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'The Journey of a Lifetime' for US Muslim Student Making Hajj Pilgrimage - 2004-01-30


An estimated two-million Muslims, from countries all around the world, are making the hajj - the annual pilgrimage to the holiest site of Islam, in Saudi Arabia: the shrine of Kaba, in Mecca. Thousands of American Muslims are among the pilgrims - including one young college student from Queens, New York.

Sara Sultan, 18, is looking forward to the journey of her lifetime. She's leaving her home in New York to go on the Hajj to Mecca.

The daughter of Afghan immigrants, Sara says she became even more devoted to her religion in the last two years. Even so, she says, she felt she might not be ready to make the Hajj - because of the deeper commitment to Islam that it implies.

"I understand that there's only so much everyone can do, but you are supposed to try your best," she says. "And the question in my mind, was when I come back, I better try my best, because if I'm not going to do that, it's not worth going."

The first stop in her preparations for the trip is at a relative's house, to pick up some special tailoring: "We're going over to my aunt's house. She's sewn me all of my clothes for Hajj this year," Sara says. "And I'm very, very thankful for that, because I don't know where I would have gotten them sewn. So I don't know if I'm going to try them on, but I'm going to go pick them up. When we were going shopping, I kind of wanted white clothes, even though women aren't required to wear white all the time, but still it's kind of nice. And it's also good for the heat over there, it's really warm."

The next errand is to a drugstore, to pick up some last minute necessities for the trip. And then there's a stop at a long-distance phone card outlet, so the pilgrims can call friends and relatives around the world to say goodbye before they set out.

"Also, if you have any disputes with anyone, you're supposed to make sure that you clear with them that you're going Hajj," Sara explains, as she maneuvers her family's car through an Afghan neighborhood in Queens. "You're going to make a spiritual journey, and you wish for your past to be cleansed, and to make they're okay with everything, and you forgive them for anything they've done against you, and you hope they do the same."

Back at the home she shares with her parents and little sister, Sara pulls out a map of Mecca. "This, I know, is the Kaba. And we'll probably be circulating, performing our Tawaf, which is going around 7 times, around here," she says.

It's hard for her to contain her excitement about the coming trip. "Somebody is always going to help you there, and it's like a journey with everyone else that's on earth," she says. "If you're black, if you're white, if you're Chinese, everything, if you're there, you're together and you're equal, and you're all there to worship God."

"You get a chance to get closer than ever to where everything started, and to get more in touch with everything that's holy," she says about her expectations for the trip. "So many emotions are running through you. And it's kind of like when you pray, you feel like you're worshiping God, but when you're there and you get to pray there, that's just like beyond -- to think who prayed there, and everybody that passed through there, and it's the first house of God, and you get to sit and stand right before it and pray. And you know all the different acts of peace that have taken place there, and then you feel that amongst everyone else, and as humbling as that is, to see so many people, you get to worship there, too."

First, however, there's packing to do. Sara's sharing a suitcase with her mother, and also helping pack her brother's belongings - only a few sets of clothing for each person. In the midst of her packing, she hears the call to prayer from the speaker next to her bed. She gets up, unrolls a prayer rug, and wraps another shawl over her head and shoulders, closing the door to her bedroom so that she can pray privately.

The next night, Sara arrives with her family at John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens. She's wearing all white, and glowing with happiness at the prospect of beginning the journey. Friends and relatives have gathered to wish Sara and her mother and brother farewell - Sara's father has already made the hajj and is staying home this year to look after his business and youngest daughter. Sara kisses his hand and he asks her to pray for them all.

After a flurry of hugs and kisses from other relatives, Sara makes her way to the departure gate, promising to take photographs where she can. The trip, she had said at her home the day before, is one of the most important things a Muslim ever does in life. "It's kind of like peeling a skin, and after it's shed, you know, there's a whole new person. I'm so happy! I kind of don't believe it. I think to lay my eyes on it [Mecca] is kind of going to be a little surreal, like, 'am I really here? So I don't know, I have no clue. I'm so excited, I can't wait."

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