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Mecca journal: Making travel arrangements with Muslim Bernd

Prior to his journey to Mecca, DW reporter Ali Almakhlafi explores how Muslims in Germany prepare themselves for the Hajj. Here he explains his visit to the Saudi Arabian embassy – and what it reveals about the country.

Reporter holding up a microphone to interview partner infront of a mosque

Ali interviewing Bernd Schliesske

The time has almost come: My departure to Mecca is getting closer. But do I really know enough about the Hajj myself? When I was a child, I learned it all in religion class. After all I'm a Muslim. But is that enough? I wonder…

I guess some private coaching can't do any harm. So I decide to give it a try. The specific rituals of the Hajj need to be learned, since they're rather complicated. This is why a lot of mosques in Germany offer special workshops.

Brown stone front of Abu Bakr moque in Cologne

Cologne's Abu Bakr Mosque

On the internet I found a mosque in Cologne that sparked my interest right away: Abu Bakr Mosque. It is said to be rather close to the conservative Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. But it also participates regularly in the "Day of the Open Mosque" – and friends told me that many Muslims praying in Abu Bakr have little or nothing to do with politics. So I say to myself: Don't be shy. And so I'm going there.

I'm not going there as an investigative journalist today. And I don't want to put anybody under general suspicion. I'm looking for believers who are preparing for the most important pilgrimage of their lifetime. How do they do that? In which language do they do it? That's what I'm curious about. I also heard that there are German Muslims in the mosque as well. No Turks or Arabs, but German converts. These people are particularly interesting to me.

A Power Point presentation in the mosque's basement

Power Point slide showing the pilgrimages timetable

Coaching pilgrims

The mosque is bigger than I expected. A broad red carpet on the floor invites people to pray. However, the house of worship is completely empty at the moment. I look around and finally realize: The Hajj workshop takes place in the basement!

I'm going down the stairs. I'm getting a friendly welcome and a chair is offered to me. I'm sitting in a hall with Arabic signs on the walls. There are about 50 men and 20 women in the audience. They're sitting on chairs, just like me. But men and women are separated from each other by a large curtain. As far as I know, they don't do that at the Kaaba Mosque. Everyone listens eagerly to the tutor of the workshop: Idris. He's using a Power Point presentation for his introduction.

Where do I recharge my cell phone during the Hajj?

Tutor with beard in front of his Power Point presentation

Idris answers both religious and very practical questions

Idris is an experienced man. He has done the pilgrimage three times already – two times more than he had to. He's giving the workshop voluntarily. And aside from religious specifics, he also knows the answer to very practical questions: What kind of clothes should I wear? Where do I find a good place to sleep? And another question comes up, which is quite important: Where do I recharge my cell phone during the Hajj?

The upcoming pilgrims also ask a lot of questions concerning the moral rules they need to follow during the pilgrimage: When is it allowed to have sex during the Hajj? And why aren't women allowed to cover their faces in Mecca, of all places.

Bernd is fired up for Mecca

Man bowing down in a mosque's praying room

To German Muslim Bernd, the Hajj is more than just a journey

The 70-year-old Bernd Schließke is attending the Hajj workshop for the second time. Bernd – we use each others first names right away – is a retired technician from Northern Germany and converted to Islam eight years ago. As opposed to some other converts, Bernd doesn't look more "exotic" than most Arabic Muslims: He's wearing a casual blue winter jacket, a casual shirt, and casual pants. His hair is short and he doesn't have a beard. Many of his Muslim friends encouraged him to do the Hajj this year: "The older you get, the harder it is. Now, with 70 years, I can still easily do it." I'm deeply impressed and a little surprised by his athletic ambition.

Germans like to travel a lot, as we all know – even to exotic places. For Bernd, however, the Hajj is "not just a journey, but something I'm doing with great conviction – and that's how I want it to be understood. It's part of being a Muslim." He says that he's fired up for Mecca. Even though he believes that God is everywhere, he says that he'll still get a little closer to him in Mecca. I ask him whether the Kaaba Mosque in Mecca is holy to him. "No," says Bernd, almost a little irritated. "The Kaaba is only a symbol. We Muslims don't pray to stones. We pray to God!"

Mosque's prayer room with red carper

The prayer room in Cologne's Abu Bakr Mosque

So there's Bernd, a German and a religious pilgrim, and there's me, an Arab and a reporter who needs to keep a distance to the Hajj despite being a Muslim. That's an interesting combination, somehow. Maybe we'll meet again in Mecca…

Saudi Arabia or Berlin

Change of scenery: The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Berlin. That's where I had to stop by in order to get a visa. Let me tell you a little about my visit to the embassy before starting off to Mecca, since I learned quite a bit there…

I learned my first lesson right at the entrance: The embassy is really a mirror to Saudi Arabia – welcoming me at the entrance there's a Pakistani. Saudi Arabia is known for its large number of guest workers from Pakistan, India, and other countries. The social status of these workers is not particularly high – and that's putting it kindly. Human rights groups, also Arabian ones, have criticized this again and again.

But then I learned my second lesson only a few minutes later. Apparently, lesson one was wrong: At a second glance, many things are very different to Saudi Arabia. The kind women working at the embassy are unveiled. They're wearing modern, Western outfits. And the director of the consulate is very kind and patient with me, although, as he tells me, there are some 15,000 passports of Hajj pilgrims waiting for him to issue visas for. He's not putting up a Pasha-like behavior, as many of my friends expected.

Back in Bonn, I receive a phone call from the embassy: Everything has been taken care of – the journey can start. The man on the phone is Saudi, but he's talking to me in English. Kindly, he asks me: "Everything okay?"

"Of course," is my reply. And then I thank him in Arabic: "Shukran."

Author: Ali Almakhlafi (ds)

Editor: Nick Amies

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