JAKARTA: As they leave for Hajj, pilgrims from Aceh prepare for a transformative and spiritually moving experience, which for many of them also rekindles a special, centuries-old connection they feel for Saudi Arabia.
The westernmost province of Indonesia, Aceh is the site of the earliest Muslim kingdoms in Southeast Asia, which began to form in the late 13th century.
It was the last Southeast Asian port of call for pilgrimages to the holiest city of Islam, and in the 17th century court chronicles of Aceh rulers began to refer to it as “Serambi Makkah,” or “Porch of Makkah” — a term that is still used by the Acehnese today.
Now, the opportunity to depart for the real Makkah and perform Hajj is something they look forward to for years, if not decades.
“In Aceh it’s about 30 to 31 years,” Mizaj Iskandar, who has been tasked by the local government with organizing the pilgrimage, told Arab News.
“They are certainly very emotional because they have been waiting for so long,” he said. “By the time they receive the call, they must be moved, happy, and in disbelief. All these emotions you can find in almost all the participants.”
One of the pilgrims, 58-year-old Kamariah from Aceh Besar regency, could not find the words to describe how moved she was that she would be able to see the Kaaba at the center of the Grand Mosque, Masjid Al-Haram, in Makkah.
“I don’t know how to express how happy I am to see Kaaba,” she said. “It feels like I will never want to leave it.”
Like other pilgrims, Kamariah has been preparing for the journey, especially spiritually.
“Before we go to the holy land, we must have already cleansed our hearts,” she said. “We hope to become good Hajj pilgrims.”
One of Islam’s five pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in Saudi Arabia in 2020. In 2021, the Kingdom limited the pilgrimage to 60,000 domestic participants, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million.
But this year, as it has already lifted most of its COVID-19 curbs, Saudi Arabia will welcome 1 million pilgrims from abroad. More than 100,000 of them are arriving from Indonesia — the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. And among them, 2,022 are from Aceh.
“My family and I have not stopped expressing our gratitude to Allah, because we have been called this year to go for Hajj,” Amalia Sabrina, a doctor from Sigli town in the Pidie regency of Aceh, told Arab News.
“I once had a dream of the event that has now taken place, and it feels almost like deja vu to be in the same position as in that dream.”
She arrived in the Kingdom last week and was enjoying the hospitality with which pilgrims have been received.
“Whether it’s the hotel service, food, laundry, service at the shops, or the people,” she said. “Everyone has been friendly.”
Sabrina’s younger brother Miftahul Hamdi, a football player, was also grateful to be in the Kingdom.
“I am so grateful to get this opportunity to go for Hajj this year,” he said. “Aceh is often referred to as a ‘Makkah porch,’ so being able to go for Hajj here is just very fulfilling and makes me feel very grateful.”
The enthusiasm Acehnese have for the Hajj pilgrimage, a sacred milestone for Muslims, is reinforced by their historical links to Saudi Arabia.
Marzuki Abubakar, researcher and lecturer at Ar-Raniry State Islamic University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, said that Islam in Aceh has revolved around Arabia ever since its advent in Southeast Asia. The coastal region also connected the rest of the islands that constitute present-day Indonesia with the Middle East.
“Aceh was a transit point for Hajj pilgrims to go to Makkah from all over the archipelago,” he said. “There’s amazing enthusiasm among Acehnese to go for Hajj.”
What has recently strengthened the bond was the help the Acehnese received from the Kingdom during one of the darkest periods in the region’s history — the 2004 tsunami.
“They are emotionally attached to Saudi Arabia because of the help they received after the tsunami,” Abubakar told Arab News.
Saudi Arabia was one the biggest single donors to the relief response, when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the local population.
Saudi charities helped rebuild houses, medical facilities and the 17th-century Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh — a symbol of religion and identity of the Acehnese.
Nurlinda Nurdin, a radio reporter from Banda Aceh, who performed the pilgrimage in 2006 and spent two months covering Hajj preparations in Saudi Arabia, said that before the journey she would often fall ill, but all her ailments were gone when she was there.
“When I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I was always healthy. I was fully working, didn’t feel exhausted at all, I was enjoying myself, I was comfortable,” she told Arab News.
“I just felt super close, as if my house was just right behind the mountain. My heart was just at ease.”