On ordinary days, tall, lanky, bespectacled Raed Abu-Shamsieh, 32, quietly and efficiently maintains The Jerusalem Post building in the capital, doing everything from seeing to broken chairs to fine-tuning the air-conditioning. Right now, however, his attentions are elsewhere: realizing a dream by making the haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Jerusalemite Abu-Shamsieh had always wanted to make the trip, a pillar of Islamic belief. This year he finally got the opportunity, and said good-bye to his pregnant wife and three daughters to make the long holy journey with his 62-year-old mother, Nahla.
At 6:30 on the morning of December 23, they boarded a bus in Jerusalem with a group of Hebronites. Abu-Shamsieh's cousin in Hebron owns a travel agency, which organizes such trips. They drove down into the Jordan Valley, across the Allenby Bridge and into Jordan, where they continued south to Saudi Arabia. It was 9 p.m. when they reached the Saudi border. Next morning they arrived in Medina, also known as Al-Madinah al-Munawwarah ("The Enlightened City"), where the Prophet Muhammad was born and where he founded Islam.
Speaking by cellular phone from Saudi Arabia this week, Raed talked about his experiences in Medina where he stayed for a week, visiting the prophet's house and grave each day, and the adjacent first mosque, Masjid al-Nabawi (the Prophet's Mosque).
"We were at the house of the Messenger, and then we went to his grave. I was actually sad to see it, because it emphasized for me that the one who brought Islam to the world is gone," he said.
"What was amazing was to see all the people. They came from all over the world - five or six million. You see black people, white people. What you don't see are the people of Saudi Arabia, who are all abroad.
"It makes you start thinking differently. Seeing the people visiting the house of the Prophet, you think how Allah created all the different people, and how he created everything for the people."
Abu-Shamsieh said that, in his view, "Islam is not like it was. People have become far from the true Islam. Now they only think about money and worldly goods. [Believing Muslims] didn't used to think like that. And [authentic] Islam is very different from blowing oneself up, and from all the stuff happening in Iraq. Destruction - that's not Islam."