From Istanbul to Makkah: A Turkish doctor’s pilgrimage
Last week, more than 2 million Muslims from all over the world performed their five-day Hajj pilgrimage, which is one of the world’s biggest annual religious gatherings. Regardless of their different races, colors, cultures and languages, pilgrims were in Makkah for the same goal: To gain proximity to God. Some came from war-torn countries, while some from countries where poverty, illiteracy and violence prevail. Hands were raised up to the sky, some praying for an end to war in their country, while others hoped for the prosperity of their nation.
Hajj is a challenging yet very spiritual journey. For the challenging part, needless to say, Hajj requires patience first and foremost, as one may have to deal with very large crowds, a lot of physical activity and many other challenges. However, these challenges seem unimportant when compared to the feelings one experiences during this journey. Hajj brings people from diverse nations and different social and economic standings together: It makes them realize that they are equal before God, regardless of their wealth or poverty. Hajj doesn’t only bring pilgrims closer to God, but also to each other. It is an event for social interactions, in which one shares with the other all that they have. The feeling of getting closer to God wipes away any feelings of selfishness and arrogance. In fact, Hajj itself is an assessment from beginning to end and a chance to erase past sins and start anew. Lastly, it is a chance to remember what is crucial in life and set our goals accordingly.
I was part of this year’s Hajj pilgrimage and, during this journey of a lifetime, I was not only excited by the spirituality of the event but also impressed by the efforts of the Saudi authorities that allowed the pilgrims to perform their religious duties with ease and safety. From logistical operation to security, from the cleanliness of the streets and holy sites to medical services, the Kingdom’s hosting deserves appreciation. Particularly noticeable was the increasing number of security officials protecting the pilgrims.
During this Hajj journey, I met a person whose story was so interesting it had to be shared. Since it is the dream of every Muslim to come to Makkah, there were people with several stories of how they made it. However, the story of a 93-year-old Turkish doctor, Ayse Humeyra Okten, grabbed my attention. I had heard about her on several occasions in Turkey, but had the chance to meet and interview her in one of the tents in Mina before heading to Arafat.
For the challenging part, needless to say, Hajj requires patience first and foremost, as one may have to deal with very large crowds, a lot of physical activity and many other challenges
Born in Istanbul in 1925, Okten was one of the young Turkish doctors sent by the Red Crescent to Saudi Arabia to work during Hajj in 1953. Her story starts with a Red Crescent ship leaving Istanbul’s Galata port on a Sunday morning, and arriving at Jeddah the next Sunday. Okten was the first Turkish doctor to wear a headscarf and was a pioneer as the first female doctor to go to Hajj during the republican era in Turkey. Although she faced several challenges during those years due to the infrastructural conditions in Saudi Arabia and the difficulties emanating from patients, she loved these lands so much that, after returning to Turkey, she searched for ways to come back to Saudi Arabia. “In that Hajj pilgrimage, I prayed a lot at Arafat to God to allow me to live in Saudi Arabia. I guess it was the result of this prayer, the next year, I was back in Saudi Arabia, but his time permanently,” she said. After gaining residency in Saudi Arabia, her life began to be split between Istanbul and Hijaz.
Since then, she has established a life in Madinah working as a doctor and accepting this country as her second home. This year was her 64th Hajj and, when I asked her why she has not visited Turkey in the past few years, she replied: “I am afraid to die anywhere other than Saudi Arabia.” She says she has always been warmly welcomed by Saudi society and is also well known among many foreign communities, particularly Turks. There are several hospitals and schools named after her in Turkey.
Okten said that Turks love visiting for Hajj and Saudis enjoy spending time in Turkey, and that the interactions between the two societies have increased over time. This has given her hope that friendly relations between the two nations can shed a light on the problems of the Muslim world.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz