Emak Longs to Take the Hajj

                A car screeching. People screaming. All eyes were drawn to one spot. A body sprawled on the sidewalk, rigid with pain, one of his hands clenched into a fist. A puddle of rainwater near his head slowly turned red. His fist slowly relaxed. For a moment it seemed the earth stopped breathing.
                But it was only for a moment. Then the normal clamor of the street returned – people shouting, cars honking. It started to rain – the raindrops thudding on the roofs like the sound of soldiers marching.
                The wind blew a discarded newspaper down the street.

****

                 Zein recognized that familiar feeling. There was a yearning in Emak’s eyes every year when the season for the hajj came around. From her window she studied the luxurious house directly in front of her little home The home of Juragan Haji.
             “Is he going again this year ?” asked Zein.
             Emak nodded without taking her eyes off from the multi-storied mansion surrounded by an iron fence two meters high.
           "With his wife. His in-laws are going, too.”
             Zein did not respond. This was not news because almost every year their neighbor went on the Hajj. Often alone, sometimes accompanied by his wife, occasionally Juragan Haji would take his children. Sometimes he would even make the trip to Saudi Arabia when it wasn’t even Hajj. Neighbors would gossip and say he once took 22 of his relatives on a trip to Mecca during the off-season with some famous celebrities.
            “He never runs out of money, does he?” Emak murmured softly. Zein did not respond though he certainly agreed. Seeing how easy it was for Juragan Haji to go on the hajj every year, it was difficult for Zein to believe all the stories he had heard about the hajj – how the cost of the trip had risen so much it was difficult for ordinary people to go nowadays, how hundreds of pilgrims had to cancel their trips because of quota problems or because of dishonest travel agents who cheated on their customers. But their rich neighbor never seemed to be touched by those problems.
            Zein watched his mother move slowly away from the window. The window was her place to dream.
****
                 If he had known about this earlier, maybe he would not have waited so long. Now everyone was talking about the super-luxurious hajj trips.
          “All the pilgrims are picked up at the Jeddah airport in limousines. You won’t be cut off from the rest of the world, either. The tents at Mina are like five star hotels. Computers and Internet, the best food and drink. There is fax and telephone service. A television monitors the pilgrims and displays a guide to the city and the pilgrimage.” Mitha, the new secretary who always wore a mini-skirt, was a fountain of information.
          The businessman, now well into his 50’s, smiled at her and said, “And the cost?”
          “It varies. But for you, sir, I would recommend only the best. Around $20,000.”
           “No problem.”
          The election was only six months away. This was the time to let his voice be heard, to polish his image. Even better if his wife, a new convert to the faith, came with him.
          “For sure I’m going this year. Make the arrangement.”
          Mitha nodded. The sensual aroma of her perfume wafted over him as she moved forward to hand him a form to fill out.
****

His life felt static, stagnant. The noon day sun is shining brightly. Soon all the customers at the market where Zein had his shop would leave and still not one customer despite slashing his prices and offering good terms.
          “You can buy it on credit, Ma’am. Just make a down payment and pay off the rest in six months.”
          But the group of ladies in stylish sweat suits with wide hats that covered half of their faces only glanced casually at the calligraphy on display as they passed by.
           Zein’s hopes were raised when a couple stopped by. But, after asking a whole series of questions and carefully writing down the price of several calligraphy pieces, they left without buying anything.
          Zein’s throat was dry and his stomach was empty. This probably explained why his hands felt so weak as he arranged his goods. His mother’s face floated into his consciousness, and he began to think about the one thing she longed for most of all. You are already forty, Zein. How much longer will it take to fulfill Emak’s dream to take the hajj?
          God knows he had never stopped trying. But the tutoring center he had run with a friend went bankrupt. And the shoe shop he had opened at the market had never taken off, leaving him with loan payments every month. He was reduced to selling off his inventory to his neighbors at ridiculously low prices.
          How about an Internet café? Tempting but you need a lot of money to start one.
           Instead of owning an Internet café, he became the night clerk for one. It was open 24 hours, but he had to quit because the long hours were bad for his lungs and he could not afford the doctor bills.

****
          Of all the bad luck!
           The good looking woman took off her sunglasses. Her expression was peaceful. Who could have guessed that a disastrous turn of events had just ruined her life? In contrast the middle aged man, her husband, sitting across from her seemed uneasy. Beads of cold sweat were resting on his forehead. He kept clearing his throat.
          “The hajj season is coming, dear.” It was a fact she was well aware of, even though a recent convert.
           “Please help me,” he said.
***

Yesterday his mother had asked him, “How long does it take on foot, Zein?” On foot from here to Mecca?
          Sri, Juragan Haji’s daughter, used to talk about how the Afghans and Pakistani hajj pilgrims did not stay in hotels but would bed down around the washroom of a mosque or anywhere else they could find. Well, after all, even the Prophet did not stay at five star hotels. If a place to stay were not such a problem he would gladly carry his mother on his back to Mecca. But, from Indonesia there was no way they could have gotten there on foot.
          “Nowadays it’s impossible, Mak.”
          His mother nodded, her eyes lingered over the faded batik house dress that she wore. But soon her face brightened again.
          “The mosques must be beautiful over there, right Zein? Lots of lights.” She chuckled. “So how much does it cost now, Zein?”
          “Regular or first class?”
          His mother laughed. The gaps in her mouth from her missing teeth were clearly visible. “It doesn’t have to be the fancy one. It wouldn’t mean anything to me, anyway.”
          “If I am not mistaken, the regular trip would be thirty-five hundred.”
          "That cheap?”
          This time it was Zein who chuckled. “That’s in dollars, Mak. In Rupiah it’s 35 million.”
          His mother’s cheerful voice became subdued. “We used to own land. But we sold it when Bapak got sick.”
          For a few moments his mother could only breathe deeply. Then, in a soft whisper, she said, “I want to take the hajj, Zein. I really want to.”
           There. It was out. Her words stung her son’s heart. His mother had never asked him for anything – not a radio or a TV, not a thicker mattress to replace the old thin one she slept on, not even a stitch of new clothing.
          What a failure I am. Her only son, and I couldn’t make Emak happy.
          His dejected reverie was broken by a greeting from the front door. Sri, Juragan Haji’s second daughter walked in. “Can you help me tomorrow?” Zein nodded without speaking. Sri was preparing for Ratiban, just as always she did at the commencement of the hajj season. Almost every year at this time he would go shopping with that sweet, dark skinned woman to purchase present token because after the Ratiban, Juragan Haji would usually give everyone a gift – a bottle of syrup, cookies, vegetable oil, a bag of sugar. And as he presented the gift he would whisper in his guest’s ear, “Pray for me so I can take the hajj again next year.”
          Every time Zein’s mother entered Juragan Haji’s house her eyes would be fixed on a huge painting of the most holy site in Islam - the Kaaba. And each time Zein could see the tears welled in his mother’s eyes.
          His mother had been waiting too long. Zein knew he did not have much time left. But what else could he do to get some money?
           I could rob and kill…
          Zein was nervous. But the thoughts he was having woke him up earlier than usual the next morning. When he got up, he went over to the window and stood next to his mother, who was already watching Juragan Haji’s house.
          “What does the holy water from Mecca taste like, Zein?”
           Zein shrugged. His eyes were red from studying Juragan Haji’s house all night long.
          “Sometimes I want to ask Juragan Haji to give me some of the holy water, but it’s too embarrassing. Besides, he has a big family that need that, too.”
           Zein was silent. But his heart ached.
           The fence was high, alright. Not that it couldn’t be climbed.
           “When… oh when, Zein?’ his mother whispered.
Zein covered his face with his hands. “Allah, please show me the way.” he whispered. When at last he lowered his hands and raised his head, the first thing he saw was that luxurious house.

****
           2:00 a.m.
           A sickle and a machete. A length of rope. A few plastic bags. And finally, a handkerchief folded into a triangle to conceal his face.
           If I can do anything to make Emak closer to Allah, even if it means going to jail, I will gladly do it.
          That afternoon when Zein was delivering the supplies that Sri had bought for the ceremony, he took the opportunity to examine the Boss’ house more closely. Despite its extravagance, it had never once been broken into. His resolve was strong. He was ready.
          Zein checked his things one last time before putting them, one by one, into a faded duffle bag.
          Hm. Maybe I should leave a letter for Emak.
          But when he stuck his hand in his pocket to look for a piece of paper to write on, his fingers touched something… a small piece of paper that Sri had given him before he left the supermarket. Startled, Zein froze for a moment.

****

           “Damn it,” she said.
           The good looking woman pushed her sunglasses up to her head. An hour after leaving the café she was still furious.
           “I made mistakes…” he had said.
           Most likely the same mistakes that he had made with other girls at work. With them it was easy to make amends. But Mitha, The Secretary, was different. From the very beginning the wife had sensed something different about that slender young woman. A little too polished, a little too savvy for a simple young secretary who claimed to have no experience. Now she had to come up with a proposition interesting enough to dissuade Mitha from spilling everything to the media.
           Her head was pounding. Then tear drops began to fall from her eyes like the drizzle outside. She could not see clearly. Several times she wiped the windshield which was now fogging up.
          A figure moved across the street. God, she did not see the red light!
          She slammed on the brakes with all her strength, the car screeching before it hit something hard. People on the street were shouting and screaming. The sunglasses flew off her head. In a panic she backed her Porsche up and sped away as fast as she could.

****

           He had never before allowed his fate to depend on a scrap of paper. As he walked, raindrops splashed against his face – they seemed to trigger flashes of memory – Sri giving him lottery coupons from the supermarket, Zein almost forgetting about them, the figure of his mother staring for hours at Juragan Haji’s house, the energy he felt from filling out the lottery tickets late one night… name address, ID number… all the while praying ceaselessly. And finally the faint hope that made him loses all interest in robbing the house of Juragan Haji.
           These flashes of memory followed him day after day right until the day the name of the lottery winner was to be announced. They had said the names of the winners would be printed in the paper this very morning. How Zein’s heart was filled with happiness when he saw his name on the front page! A joy that made him jump and dance along the street!
          His whole life, he had never cried. He had not even cried when his father died – but at this moment Zein cried. He could not believe it. He and Emak were one of five grand prize winners of an all-inclusive hajj travel package, next year, for two.
          At last I can take Emak to Mecca. Pray before the Kaaba. Chant at the Prophet’s grave in Raudhah.
          the sounds of chaos and screaming, the man sprawled on the street tried to move his hand, now stiff and unresponsive, trying to find the newspaper he had been holding a moment before. He had to show it to Emak.
          But the wind had picked up the newspaper and blown it away in an instant after the black Porsche had struck him. In the sky, he imagined he could see the image of his mother, now becoming blurry. She was wearing her ihram*, circling the holy Kaaba. And her smile was radiant as she turned her gaze upon him.

***** 

 

  *Ihram is the state of sacred purity the Muslim faithful must enter before conducting the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Men symbolize their state of Ihram by wearing a white, two-piece, seamless garment--sheets or towels--that covers the upper and lower part of the body.  Women's clothing doesn't have to follow a particular form as long as it is modest, covers the hair and the whole body. Usually in white as well.