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The call – Poems, Pictures & Prose by Saaleha Idrees Bamjee

The call

With my bare behind exposed to the tepid Arabian evening air, the Almighty brought me squat down to earth.

Our bus had parked at a rest stop between Medina and Makkah, with bladders that had long shed the desired stoicism.

We had to go, but we couldn’t.

These bathrooms had been imported from a ring in hell. I was certain that the cleaning staff was commissioned from a local mental institute who advocated paint-by-shit therapy.

It was too early on in my pilgrimage and I was yet to amass the required reserves to deal with other people’s business.  I’m sorry Allah, but I can’t take this test today.

At the mostly empty field next to the rest stop ablution and toilet blocks, I saw a woman hold up her swathes of ihram to squat. If it was good enough for that sister, it was damn well good enough for me.

Our bladders soon swelled to five. We made our way to the very end of the field. In the mix of uncomfortable laughter and nervous terror that we would be discovered by keffiyeh-sporting custodians shouting ‘hajja, hajja’ as moonlight bounced off of our derrières, we fell into easy camaraderie. The energy stayed with us all the way to the bus, each of us now trying to hold in our frothing secret.

Before we left for Hajj, we were told to prepare ourselves psychologically for some of the bathrooms we would encounter. It was fair warning, but how does one go about conditioning the mind and body into shedding it’s bourgeois notions of  sweet-smelling latrines and three-ply toilet paper? It was indicative of our life stations and prejudices, that we couldn’t just relieve ourselves anywhere, as if a lavatory had to be deserving first, before we honoured it with our waste.

All of this changes when there are no alternatives to present themselves. And so scoured away, were our silly sensibilities.

At the time, I felt it a sad indictment that an urge as base as this was proving to be my ultimate test.

But was this not part of the Hajj? Was I not here to do away with this sort of peripheral pettiness. By the time we arrived at Mina the week after, all thoughts of spray-bottle-decanted-dettol and surgical gloves had fled (though it did remain useful to have a belt of elastic to hold up my abaya).

I was here for God, and I refused for my humanness to get in the way.

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I am a writer and photographer (look up my work on based in Johannesburg, South Africa. I have an MA in Creative Writing from the university currently known as Rhodes. My writing accolades include winning the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and the 2020 Ingrid Jonker Poetry Prize for my debut collection, Zikr.

8 thoughts on “The call”

  1. Ah. But those toilets are actually the perfect Tahajjud accompaniment.
    (Well. If you wake up in the first place…)
    Because there is *no* way you can go to the loo and risk being sleep-smudged and faltering when peeing on tiptoe.
    Utter genius is what it is. Wakes you up faster than a cuppa kahwa….

  2. Oh, also one of the guys from our Hajj group mentioned that there was a rest stop franchise with better bathrooms. However, most of the smaller ones give the bus drivers a commission for stopping at their places. So if you want to guarantee a more pleasant experience, organise a kitty among the hujaaj in your group to tip the driver enough so that he’ll stop where you ask him. They really do earn a pittance for their hard work, and those extra riyals go a long way.

  3. The toilets at Mina were fine, as they were cleaned fairly regularly. Arafat too, wasn’t that bad. We had a bit of challenge there though as the water wasn’t running when we arrived.

    It’s the rest stops that are jarring. You can spare yourself if you can hold out on the Jeddah-Medinah-Makkah bus route.

    1. Yes, the toilets on Mina were fine… Muzdalifah’s were the worst :&

      In general, I managed to maintain my bladder (and bowel) long enough to avoid the rest stops, thankfully, but I think you were very brave!

  4. Three ply? Well that certainly must have been a huge adjustment then 😉

    I’ve heard conflicting stories about the toilets there: some (like you) say they’re terrible; while others say they’re not so bad at all…so, perhaps it’s just a matter of fate – whether you get the bad or not-so-bad.

  5. LOL!!!!
    That’s brave of you ladies! Bravo! 🙂

    Btw the toilets on that road look like that during pre-hajj and post-hajj season as well! It scared my bladder into submission and it pretended like it was holding nothing at all 🙂

    It’s crazy moments like these that will make you remember hajj fondly 🙂

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