Swapping regional borders for one big world pilgrimage – an adventure for Muslims and non-Muslims alike

Sarkas and tsars will choose this holiday from among 15 ones across Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, and North Africa

Is the journey to Mecca a journey in and of itself? Thousands of global pilgrims use a customised three-month journey to make a commitment to charity, follow religious belief, get closer to Allah, or simply celebrate the birth of the prophet, Mohammad.

This year, 2015 is the first time around all pilgrims have a choice: the special fasts and prayers, one ritual of each country, are on their own itinerary.

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But stopping along the way is no longer unusual.

For the first time, pilgrims will be divided across different countries, with locals and pilgrims being scheduled to walk together or separately throughout their journey. In effect, it’s a mix of a trip to the Holy Land, and the traditional traditional pilgrimage in Tabriz in north west Iran.

It’s an interesting offering. Voluntary shifts and sharing traditions – exactly the sort of thing that makes new horizons or connections, and is what goes well with people generally, in family or friends.

Elham, who was working with Norwegian students in Germany when she heard the news, described the reaction of the Muslims travelling together.

“A lot of them think it’s hard to do it together, because the Ukrainians, the Russians, even the Arabs are kind of separate in Turkey. They feel like: they’re not missing out on anything, because they are going with other Muslims.”

Elham said that 10 women had volunteered to give Syrians the chance to come visit them in Norway during the entire month of Ramadan, with some making the trip directly to Damascus.

“The amount of happiness we get in these types of experiences when we are working with other people, is so different than at home. I really miss that … My new aim in life now is a way to create more of those experiences.”

The concept of “crossing” along the way is exciting in itself, breaking with cultural expectations and religious perspectives. The fact that both the young and old embrace the challenge, for the sake of “bonding” with others and answering their basic, just aifaseh, needs, sends out a powerful message about tolerance.

Belief, identity and cultural inclusivity are pivotal to the Palestinian educator Rani Salah. She saw it one day as a young girl in her first year of teaching in Darfur, Sudan.

“People would try to do an unusual way of doing prayers – acting like some type of goddess in the desert – and I would sometimes go in, and sometimes I would just stay in the classroom with the class. I remember one day there was a girl who had lost part of her leg. And we were just sitting there and she told me this story. The difficulty with that was when she’d try to sing the prayers with me, I could always hear the splintering sound of her leg and I was able to turn to the group, and say this girl needs to get her leg amputated so she can not even try to sing the prayer. It’s just one of those moments. It was something I had never really been through,” Salah says.

But the idea of cross-cultural experience, of creating true bonds with strangers via shared hope, adds a new dimension to pilgrimage as a cultural event. And because so many cultures are part of the pilgrimage, it represents something akin to an “insider tourism” as pilgrims peer into their neighbours’ home lives, even though they are at some distance.

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The Yasir Nawaz Centre for Muslim Diaspora Studies, in Venice, is hoping to turn the idea of pilgrimage into something more cultural, linking up with organisations working on creating cohesion among minority communities.

That brings up an interesting conundrum: how can one expand on the experiential dimensions of pilgrimage? How do you engage with young British Muslims or cross into Asia?

British Muslim communities are often uncomfortable with borders because their identities are based on creating distance from those nearest to them, right down to that YE IRAQ citizen in Dewsbury.

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