Hajj, Islam, Jan - Mar 2003

Hajj in a Wheelchair

By Betty Hasan Amin

November 4, 2002

This article originally appeared in Azizah magazine.

Locking my electric wheelchair into place behind the steering wheel of my specially-equipped van, I took a deep breath. I was beginning the journey of a lifetime — hajj! I knew that hajj would be a life-altering event. I also knew that, while hajj can be a struggle for an able-bodied person, it would be even more of a challenge for me, a paraplegic in a wheelchair with complex medical needs.

Paralyzed by a fall as a 17-year-old high school senior, through determination I managed to earn two college degrees during a time when curb cuts were unheard of and schools and colleges were fraught with architectural barriers. Now a divorced single mother, I was raising two sons, teaching at an Islamic school and feeling blessed with the Islamic faith that gave me the strength to strive toward realizing my human potential to its fullest.

Driven by love of Allah and a burning desire to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam, I placed my trust in Allah. I also tied my camel! I made numerous and careful preparations for my journey. I attended hajj classes at the mosque, where I heard reports from numerous hajjis. I spoke at length to a brother who had recently performed hajj in a wheelchair himself. I secured the services of a sister and of a married couple who would accompany me on my trip; Sister Rasheedah Id-Deen, with years of nursing experience behind her, would assist me with personal care and medical needs, along with Sister Binta Kareem. Sister Binta’s husband Ocei Kareem would take charge of the logistics of transporting me. Although I would be gone only four weeks, I painstakingly packed enough medical supplies, herbal remedies and energy foods to last me three months. Wary of the availability of an electrical supply on the plains of Mina and ‘Arafat, I opted for a manual wheelchair. As I euphorically drove off with three other sisters that May morning in 1992 to join a group of 40 other Muslims bound for Makkah, I felt amply prepared.

Hand-carried by Brother Ocei and another brother on and off the Dulles Airport bus, I experienced humbling feelings of dependence that I had not felt in years. Fortunately, Saudi Airlines had been apprised of my situation, and had a small chair ready for me that was especially designed to maneuver through the narrow airplane aisles. I was lifted onto the chair, and braced myself for the ride and transfer to my seat at the rear of the plane filled with Muslim pilgrims. Before I could get there, however, a non-Muslim couple who anticipated my difficulty stopped me. Out of the graciousness of their hearts, they offered me their seats at the front of the plane. Their kindness helped to calm me, and with the pilot’s recitation of Surah Al-Fatihah, we took off on our flight to Jeddah.

When we landed 11 hours later, I was loaded onto an elevette lift and lowered onto the tarmac by airport workers. I felt apprehensive during this procedure, wondering about the workers’ abilities to deal with the disabled. I reminded myself to be patient, though, realizing that things would be different here in Saudi Arabia; there would be many cultural distinctions.

As we worked our way through customs, we waited while our tour group’s leaders went to the aid of a stranded sister from Wisconsin. This woman, Sister Zainab, was being refused entry into the country because she was a single woman, traveling alone. The brothers from our group assured the officials that she could join our group. Although I did not realize it at the time, Allah had sent me another helper. Sister Zainab was a registered operating room nurse, and days later, she began to assist Rasheedah with my medical care, exhibiting great skill and concern.

At the crowded airport, the sisters helped me to don my ihram. Then we moved onto a shuttle that took us to the staging area where we waited for a bus to take us to Makkah. The wait was long and hot, but certainly not dull! I watched, astonished and fascinated, the flow of arrivals of different groups of people from all over the world. When our bus finally arrived, though, I was greatly disappointed and saddened at its appearance — it was terribly old, without a wheelchair lift and with doors so narrow the brothers had to turn me sideways to lift me onto the bus.

My wheelchair, medical supplies, baggage and specially designed wheelchair cushion were packed on top of the bus with the rest of the luggage. As the bus took off, so did my cushion; I spent the remainder of the trip sitting on make-shift pillows, diligently trying to avoid dangerous pressure sores.

Upon our arrival at our apartment, I saw that it was at the top of three flights of stairs. For the duration of our stay, I would have to be carried up and down those stairs sometimes two and three times a day as we went back and forth from prayers. The part of Makkah in which we stayed had a large African population, and the neighboring men often willingly came to the assistance of the group’s brothers to carry me. As at the beginning of this journey, I again felt humbled by my dependence.

When our group finally made our way to Masjid Al-Haram for umrah, reverence and awe overwhelmed all of us. Tears flowed. A small voice inside me, however, told me to dry those tears, and soon I realized why — I would need all my strength and clarity. As I approached the masjid door in my wheelchair, a custodian jumped up and blocked my way. He shouted a torrent of angry words in Arabic, and then gestured brusquely. A look of great disdain on his face, he began to make shooing motions and sounds. Hurtfully, I saw that I was being shooed away from the Haram door the way a fly would be shooed away from a banquet!

The brothers in our group stepped forward and attempted to explain the particulars of my situation, but to no avail. We were being refused entry because I was in a wheelchair! I could not believe this was happening. I thought to myself, “He’s kidding! I didn’t travel thousands of miles to be prevented from performing my rites.” But he was not kidding, and adamantly continued to refuse us entry.

I was shocked and angry. Here I was, a woman in a wheelchair, receiving the least possible compassion in Makkah, the place where I had expected the most sensitivity. I summoned the strength and determination that I had learned during my 26 years of life as a disabled person, and decided to try another door.

The guard at the next door refused us in a similar fashion. Undaunted and unbowed, we tried a third door. Again, our entry was barred. We tried a fourth and a fifth door, but were shooed away again. After being turned away from seven doors, and now a great distance from where we had begun, I began to feel disheartened. My inner voice, however, told me to hold on, pray and trust in Allah.

We decided to try one more time, this time at the doors of Safaa and Marwah. At this door sat a quiet elderly man, who looked like he was 80 years old. Not only did he allow us in, but he wrote a note in Arabic and told us, surprisingly in English, to show this note if we should have any more problems. Alhamdulillah, that note was a great blessing, and did make things much easier. (Years later, I had it translated and learned that it said that the bearer was affiliated with the Atlanta Masjid, and should she expire while making hajj, to please contact the American Embassy.)

Once admitted, the brothers with me went off to make their umrah, and I remained in the care of two hired Nigerian men. They lifted me into a large basket, hoisted me onto their heads, and trotted toward the Kaa’ba for tawaf. My exhilaration at finally performing my rites was tempered by a great fear of toppling out of this unsteady device and being trampled by the swirling crowd below! There I sat, so far away from home, and completely dependent on people I did not know, whose language I could not speak nor understand, in an unfamiliar land. At that point, I realized the interdependence of humanity. During sa’ee, relieved to be on the ground in my familiar wheelchair, I repeated my dua’aa in a stronger voice.

During the next few days, the sweltering heat caused moisture to constantly build up on my skin, which meant that my ilo-conduit pouch had to be changed twice a day instead of the usual once every seven days. I was grateful that I had brought such a large stash of medical supplies. I did, however, begin to feel the effects of my lost wheelchair cushion — the pillows I sat on provided only an inadequate substitute. Sitting in our huge tent in Mina, I poured ice water over myself trying to stay comfortable, and rested on an air mattress blown up by sisters in our group. I prayed for dhuhr, when I knew the scorching sun would begin its decline.

When I was lifted onto a bus headed for ‘Arafat, I sat in great anticipation with my two attendants and two older sisters from our group. Unfortunately, as we sat in a three-hour traffic jam, fumes from the other buses exacerbated my respiratory problems, and my seat became increasingly uncomfortable. Then, when we finally reached ‘Arafat, I could not get off the bus. The buses were parked so close together that the brothers could not carry me between them. I sat there on the bus all day, and made my prayers and my dua’aa in my seat. At first I felt annoyed, thinking that I should be making a greater sacrifice, enduring the Saudi desert heat, but eventually I realized that being allowed to remain on the air-conditioned bus was a mercy from Allah.

As we prepared to depart from ‘Arafat, my attendant and his wife left for a quick trip to the bathroom. Meanwhile, the bus driver decided it was time to leave! I was nearly in a frenzy as I begged him not to go just yet, and tried to explain that I could not walk and was waiting on my attendants to come back. Neither the bus driver nor any of the other passengers could understand me, and off we drove. All I could do was whisper desperately, “Lord, I am at Your mercy, here in the dark, driving somewhere I don’t know, with people who can’t understand me and don’t know me. The only two people on this bus I know can’t lift me. Please help me, Allah.”

At Muzdalifah, everyone got off the bus. The driver shouted and gestured to me to get off, too. I tried to make him understand that I could not walk, and would need to be carried. He could not understand, and kept shouting. I knew that the two elderly sisters with me had neither the strength nor the expertise to lift me, so the sisters did the best they could and volunteered to pick up my pebbles for me. The bus driver finally gave up and left, and I slept on the bus alone.

We arrived back in Mina the next morning. When the bus had emptied, the driver again shouted and motioned for me to exit the bus. After some time an African man seemed to understand the problem, and lifted me out of the bus and into my chair. We did not know where we were, and this man kindly pushed me around and around for some time with the two elderly sisters wandering along with us. I began to despair, feeling that we would never find our camp. I told myself, “Allah knows every grain of sand, every leaf that falls. Out of all these millions of people, I know Allah sees me.” I felt a great surge of faith, a great spiritual assurance. I mentioned to our helper that we were Americans. He turned in another direction and pushed me along for some time more, but now with direction. Finally, we rounded a corner and I saw our tent!

What an emotional reunion that was! The sisters cried and hugged us. The brothers hugged and thanked the African brother who had brought us back. Brother Ocei had been completely distraught, and was overwhelmed at my reappearance. Alhamdulillah, Allah is most great.

The next three days were wonderful. My stoning was performed by proxy for me by the brothers. We met many other pilgrims, and shared ethnic foods. During those times, my disability was a non-issue.

Back in Makkah, however, I began to suffer severe chills. Sitting on the hard bus seat for hours without medical attention had taken its toll. Someone suggested that I go to a nearby medical trailer set up for pilgrims, but when we got there, it was completely inaccessible. We decided to go to the hospital, but were greeted, again, by non-negotiable steps. The brothers decided to carry me into the hospital. There, I was examined by a congenial doctor who was thrilled to meet an American Muslim. He told me that I had a large, advanced necrosis decubitus, and that they could not treat it there as it required surgery. My condition was serious.

Our group still had four more days before we were to return home. Leaving the group and arranging a flight out was an impossibility. I realized that I would have to exert mind over matter — I could not die. I had two small sons to whom I must return to raise as Muslims. Sister Rasheedah and Sister Zainab cleaned and packed the decubitus with gauze. I prayed to Allah and begged Him to spare my life and to return me safely home.

Sheer faith and determination kept me going. I accompanied the group to Madinah, endured the long bus ride, and felt elated to feel the warm peacefulness of the Prophet’s city. We prayed in the Prophet’s Mosque with a great sense of tranquility. But when we left, I made the terrible discovery that the bag containing all of my medical supplies was missing! All of the bags had been left on a security dolly outside the mosque. My bag was the only one missing. Everyone in the group searched high and low for that bag, on other dollies, inside other bags, even in the trash. There was no sign of it; it was gone!

I returned to Makkah ill, having chills and without any medical supplies, but still filled with determination to complete my remaining rituals of hajj. This time, I learned that I could circumambulate on the top floor of the Haram. The brothers took turns pushing me, and I managed to complete my farewell tawaf.

On the shuttle to the Jeddah Airport, I endured one last difficulty. When the bus attendant placed me in a space beside the door, I quietly wheeled myself to a safer spot. The attendant came back to roughly and rudely fling me back to where he thought I should be. That area by the door was unsafe for even an able-bodied person, and certainly no place for a person in a wheelchair! With defiance born of my human dignity, I moved back into the safer place, locked my chair into position and stared the bus attendant straight in the eye. There I stayed.

Alhamdulillah, I made it safely back to Atlanta where I underwent two surgeries and remained in the hospital for eight weeks. My trip to Makkah had increased my gratitude to Allah for His loving kindness and mercy. I realized how difficult it is for disabled people who live in countries without legislation in favor of the disabled in areas of education, employment or housing. With a new appreciation for American technology and medical advances, too, I sense an obligation to share our knowledge with the rest of humanity. Insha’Allah, I pray that I might be instrumental in helping the Muslim community, both inside and outside of America, to be inclusive of everyone in the Islamic community.

Betty Hasan-Amin is a teacher and a board member of the Interfaith Disabilities Network in Atlanta.