[Published in 2003, Jordan Rosenfeld, ed., based on events that took place during the Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah, Sa'udi Arabia in March of 2001.]
Thirty-five is the number we’re hearing on the radio. Thirty-five dead at the Jamarat yesterday. Thirty-five trampled or crushed or suffocated or cardiac arrested during rammi, the ancient ritual of stoning Shaytan that precedes the end of the annual pilgrimage to Makkah. Thirty-five pilgrims gone to their heavenly garden of paradise. Thirty-five who will never see their families again, never throw another stone at the Devil or anyone else.
And I’ve got to make it through two more days of this madness.
Assembling after the zuhr prayer, my friends and I mentally prepare to enter the far end of the Jamarat structure, a five hundred meter concrete double layered freeway going nowhere, swarming with the chaotic motion of a million human bodies. Khadijah’s eyes glaze over with fear. She asks her husband, Yassir, to act as her proxy for the stoning. My teacher may have faced his deepest moral shortcomings on the Day of ‘Arafat, but yesterday, and today, and tomorrow he will be staring down his worst nightmare—the unpredictable, and potentially lethal backlash of spiritual fanaticism. I lay a hand on Yassir’s sweating shoulder.
“No point trying to hang together,” I tell him. “Let’s get in and out as fast as we can. We’ll hook up back here afterwards. Okay?”
“Ready to rock and roll?”
The imam nods and forces a smile.
My point of view on death is—well, fatalistic. If it’s your time, you’re finished. If not, no worries. Don’t get me wrong; when there’s clear and present danger I want to be as far from it as possible, because life is all about probabilities. I try to calculate personal risk, and live to be stupid some other day. But walking back into the Jamarat, I can’t help wondering if I’m not completely out of my mind.
The violent white noise reverberating off the concrete roof is brain numbing. I move in quick toward the smallest stone column at the eastern end, flowing with the jostling waves, watching for the dangerous eddies, slipping quickly into open gaps in the fluid crowd. Elbows out, ammo at the ready, when I’m in close—perhaps twenty feet—I hurl my seven stones at the masonry pillar, one at a time, and push out through the incoming tide of hajjis.
Next stop—Jamarah al-Wusta—the “Central Place.” I’m on it, watching for the standing waves, surfing them like a pro in the Pipeline, blocking flailing arms, avoiding the big guys whose testosterone-tainted tautology endangers everyone in their periphery.
“Al-Llâh-u-akbar!” Seven away and I’m out of there.
Last target: the big one. Jamarah al-Aqabah, the one Sir Richard Francis Burton had called Shaytan al-Kabir—the “Great Devil”—the one where he was nearly trampled to death a hundred and fifty years ago. This time, I can see the pattern: hajjis are slipping in on the left, throwing their stones, then pushing back out at ninety degrees where the crowd begins to disperse toward the western exit. That’s where things get rough. But off to the right side of the pillar, there’s a thinning of the crowd, a negative space, almost a vacuum created by the violent interaction of opposing bodies at a right angle to the stone obelisk. I swing behind it and bear to the left—but not alone. Everyone else seems to have figured out the pattern as well.
A fast-moving flock of Iraqi men, decked out in neon orange baseball caps and what look to be matching highway safety vests, crush through the mob like a frenzied army of emergency rescue workers. I’m jammed in toward the pillar from behind. Stones are chattering off the masonry like Kalashnikov fire, sandals flying wildly past my ears. I’m squeezed to within ten feet from the pillar’s base—way too close—but way too late to do anything about it. I take aim, throw. One, two, three…a sharp projectile clips my raised arm…four, five, six…an elbow nails my unprotected ribs…seven! Breaking sharply to the left, in the opposite direction of the “Orange Crush,” I slip back toward the middle pillar, then circle clockwise to the action, like swimming in a riptide.
Then I’m out of it. Stopping to catch my breath beyond the radius of danger, trembling like a leaf in the wind, and laughing like a lunatic, I push out from under the claustrophobic ceiling into the hazy sunlight, and locate our friends where we agreed to meet. Deen is recounting his adventure to Reza and Yasmina like an excited schoolboy after a rumble at the mixer. But Khadijah stands alone—a pale, pleading face, white as her hijab— searching the emerging crowd for signs of life.
She rushes terrified to my side. “Where’s Yassir?”
“He hasn’t come out?”
Her voice cracks. “We all thought he was with you.”
“Just…just stay together. I’ll go back for him.”
The nightmare world beneath that concrete canopy looks monochromatic now, gray and white, a grim, neutral canvas spattered accidentally here and there with blood red. Sifting through the stragglers breaking out of the chaos surrounding Jamarah al-Aqabah, I hear that inner voice praying to whatever it is that listens to such pathetic pleas.
Don’t let it be him. Please! Take anybody but him.
But he is not among the flailing bodies surrounding the other satanic pillars; not emerging from the thick clot of sweating, screaming pilgrims absolving themselves of a lifetime of pent up wrath and guilt; not among the dense accretion of stones and sandals; not among the dazed, traumatized, and bleeding hajjis being bandaged at the eight paramedic stations on the periphery of the Jamarat.
Yassir—my teacher, my friend—is missing. And there is nothing I can do.