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A sacred journey reunites families

Published Aug. 27, 2005

At an airline ticket counter in Detroit Metropolitan Airport, a man drapes his arm around his elderly father's shoulder. A smile radiates from the older man's face.

"Are you ready?" whispers the son. The father nods his head and clasps his wife's hand.

A few yards away, a husband gently embraces his wife. "May you go and return in peace," he says. "There is no God but God."

"And Mohammed is his prophet," she says, completing the Shahada, a prayer that devout Muslims must recite as one of the five pillars _ or obligations _ of their faith.

About 100 Detroit area Muslims headed to Saudi Arabia last week to perform the hajj, a pilgrimage to Islam's holiest site in Mecca. For one group of mostly Shiite Iraqis who gathered at the airport, the trip is especially poignant this year.

The pilgrimage is another of the five pillars of Islam, required of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the trip at least once in their lifetime, and is a time of joy, renewal and hope.

The Saudi embassy says about 12,000 U.S. Muslims, from a population estimated between 2-million and 6-million, will undertake the same journey this year.

They will join roughly 2-million other pilgrims who will begin their hajj on Jan. 31 by visiting Mecca's Grand Mosque. There, they will circle the Kaaba, a large cubic stone structure that Muslims face during their five daily prayers, before continuing the multiday pilgrimage that includes a ritual "stoning of the devil" in the nearby city of Mina.

For Ali al-Baaj, 35 _ the man who was speaking to his father at the ticket counter _ this year's pilgrimage is a first in many ways.

Al-Baaj, who is from Basra, Iraq, hasn't seen his native country since fleeing it with his family following the 1991 Shiite uprising that was quashed by Saddam Hussein. He, and most of the other Iraqi members of his travel group, will continue their trip from Mecca to Iraq for a reunion with their families.

"This is a truly special hajj," said al-Baaj, who traveled with his parents and sister. "This year, we can go home. It's a true rebirth of the spirit and a country."

For older members of his family, the trip marks the culmination of a lifelong dream. It's a trip his parents, Hussein, 70, and Sharbat, 60, were too poor, and often too restricted, to undertake while living in an Iraq where members of the Shiite branch of Islam existed as the downtrodden majority.

In Iraq, "the daily thoughts were of survival. The hajj was something we only dreamed of doing," said al-Baaj, speaking for his elderly father.

"But dreams do come true. We dreamed of an Iraq without Saddam and here it is. We dreamed of going to the pilgrimage and here we are," he said. "This is the time to go since you never know what the next day will bring."

For 34-year-old Samira Awada, the woman who was praying with her husband at the Detroit airport, this year marks the first time she has undertaken the trip.

"I'm excited, I'm nervous. But I'm ready," said Awada, who lives in the heavily Arab city of Dearborn and is of Lebanese descent.

In preparation for the hajj, Awada said she has concentrated on opening her mind and heart during the five daily prayers. She is going not knowing what to expect, but well aware of what she hopes to achieve.

"A new start," she says. "I want to be a better person and this is a commitment to that."

Awada is being accompanied by her uncle because no Muslim woman is allowed to attend the hajj unless escorted by her husband or a Muharam, a male relative forbidden to her in marriage.

Awada's husband, Ali, has already been on the hajj.

"It is a beautiful experience," he said. "It changes you forever. I wish I could go again and share it with her, but someone has to stay with the kids."

Hatem Salem, 42, a Palestinian from Dearborn who belongs to the Sunni branch of Islam _ the world's largest Muslim sect _ led another group to Mecca and had no doubts about why he wanted to perform the hajj again.

"In our daily lives, we focus too much on what we have, what we don't have, what we want," he said. "For everyone who goes, it's an indication that they are someone who wants to open a new page in their lives with God. It's a door for repentance. If you're sincere, then God may answer your prayers and forgive you your sins."

Sheikh Nabeel al-Awadi, who moved to Michigan from Iraq, says the hajj is about unity.

"It also allows you to shed your daily concerns about money, success and other things we focus on. There, in Mecca, whether we're Americans, Palestinians, Chinese or Brazilian, we're all equal, dressed the same, praying the same," he said. "It's a reflection of the spirit of the Day of Judgment when the rich and poor will alike be judged without regard for their wealth."