Fresh off her minor pilgrimage to Mecca, Maysaa Fahour shares her thoughts and advice on doing it all with kids in tow.
I don’t know when the exact moment was that I decided to plan our Umra trip with three young children. Let’s just say that it evolved from the concept of “Well, why not?”
So after committing to our decision, we began the arduous task of organizing the trip. We are based in Dubai, so to make it easier I will discuss our trip from this angle.
My husband organized a travel agent to book accommodation, visas and plane tickets. We did give the agent an idea of what we wanted and the budget we had. He took care of everything in regards to travel, which was very handy. All up this trip cost us – two adults and three children – 19,000dhs (approximately US$5200).
You must get the Meningococcal vaccine before you can receive your visa to enter Saudi Arabia. Meningococcal vaccines are available for 250dhs at the Al Barsha Health Care Centre. It goes without saying that my three children absolutely freaked out when it was time to get jabbed. We rewarded them with a bag of sweets (don’t judge!).
The agent also needs several passport photos of each traveller, but as a rule of thumb we always keep extras at home. It’s an ex-pat thing. My husband needed an NOC (No Objection Certificate) from work (must be in Arabic) and we had to take our Emirates ID cards. A week later, we received our new stamped vaccination cards and approval along with our passports with the Saudi visas. And these visas are quite the opposite for the K3 Spouse Visa you need for the US, says tnvisaexpert.com. We were good to enter Saudi Arabia!
We flew Emirates and decided on an early morning flight to make the most of the four days we’d be there. We made intention from when we woke up and bathed before leaving Dubai. When we were on the plane, the pilot announced that we were now over Miqat and my husband and son got into their Ihram. I had already packed it in our hand luggage. (Please note, most of the passengers were already in Ihram – they had gotten into it at Dubai airport).
Note: There is no specific Ihram for women. I chose to wear an abaya and a simple two-piece slip-on hijab. I was extremely comfortable for the entire trip. Women are also allowed to wear socks.
Arrival in Jeddah
We arrived at 7:00am in Jeddah, and this is where the patience levels begin to get tested. The airport wait is a struggle, and with three kids, you will need to multiply the struggle factor. This is due to the huge number of people waiting at the customs line and the slow service. As an extra fun moment for us, just as we were about to get served (after an hour of waiting), a group of 30 people jumped in front.
We finally got through and collected our luggage – I highly advise packing just one bag and a small stroller if you have it. We did not bring a stroller and at times really wished we had. There are bathrooms before leaving Jeddah airport (not clean at all, but I guess nothing is after living in Dubai). Make sure all kids go, as the drive is long. We had organized transport from Jeddah airport to Mecca. This meant less waiting around at the airport while with the children.
The drive to Mecca was surreal because I knew we were about to enter the Masjid al-Haram and my eyes eagerly took in the mountains and the anticipation of the journey ahead became a reality.
Hotel in Mecca
We were driven to our hotel, which was the Fairmont Hotel in the Clocktower. We stayed on level 5, but we had zero views of Masjid al-Haram. Next time, I would ask for this. The Fairmont is beautiful and has a great menu. The staff were very helpful, but please be aware that Arabic is the first language.
Warning: the Clocktower elevators are a nightmare. The system is that you need to walk to different areas to catch different elevators for different parts of the hotel. Get it? No! Don’t worry, neither did I. But I have married a guy with brilliant direction skills, so we followed him.
The great things about the hotels at the clocktower (there are many choices) are that:
- You are literally in the Haram space. According to some scholars, praying in the hotel is of equal ‘worth’ to praying in Masjid al-Haram.
- There is a mall, dozens of stalls and a food court.
- It is so close to Masjid al-Haram that sometimes the kids and I didn’t even take shoes with us.
The hotel was neat and accepted all five of us in one room, which was great. They set up five beds in a row and the room was always stocked with water and cleaned on a regular basis. The only drawback is that there was a strong smell of cigarettes. It seemed that people did not adhere to the no-smoking policy.
Tip: Pack a few plastic bags for shoes and snacks that the younger children might need. I took with me lots of Haribo gummy bears and some energy lollies. I also took some extra special snacks that I knew would keep my toddler still while we prayed. There are plenty (hundreds) of shops in Mecca that sell prayer mats and little bags to hold things, so don’t worry if you are not fully prepared. The bags are cheap and cost no more than 40 Riyal (US$11).
Tip: Purchase a small supplication book; it’s so handy and much easier than using your phone.
We unpacked and I was ready for my first meeting with the beautiful Kaaba Shareef.
My first encounter
I was lucky because my husband told me to go alone to see the Kaaba. So my first encounter with the beautiful Kaaba was on my own, but of course I was not alone (in many senses).
I walked hurriedly on the white marble floors and was blown away by the brightness! Bring your sunglasses! I elected to go just after duhr, so be prepared for the thick humidity to engulf your senses. It was 44 degrees Celsius on that first day.
I took the first gate in front of me and entered the masjid. The immediate coolness and the buzzing of people is a real eye opener. From there, I kept my head down as much as I could as I made my way to the Kaaba.
When I lifted my head up, tears sprung to my eyes. There I was – tiny me – amongst a sea of millions of worshipers. I just stood still – I was attracted to the beautiful Kaaba and a wave of tears took over me. They were tears of joy and gratefulness. With my eyes firmly glued to the breathtaking black cube and my mouth repeating many supplications (dua’a), I made my way through the sea of people dressed in red, white, black and blue until my hands were touching the cloth. I felt both unbeatable and ordinary. I felt normal yet powerful. I felt lucky and tragic. I felt like I was a ball of emotions and nothing could stop my lips from murmuring dua’a to Allah. Nothing could pull me away from marveling in God’s creation.
Looking back, I know that my mental space meant that I was not feeling the pushes and shoves. I was not sensing the overwhelming heat nor was I present to witness the lack of space. I was absent to the logistics and found myself right in front of the Kaaba – next to a very old woman and a very old man – and together we were relaxed enough to feel peace.
I prayed two rakaat, and suddenly it all ended. The peace was lifted and the masses of people suddenly became overpowering for me. I knew I had to get out and I managed to.
Once out of the inner circles of tawaf, I stood back and admired the uniformity of everyone’s reason for being there. Worship.
I couldn’t contain my excitement to get back to the hotel and share my short experience with my family. So imagine my surprise when I looked at the clock and noticed that I had been gone for nearly two hours. That is the thing with meeting the Kaaba for the first time. No amount of time is sufficient. Your heart intertwines with the yearning of God’s love, all while your mind wants to assess the situation and relay all of your wishes and dreams and hopes.
Tip: I am happy that I came prepared. I had written the names and specific dua’a of those that asked me on my phone. I highly advise this.
We decided to do Umra after Asr prayer. We chose the second level because there weren’t as many people as on the bottom level. I had shown my children many animations and movies on YouTube about Umra. Thanks to great education at their school, they were also very familiar with stories about some prophets and the greatness of The Almighty. Having this knowledge is very handy for those of you who want to travel with children. It takes the guesswork out for their small minds.
Tip: Take the time (before your trip) to read them stories and tell them your own personal stories with Islam. It’s a feel-good moment for parents and children.
We recited the dua’a for starting Umra, the talabiyah:
*Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik. Labbaik, La Shareek Laka, Labbaik. Innal Hamdah, Wan Nematah, Laka wal Mulk, La Shareek Laka
We reached the starting point for tawaf. It is a green light and says “start here”. You raise your arms up to the sky and face the Kaaba and begin with “Bismillah and Allah Akbar”. You need to do seven tawaf around the Kaaba, and while doing each tawaf, it is highly advisable to make dua’a for anything and anyone.
Please note: there are specific supplications to make between the last stretch of tawaf of the Kaaba, between the Yamani corner and the Hajar Aswad.
We hired a wheelchair (for 100 Riyal) for our 2 younger children. I had the kids wear their sunglasses too because the sun was blazing and they kept each other entertained while being pushed around in the wheelchair. It was a great solution. My eldest son walked the entire tawaf and he and I enjoyed a beautiful bonding session.
When we completed the tawaf, we made our way to Safa and Marwa (known on the signs as Sa’ee). It began to warm up and become busier so we were diligent with offering the kids (and ourselves!) zamzam water.
Tip: It is a good idea to bring a few empty bottles to fill up. However, if you don’t do this, do not worry – water is readily available.
As Safa and Al Marwa
Umra is not complete until you have walked between Mount Safa and Mount Marwa (they are no longer mountains). This process is called Sa’ee.
Tip: There are special supplications to be read during Safa and Marwa
You must start at As Safa; going to Al Marwa is considered one round and coming back from Al Marwa to As Safa is considered another round. Thus, you begin with As Safa and end with Al Marwa. Males must run between the two green milestones.
A story to know:
A beautiful summary of Sa’ee is as follows.
“…While performing Sa’ee, we should remember Hajar. We should remember that when she feared that her son would die, she stood up and begged Allah for His help, and kept going back and forth in that blessed area between As-Safa and Al-Marwa. She was humble, fearful, frightened and meek before Allah, and Allah answered her prayers, relieved her of her loneliness, ended her dilemma and made the well of Zamzam bring forth its water for her.
We should also think seriously about the intensity of faith Hajar possessed. When Ibrahim (AS) told her that Allah has ordered him to leave her and Ismail (AS) all alone in that valley, she did not get upset or complained, rather, her response was of immense faith in Allah. Subhan-Allah!
Therefore, whoever performs Sa’ee should be meek and humble, and ask Allah to guide his heart, lead his affairs to success and forgive his sins.”
I found that I could easily read dua’a from my dua’a book during Safa and Marwa. It is an air-conditioned area, with cool tiles – a stark contrast from the heat during tawaf. When we reached each end of the walk, we stood facing the Kaaba and recited the shahada and Allaho Akbar.
Tip: We went to the top floor to complete Sa’ee. I found it to be a peaceful, quiet and extremely spiritual moment.
Once completed, you must find a barber. It is recommended that men shave their head. I had brought with me a pair of scissors, and my husband cut of a lock of my hair in the privacy of our hotel. My husband and son found a barber in the basement of the clocktower.
After your haircut, the Umra is complete.
Alhamdulilaah, Umrah Maqbool Inshallah
Some final advice
When travelling with children to Umra, please come prepared to undo any sort of routine. The children ate, slept and played at various times of the day and evening. We had no set structure and accepted each day for each moment. Some days went smoother than others, but that is normal.
Do come prepared with little snacks and take or buy fruits and dates for your wellbeing. I downloaded many “new” apps for them on the iPad and they were very excited to play them.
I created a few quizzes about Umra. Each day, the kids were tested and rewarded with a Mentos. This also kept their knowledge and faith in check. Please bear in mind my children’s ages: 10, 7 and 3; I found it was a very doable experience. However, just like with any trip with children, their needs come first and sometimes you would like to spend more time praying or in Ibada, but your intentions are what counts.
There is a lot of walking. This sounds obvious, but it shocked me so I will reiterate how important it is to have comfortable shoes (I took my Sketchers) and maintain energy levels. Bring Berocca if need be! The food isn’t the healthiest in Mecca, but you are not on a health retreat. Eat what’s available but stay away from obviously dodgy looking stalls. Use you common sense.
On a final note, remember you are going to the busiest place on Earth. You will see every culture, nationality and types of people and it is your very duty to remain kind, courteous and gracious. This includes times when people are pushing in, stepping on your head while praying and acting (in a way you perceive as) rudely. You will find the people with humility and kindness; they are the memories to keep.
I am most happy to answer any questions in private via email at [email protected].
Maysaa was born in Lebanon, but when she was four her parents picked up their five kids and moved to Melbourne, where she lived for 24 years. In 2012, with three kids in tow, her little family moved to Dubai, and the magical, crazy, unique and sandy adventure began. Her time in Dubai had far too much detail to explain in a tweet, so she began www.365daysindubai.com for family and friends to keep up with her journey. When she’s not blogging, she’s baking (and eating!) while dreaming of her next travel destination (she’s ticked 30 off her list so far). Maysaa completed a bachelor of education and taught for four years before she became a full-time stay-at-home mum. She was also chairperson of the Islamic Museum of Australia.