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Call to Prayer

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Michael Wolfe

“In the next few days, prostration from exposure passed at a rapid clip through the hotel. Striking down groups of fours or five, it moved from room to room and floor to floor. Soon the hotel began to resemble an infirmary, with dozens of guests in various stages of illness strewn around the lobby every night. Guides were not spared.
Every day the temperature climbed by one or two degrees. At midnight the mercury remained above one hundred Fahrenheit. Humidity at this altitude is low. The Tihama Plain walled Makkah off from the drenching coastal heat, and there were days of 10 percent relative humidity, when only a run in the sunlight produced a sweat. The night before I had washed a few thobes and hung them to dry on the balcony. The gowns weren’t wet long. The desert air had done its work in minutes.
Other factors contributed to the delegation’s weakness. New foods, crushing crowds, a lack of sleep combined to exhaust a lot of pilgrims. Excessive enthusiasm ran others ragged. When the right state was reached, flu took over. The first signs of this bug were bone weariness and mild fever. If one rested at the beginning, it was possible to keep the worst at bay. A couple of hours nap served to restore me. The trick was restraint, and rest at the first indications. Rather than miss the build up to the hadj, and perhaps the hadj itself, I became a little fanatical on the subject. I began taking aspirin to lower my body temperature. I carried bottled water on the street.
Sunstroke in June was so common during hadj that the Saudis, in their role as pilgrim hosts, had set up 150 centres equipped to treat it. In addition, Green Crescent nurses manned several hundred clinics in the town. The TV preached prevention every evening, and leaflets were passed out in the streets. The essential piece of advice – to avoid direct sunlight – went mostly unheeded. Visiting hadjis continued to choke the roads. Their guides had to work to keep up with them.
Heat brought other hazards than prostration. Early in my stay Mardini had warned me not to wear contact lenses. One morning I disregarded this advice, annoyed by the sweat that collected on my glasses and ran into my eyes. I wore the contact lenses to the mosque but neglected to bring a vial of wetting solution. (Without proper moisture, a lens dries onto the eye.)
Already mine were sticking to my pupils, affixing themselves like cloudy cataracts. It was a panicky, half-sighted walk back to the hotel for the wetting solution. Fortunately, when moistened, the lenses peeled off.”