Hajj fell in early January this year — just right for two Arizona State University students on winter break to accompany two family members on a trip to Mecca for the spiritual pilgrimage that able-bodied Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lifetimes.
Brothers Hersham Kassel, 21, and Kareem Kassel, 20, made hajj from Jan. 8-13 with their mother, Magda, and sister, Yasmin, 23. The Tempe family may have been the largest single family of Valley pilgrims to go this year on hajj and fulfill one of the “five pillars of Islam.”
Because Islam uses a lunar calendar, hajj comes 11 days earlier each year in a cycle that repeats every 32 1/2 years. So this year’s hajj worked perfectly for the trip to Saudi Arabia for Hersham, a senior studying business, and Kareem, a junior in electrical engineering.
“It was really convenient because of the school schedule, and I have waited for this for a good three years,” said Magda Kassel, who also went on hajj in 1988.
An estimated 2.5 million Muslims descended this year on the faith’s holiest center, where Islam’s seventh-century prophet Muhammad was born and lived. The Kassels followed a protocol of booking the trip through a Saudi-approved hajj tour group that arranges every detail, including flights to and from Medina and assignment to tents during their Mecca stay.
American pilgrims typically pay from $2,500 to $9,000 per person for a hajj package.
“We stayed in the middle,” said Magda Kassel, owner of King Tut’s Cafe in Tempe. “We didn’t want it to be too luxurious because it would defeat the purpose, but I didn’t want it to be too rough.
“It needs to have a good name and a good reputation because there are so many things that could go on over there,” she said. “You want to have a company that knows what it is doing, that has experience and connections.”
Nations with large Muslim populations are limited by a quota on how many can attend each year, but because the U.S. Muslim population is relatively small, any American Muslim may go any year.
Hersham tore a leg ligament playing soccer on Dec. 28 and started out the trip on crutches. With the help of a brace, he was able to carry out the demanding rituals, including the “tawaf,” the walk counterclockwise seven times around the Kaba, a cube-shaped building in the center of the great plaza of the Sacred Mosque of Mecca. That structure is said to have been built by the Prophet Abraham as a landmark for the house of God. Hersham was also able to join pilgrims in nearby Mina for the traditional “stoning of the devil,” as they passed by three pillars called al-Jamarate and cast small stones to purge themselves of sin.
The family was mesmerized by the size of the crowds, a sea of people usually traveling in the same direction. “Your camp is wherever your travel agency puts you,” Kassel said. “I didn’t see anyone from the Valley. One person tried her best to find me and kept looking. We could not find anyone because there were almost 3 million people.”
The Kassels returned bearing plastic jugs with 30 liters of water from the well of ZamZam, water that has been called the best water in the world, with healing qualities. “It’s like the water of life,” said Kassel, who has served it to friends since returning home. It has refreshed pilgrims to Mecca for centuries. “People pour it over their faces and hair and aching muscles.”
Kareem said that despite watching a DVD on hajj, which was provided by the travel agency, “we were still a little scared. I wasn’t sure we wanted to come. You didn’t know what to expect.” He was relieved that the agency “prepared us really well,” including several scholars explaining every step of hajj.
Hersham mentioned the “sheer number of people — the same rites and rituals, all going to the same places.” He said he felt humble being part of such a multitude. “It put yourself in perspective of where you are and what your objectives are,” he said.
Kareem had thought hajj was something a Muslim waited to experience late in life “to erase all of your sins” of a lifetime. “But after going into my 20s, I believed it was more important to go when you are young and fit.
“That way, you can change the direction you are taking, as opposed to doing the wrong things and then asking for forgiveness later.”