Mecca

I had the rare opportunity to visit Saudi Arabia during summer 2016. For two weeks, I stayed in Jeddah, half of which was the first week of Ramadan. To say it was an unusual experience would be an understatement. My first impression, however, was not of extremism, as many might imagine. Although women wore abayas, and some were veiled, the streets and restaurants were lacking the oppressive quality attributed to Saudi Arabia. Being situated on the Red Sea, Jeddah was uncomfortably humid, but the sea -- for the first week -- provided a much needed respite. When Ramadan began life changed completely. Nights turned to day and days to night. The streets were empty during the day but the boulevard where people workout was filled completely after iftar, the breaking of the fast. After hours of daylight with no food and no water, people gathered for dates, white coffee, and samosas. Evenings were spent with family and friends until the last sip of water before dawn. Hours later, the fast was broken once more and the whole process began again. This was an unforgettable experience, and at times it tested my willpower and patience. An entire day without water was new to me and it had its effect. But, on the last night before departing, I was rewarded with a trip to Mecca. The holy site was packed with people and bewildering, but the energy was palpable. I was a Christian who was not supposed to be there, but I prayed with a Muslim and felt we were brothers. Reaching the Kaaba required pushing through a crowd as thick as water. It was a spiritual experience, filled with pushing and shoving and sublte smiles. Indeed there was a peacefulness in the air, and a serenity not often ascribed to Mecca in literature or in pop culture. It left me speechless and fulfilled -- I had, I realized, just touched the Kaaba. I boarded my flight the next day and thought perhaps I had just woken from a dream. And the truth is, despite what people want to believe about Islam, I left Mecca convinced that it's possible for love to conquer the highest of walls; for people of different faiths to commune together. And I left thinking -- hoping -- that some day I'll return again. Inshallah.