A Journey of the Heart

By Dina ElBoghdady
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006

Don't wander off because if you get lost, you may end up in prison for days before someone even asks your name.

Don't try to sneak a camera into the sacred sites because the guards will grab it and smash it in front of you.

Don't bend to pray when circling the holy Kaaba, revered by Muslims as the first house of worship.

"Believe me, people will walk over you, " Safi Khan warned a group of Muslims at Dar-Us-Salaam mosque in College Park, where he is the imam, one recent Saturday morning. "You'll look up at them and they'll be smiling as if to ask for forgiveness, and of course you have to forgive them."

Khan ticked off many more do's and don'ts during a series of workshops about the hajj. The annual pilgrimage, required of every able-bodied and financially able Muslim at least once in a lifetime, begins in Mecca today. About 2 million Muslims -- roughly 12,000 of them from this country -- will take part. Among them will be Khan, leading a group of about 100 worshipers.

As a spiritual guide and interpreter of tradition, Khan's role with his travelers transcends language, a barrier faced by most Muslims, who pray and perform rituals in the original Arabic of the Koran even though they are not native Arabic speakers. He works to mesh the emotional, cultural, historical and practical elements of the sacred journey.

So for weeks before taking off from Dulles International Airport, Khan dispensed no-nonsense advice to those who came to listen. Elderly men. Newly married couples. Middle-school girls without much else to do on a Saturday morning.

As he spoke, rows of men before him, and rows of women behind them, scribbled into notepads in the cramped cafeteria of Dar-Us-Salaam. Anxieties surfaced. Hands shot up in the air.

What if I have a heart attack? Can I carry my Koran and my shoes in the same bag? Will we get bathroom breaks? Are socks a permissible part of the hajj dress code? Can I bring my digital Koran?

One woman asked hopefully: "Can we recite the doaa [prayers] in other languages?"

Khan urged her to strive for the Arabic, then offered a pragmatic tip.

"We still have 25 more days," he said. "Let's say five doaas a day. By the time we get there, you'll have 125 memorized."


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