Hajj is a joyful and moving experience for Taiwanese pilgrims

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Taiwanese pilgrim Hikmat Ma. (Photo/Siraj Wahab)
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Pilgrims from Taiwan are excited about performing Hajj 2018. (Photo/Supplied)
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Taiwanese pilgrim Asiya Yu. (Photo/Siraj Wahab)
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Pilgrims from Taiwan are excited about performing Hajj 2018. (Photo/Supplied)
Updated 17 August 2018
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Hajj is a joyful and moving experience for Taiwanese pilgrims

  • The most important day for pilgrims will be Aug. 20, the 9th day of Dul Hijjah on the Islamic calendar, when they will gather on the plains of Arafat
  • ‘Seeing the Holy Kaaba for the first time is a profound and moving experience’

JEDDAH: The first time Asiya Yu saw the Holy Kaaba, the black, cube-like structure at the center of Makkah’s majestic Grand Mosque, she could barely hold back the tears. The 68-year-old, whose face radiates spiritualism, is one of 37 pilgrims from Taiwan performing Hajj this year.

“This is not my first time; I came here and performed Hajj 10 years ago,” she said. “I never thought I would come back to this holy land again. I consider myself lucky.

“As far as I recall it was very crowded then,” she said of her first Hajj. “The roads seemed very narrow to me; everything was congested. Now the mosque is spacious and the roads leading to it are wide and open. Everything is much more orderly and organized.”

A mother of five sons and one daughter, Asiya is from Taipei.

“My whole family was there at the airport to see me off. One of my sons lives in Myanmar; he came, too, to bid adieu to me,” she said, with pride in her sparkling eyes.

The most important day for pilgrims will be Aug. 20, the 9th day of Dul Hijjah on the Islamic calendar, when they will gather on the plains of Arafat, about 30 km from Makkah.

“On the day of Arafat, first I will seek Allah’s forgiveness,” said Asiya. “Second, I will pray for my family members and, third, I will pray for all Muslims to enjoy health and peace. I will beseech Allah to guide all believers to the right path — the path of peace.”

Hikmat Ma, another member of the Taiwanese group of pilgrims, is performing her first Hajj.

“Before I came here, I was very nervous,” she said. “I was worried about the rituals and I thought maybe I was not prepared for Hajj. I could not sleep at night, so I prayed Tahajjud (the midnight prayers) and asked for Allah’s help.

“As soon as I landed in this holy land, I felt totally relaxed and all my nervousness disappeared. I performed Umrah and it was very easy. I was worried about getting lost or forgetting how to make dua (prayers) or that maybe I would not be able to read the Qur’an properly. But everything turned out all right.”

Nevertheless, the trip to Saudi Arabia has been an emotional experience.

“When we were on the plane from Taipei, as part of the pilgrimage we were reciting the Talbiyah — Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik (O Allah, here we come at your call) — and I couldn’t control my tears,” said Hikmat.

Seeing the Holy Kaaba for the first time was also a profound and moving experience.

“I felt great,” she said. “I felt like crying but then paid attention to the circumambulation (tawaf). I felt so lucky.”

Hikmat was full praise for the efforts of Saudi authorities to prepare for pilgrims and make them feel welcome.

“I appreciate the Saudi government because they do so much and spend a lot to make everything easy and convenient for us,” she said. “Every step, from the airport to the hotel and everything, I feel I am completely taken care of. This is far beyond our expectations.”

As for her prayers at Arafat, she said: “I will ask for forgiveness and to have the best in this world and the Hereafter. I will pray for my country, my family and friends and for all believers, and also for the Saudi government. Everybody is very happy for us and my friends all requested me to pray for them in the holy places.”

An 18-day Hajj trip from Taiwan costs about 160,000 Taiwanese dollars ($6,000), which includes everything except food, said Hikmat, who retired as an immigration staffer.

Her father died 15 years ago but she still has her mother, who encouraged her to undertake the pilgrimage.

“I used to tell my mother how worried I was about the Hajj and leaving her there,” she said. “She told me not to worry, that Allah would take care of her and that performing Hajj was a blessing and I should be happy.”

Hikmat was particularly pleased to see so many women from all around the world at the Hajj.

“They have sincerity and piety,” she added. “They are very cooperative. I feel we are all one family in Allah’s house regardless of our differences. We are so touched to see all the believers come together to worship Allah.”

The 37 pilgrims from Taiwan, who are between the ages of 40 and 70, represent a big increase in numbers compared with last year, when there were only 24, said Sheng-ping Teng, a Taiwanese diplomat in Riyadh who has come to Jeddah to assist them. Teng is accompanied by his fellow diplomat Samee Chang.

The pilgrims are led by delegation chief Dawood Ma, who is no stranger to Saudi Arabia, having studied at Madinah Islamic University. He speaks Arabic and has performed Hajj several times, and so is familiar with the rituals and the challenges.

“Saudi Arabia has made a great deal of progress in terms of organization,” said Dawood. “Every year it used to take a lot of time at the airports but this year everything was done in just two hours. More than two million pilgrims are here and it is a very difficult task getting them to the right places, but we are very happy with the arrangements and the results.”


Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 15 December 2018
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Called to the barre: Saudi ballet gets its groove on

  • Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet
  • A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old

JEDDAH: Ballet, one of the world’s most demanding art forms, is enjoying soaring popularity in Saudi Arabia as a new generation discovers its physical, mental and social benefits, and a Jeddah-based studio is at the forefront of the dance’s development in the Kingdom.
Sera McKnass, founder of iBallerina, said that the studio is shaping future ballerinas to be effective members of society.
“The goal is not only to pass on the art of ballet but also to raise up participants into healthy, classy and confident, caring individuals,” the 30-year-old Turkish-Lebanese master teacher said.
Ballet’s popularity is growing among different age groups.
“Mothers sign up their daughters to be trained as ballerinas, but now young adults have dreams of learning how to pirouette, chasse and jete,” McKnass told Arab News. “They come to iBallerina to start the journey and transform their souls and bodies, becoming stronger and more graceful women.”
Widad Al-Kibsi, a Saudi ballet instructor at the studio, said that people in Jeddah were now familiar with ballet. “It's now in most of the main gyms, and private or international schools in the city.”
The 20-year-old advises aspiring ballerinas to start at a young age. “It’s important to start early because improved strength and flexibility are easily acquired at a younger age.”
Ballet offers myriad physical benefits, she said. “It improves muscle tone and definition, elongates arms, and aligns the posture properly.”
Al-Kibsi said that while many Saudis saw ballet as an activity for children, “not a lot of them are aware that adults can also perform. They assume that you should be thin or flexible from the get-go. They don’t understand that with dedication and discipline, ballet strengthens and increases flexibility.”
Dana Garii, a 23-year-old Saudi writer, has been practicing ballet at the studio since February.
“I’ve been wanting to do it since I was young, but I couldn’t find the opportunity. When I found they have classes here, I just went for it. People asked me, ‘aren’t you too old?’ But that’s a myth. People think you can’t do ballet after a certain age, but you can start any time,” she told Arab News.
“Ballet is important to me. It’s more than just the physical aspects — it has taught me how to be modest, and that nothing hard ever comes easy.
“It has also taught me patience and how to take on difficult situations because it’s not only difficult physically but also psychologically. It has taught me how to overcome my fears,” Garii said.
A 13-year-old student at the studio, Oroub Al-Shareef, said that she began ballet when she was 4 years old.
“There was a TV show for kids about the mouse that did ballet (‘Angelina Ballerina’) and it inspired me. I’ve always wanted to be a ballerina,” she said.
“Ballet is very important to me. Dance is one of the ways I express myself and I feel at one with myself when I’m practicing.
“It’s a very hard thing to do, but it brings me so much joy.”
Saudi graphic designer Sara Al-Sabaan, 22, has also been practicing ballet since she was a young child.
“I started dancing in a ballet school in Guadalajara, in Mexico. Then I continued at the Kinetico dance school in Riyadh,” she said.
Al-Sabaan’s mother inspired her to take up the art form. “I’m following in her footsteps. She was a ballet dancer herself.”
The young dancer has watched ballet’s growth in popularity. “Dance classes were available when I was a child, but they have been most popular in the past decade.”
Practicing ballet is a form of self-expression, she said.
“I have danced modern, contemporary and classical ballet, and it affects me immensely. Not only is it a great physical activity, it’s also an outlet for self-expression through movement.”