Turkish Airlines jet, coming from Istanbul, landed at Jeddah International Airport at midnight in May last year. After a dragging forty minutes in an oppressive hot and humid weather at the customs where officials talked to us in Arabic or in energetic gestures and throwing away my shaving cream and extra razor blades, my wife’s cosmetic jars, fulfilled the formalities in rather a crude manner, our party of five were allowed to exit. But this was only after the guarantee and assurances of the representative of our travel agent in U.S.A that none of us would overstay or seek employment in Saudi Arabia, and that our sole purpose of the visit was pilgrimage after which we would return  home. One of the officials was still not satisfied and wanted to keep our passports and other travel documents. Our agent had to call a supervisor who, after a long discussion in Arabic, allowed us to exit with our documents.

Jameel, our agent, ushered us in an air-conditioned van bound for Mecca. The driver seemed to be a happy-go-lucky guy. With a broad smile on his face and sweat on his forehead, he greeted us, ahlan wa sahlan (welcome and feel at home.)

The van pulled out of the airport and as soon as it left the vicinity the road submerged into darkness. There was not a single street light – where does all the wealth of this oil-rich country go? We could only discern distant granite mountains and dry barren desert. The driver suddenly began to sing loudly in Arabic, and I gestured him to stop.  After quite a while, the driver slapped himself vigorously not because a mosquito had beaten him, but to ward off sleep as we came to know later. God! Was he deprived of sleep? Would he be able to take us to our destination safely? These were the questions that popped into my mind. Then followed a loud conversation between him and his buddy sitting next to him. From their faces and their body movements it seemed that they would soon start a fight, but they didn’t. Both of them then began to laugh. The buddy put an audio cassette into the player. We would have been enraged had it not been a devotional song depicting the ninety-nine names of Allah. This simply engulfed us in an aura of spiritual peace.

Two hours later, we saw a spot of light at a distance. As we came nearer we saw a small dilapidated brick structure which seemed to be an abandoned wayside mosque. The driver stopped the van and gestured us to get down and offer prayers if we desired to do so.

The mosque was a small brick shack with carpets rolled inside and outside. It was nothing to write about, but there was a certain allurement about it which exuded a tranquil feeling. Whatever sleepiness that was lurking in our eyes had gone, giving place to remembrance of God and praising Him. Since there was a water tap outside the mosque, we performed wadu (washing of face, hands and feet that is obligatory prior to praying) and began our prayers outside the mosque as it was too hot inside.

It was here that something unimaginable happened, something that still baffles my mind, a strange phenomenon, a miracle or whatever you may call it. As we bowed down in prostration, a couple of cats appeared from nowhere. One of them came in front of my wife, who was in sajdah (prostration). As I got up from my sajdah I saw the cat stretching its forelegs and bowing down in sajdah. I was momentarily shaken, so was my wife. Somehow we completed our prayers, still shivering. Both the cats were now nowhere to be found.

I felt thirsty, and looked around if we could find any water to drink. Our bottles were empty and we were advised to consume only bottled-water or water from Zam Zam during our stay in Saudi Arabia. I saw a tiny grocery store nearby still open though it was almost three a.m. in the morning.  I went to the store and picked up a couple of bottles, then realized that I didn’t have any riyal (local currency). I gave the shopkeeper a dollar, but he shook his head. ‘We only accept riyals.’ ‘But I don’t have local currency.’ I pleaded, cursing myself for not exchanging the dollars from the airport. ‘We are really very thirsty, my friend.’

After a moment, he picked up two more bottles from the counter, gave them to me and said, ‘I shall take no money from you. You can take these bottles as a gift from me. Just pray for me at the Kabah (The Holy Stone.)’ I thanked this nice young man, who seemed to be a Pakistani or an Indian.

We quenched our thirst and the van pulled off. ‘Mecca not very far,’ said the driver’s buddy who seemed to know a little bit of English. We reached a checkpoint when the driver gestured us to take out our passports. The checkout guy conversed with the driver for a few minutes, looked searchingly at all of us and waved the driver to go ahead – without even checking our passports.

Far ahead, we could see illumination – a sudden burst of bright lights around the area. ‘Mecca,’ pointed out the driver, and almost all of us started chanting Labayk, Allah humma labayk ‘Here we are, oh God, here we are…’ As we approached the Great Mosque, I could see a flood of lights coming out of the minarets. We could see the Dome. It was Haram Sharif (Holy Mosque) housing the Kabah. From the distance it looked like a glittering jewel. The van passed by it. Though it was early morning, the whole city was a lit.

My heart began pounding. At last my greatest desire was about to be fulfilled. We were here – here in Allah’s Blessed Place. Soon we would be entering the Mosque and facing the magnanimous Kabah– an ardent desire of every Muslim.

The van took a sharp turn and stopped by the parking lot of Mecca Hilton. The hotel porters carried our luggage and we checked in. As soon as we entered our room, we heard a loud sonorous voice of azaan (call for prayers). It was a call to perform morning prayers. We took shower, changed into the customary two-piece unstitched clothes (ahram), stepped out of the hotel. Gate 79 of the Mosque was just opposite the hotel’s entrance. Hearts racing, we entered the Great Mosque to begin the rituals of Umrah (lesser pilgrimage than Hajj). The first sight of Kabah simply dazzled me. Here was a black stone, small in structure but magnanimous in appeal, spell-bounding and touching the very core of your heart. Heads bent down, we started rotating around it.