Hajj, Oct - Dec 2008

My Recollections – Imam Training and Hajj, Part I

By Jesus Villarreal

October 2007

I got an email from a friend of mine about an Islamic studies program in the United Arab Emirates. To be honest with you, it sounded too good to be true. The program would consist of six weeks of Arabic and Islamic studies with the chance to go to Hajj. With an announcement like this, I sought more information. What I found out was that there was going to be a limited number of seats available and the prospective students would have to submit a biography of themselves and an essay stating why they should be chosen.

At the time, I had just graduated college and was about two months married. I discussed this opportunity with my wife who in turn discussed it with my mother in law. My mother in law, being the religious women she is, provided the leverage necessary for me to go and explained to my wife this would be a great thing for us.

I submitted the necessary paper work and my essay. About a week later, I got the news through an email that I was accepted! I would be leaving San Antonio, TX on October 21, 2007 and would fly to Washington, D.C. to meet with officials from the United Arab Emirates Embassy; afterwards, we would fly to the UAE.

I got word from the brother who organized the program I would be flying out of San Antonio with another brother from Austin, TX who was Puerto Rican. I was glad to know there was at least one other Hispanic attending the trip. A few days before my departure, I had exchanged numbers with the brother via email. As I waited in the terminal, I was looking around for the brother. It was easy to spot him; he emerged from the crowd at the terminal wearing a kufi and a thin beard.

I am sure he recognized me because at the time, my beard was getting long enough that I could hide a pencil in it and only see the point and the eraser. We formally introduced each other; his name was Julio Colon, an aspiring lawyer. So there you had it, Julio and Jesus, embarking on a journey that was definitely going to impact the rest of our lives in a positive way.

We arrived in Washington, D.C. with no one to greet us at the airport. I don’t remember exactly why that was but Julio and I got a Taxi to the hotel we were going to be staying at. When we arrived at the hotel, I immediately spotted the other group of brothers, by their kufis.

There was an eclectic mix of mostly African American brothers, one Bangladeshi, a lonely Caucasian brother, and to my surprise, there were three other Latino’s in the group, making it a total of five! There was Yusuf Maisonet, a Puerto Rican brother who traveled the world as a merchant marine and was now residing in Alabama, Dr. Julio Pino, a Cuban professor of history at Kent State University, and Rafael Jara, a University of Florida student whose father was Chilean and mother was French.

This concoction of Latino’s from three different countries was sure to represent the other’s who were not fortunate enough to be selected and let the world know Islam is alive and well in the Latino community! We spent a few days in Washington, D.C. visiting the Smithsonian, the Museum of Natural History, and various other sites at the mall. We had welcome dinner at the UAE Embassy with a brief history of the inception of the country.

We took the almost 18 hour flight from Washington, D.C. all the way to Abu Dhabi. When we arrived at the airport, we had a royal reception! Instead of immediately going to pick up our luggage, we were escorted to a very regal looking waiting room fit for a sultan. There, we sipped on fresh juice and were introduced to representatives from the Zayed House of Islamic Culture, our hosts.

After about an hour drive from Abu Dhabi, we arrived in the middle of the night at Al-Ain, the fourth largest city in the Emirates comprised of mainly Emirati nationals with several expatriates from the Indian Subcontinent. We went into the ZHIC complex and were greeted with an awesome meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken! I was amazed on how an American restaurant chain could set up shop half way across the world in a city surrounded by a desert.

I was not naïve to the fact that McDonald’s is located around the world but I never would have believed KFC existed in the desert! It was amusing to see the Arabic writing on the box of chicken spelling out KFC and it finally hit me that I was not in Texas anymore. After the meal we picked our roommates (in my case it was brother Ali Kennemer, the lonely Caucasian from Dallas, TX) and headed to our dorms.

Honestly, I cannot remember every detail or daily occurrence during my trip as I cannot find my journal, but I will do my best insha Allah to narrate my story from memory.

The next day I was woken up by the sweet sound of the athan coming from the masjid in the ZHIC property. It was awesome! I got up made my wudu and followed the call to prayer. What a sight it was to see the number of Muslim’s attending to Fajr prayer! There were at least twice as many attending Fajr, than there has ever been for the Isha prayer at my masjid back in San Antonio!

After the prayer, some people left but the majority gathered around the Imam of the masjid (a tall Azhari trained young Egyptian) as he gave his morning talk. To be quite honest, even though I did not understand anything of what he was saying save “salalahu alayhi wa-salam”, I felt privileged to be in the company of Muslims. I was not even sure how many of the brothers from our group understood what he was saying, but that did not matter, I was able to pick up bits and pieces of what the Imam was saying.