one of the biggest and most convenient ones for us and I owe it to DST scholars for guiding me through this. Again, DST had special arrangements and train commute for all those who chose to leave Muzdalifah early. Every group was escorted to avoid getting lost.
Similar, coordinated arrangements were done for the Rami of Jamarat as well. We practically stood right before the Jamarat, threw stones, and made dua’a with such ease Alhamdulillah.
Fine Dining, Hygienic Catering, and Clean Toilets
There was fine dining at the hotels Madinah Hilton and Royal Clock Tower Makkah, of course. Breakfast, lunches, and dinners were an array of traditional and intercontinental menus designed to serve the Hujjaj. My concern before the trip was food and beverage arrangements at the camps in Arafat, Mina, and Muzdalifah. DST outdid itself in keeping us well fed, in fact over fed, Alhamdulillah. They brought exceptional dining arrangements to the tents in Mina and Arafat. There were refrigerators packed with chilled sodas, juices, and water, tea and coffee dispensing machines, and multiple food and dessert items. To top everything off, we arrived in Muzdalifah to find an exclusive catering service serving buffet style dinner. In addition to the meal times, DST had planned for taking care of the Hujjaj during the sightseeings trip and during logistics as well. Water and juices were handed out in the DST buses used for commute and there was a snacks booth waiting for us at Mount Uhud. In the deadly heat of the Arabian summer, DST hujjaj remained well hydrated and well fed all the way.
I was waiting for a nasty confrontation with a squat-style toilet as I had read horror stories on blogs online. I was certain I was going to fail miserably in using it successfully. Imagine my state of gratefulness to Allah SWT when I visited the clean, exclusive WCs at all the DST camps in Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah. There was a team of cleaners keeping the stalls and the wudu sinks clean and dry. I was relieved that my mother, Alhamdulillah, was able to use the bathrooms comfortably.
Transportation and Connectivity
Prior to departure the DST online Hajj forum facilitated conference calls (audio and video) hosted by group leaders and Shaikhs to train us about Hajj. The forums were thorough in detailing minor things like fragrance-free toiletries too. DST provided all Hujjajs with Saudi sims functional for smartphones. A designated App called GroupMe was being used by us to communicate with our group leaders and program members. The air-conditioned buses used for commute between airports and hotels, for sightseeing, and between camps and hotel were equipped with Wi-fi and USB phone chargers. The connectivity ensured our personal safety in case someone lost their way. It was not possible to get lost with DST staff members stationed at every few feet with a DST banner leading the way at train stations, on the roads, and inside the Jamarat building through walkways.
Extra Care in Tough Times
DST had pre-planned everything but as they had informed us there was always room for the unexpected because the Saudi Government could issue any change of plan. We found ourselves waiting in a five hours long wait at the Al Mashaer train station when commuting from Arafat to Muzdalifah on the Day of Arafah (10th Dhulhijjah). DST leadership was working on negotiating with the Saudi patrol to let the group through the gates. Some of the female hujjaj started passing out from dehydration and heat. The DST staff responded in the blink of an eye. The ladies were carried inside the station, and IV drip feeds were set up immediately to restore their fluids.
My sister, mother, and I had separated from my brother and his wife as we were permitted to enter the station gates due to my mother’s condition. The station had uneven pavement and it was becoming impossible for me to push my mother’s wheelchair. Brother Arif Gosla, a second Group Leader came to my aid and pushed her all the way across the station, up the lift, to the train, and in Muzdalifah all the way to the camp ground. He earned a lot of dua’s from my family.
There was a mix up of my room with another family at the Madinah hotel but it was sorted with high priority and top speed by Sister Sahar Kadoura. Our luggage went missing during our transfer from Madinah to Makkah but Brothers Saif Morad and Rafat Qazi immediately mobilized to retrieve them from another hotel being used by another DST group. One of the bags though still remained missing and the staff tried endlessly even weeks after our Hajj trip was over to locate it. I take it with a smile as Allah SWT’s little way of telling us that nothing is perfect but Himself.
Salutations to the DST Family
A few months have passed since Hajj and we miss Sister Sahar’s 24/7 charming smile which was the magic with which she resolved every problem. We keep recalling Sheikh Reda’s high-pitched attention call “Dar el Salaaaaaaaaaam!” which everybody answered with a cheery “Yes!”. Each time we remember the hilarious antics of Sheikh Riad, we cannot help but giggle. Thanks to DST we had a memorable, enjoyable, and spiritually successful Hajj, MashaAllah. I had heard so many horror stories of mismanagement and mishaps that I was paranoid about the journey. We followed every instruction the staff and leaders gave us and we did not get lost, stayed hydrated and healthy, did not get hurt, and did not worry! Alhamdulillah, instead of worrying we were making memories, taking notes, clicking photographs to treasure, enjoying conversations, praying with a fresh carefree mind, and making sincere duas of gratitude for the little miracles such as DST in our lives.
By Anum Ali
Glenn Dale, Maryland