Pilgrimage had meant little sleep and little to eat. There had also been surprising amounts of walking-- miles and miles of it--even after the Umrah rites in Makkah were finished. Then there had been the unknown virus, and that had taken its toll right off the top. So the body was not altogether at its strongest by the end of the visit to the Prophet's (ﷺ) homeland.
Austerity wasn't the point, though, nor had it ever been. Others had cautioned about the temptation of that, and surprisingly, it had ended up as an enticing whisper that had to be dealt with. There was this sort of subtle inner urge toward an increased rigorousness, a hardness that had no basis in the examples of Muhammad (ﷺ). The idea crept in--from where it's not clear--that if this bit of self-discipline is good, then think about how much better even more of it would be.
Gratefully, the friends' reminders were louder than the misleading whispers. Good thing, too, because even with a mindful attention toward tenderness, 18 pounds simply evaporated over two weeks.
A kebab restaurant sits inside a shopping center not too far from the Prophet's (ﷺ) masjid. The sign out front shows pictures of decent-enough looking food, with cheap-enough prices. That's the necessary combination for getting a hungry, worn out wanderer off the street and inside.
But just when walking through the doors of that shopping center, before getting to the kebab restaurant, there is another sign, one with a big arrow on it...
And the word...
Pizza is comfort food, and the mere word was immediately gratifying.
The arrowed sign pointed down the corridor to another sign and another corridor, and so on, until eventually the trail ended at a little take-out joint tucked into the back side of the building. It was a tiny place that smelled heavenly.
"Assalamu'alaikum," said a patron sitting on one of the two small benches. The benches were made for waiting, not for dining. But that didn't faze him. He was a regular and was about to start in on a hamburger and french fries.
It didn't take long before we were in a real conversation. We were fast friends even. He was from South Africa and had come to Madinah years before. Those years had not always been easy. Things had been kind of bumpy, in fact. But no matter the bumps, he was still nothing but grateful for the opportunity to live in the city of the Prophet (ﷺ).
His charity was astounding. He refused to eat unless his new guest accepted half. Later, inside the Prophet's (ﷺ) mosque, he introduced several of his friends, ranging from a hafiz who hadn't yet hit twelve to a hafiz who had been teaching there for 50 years (A hafiz is someone who has memorized the Qur'an.). Anytime he would make an introduction, he would say, "His wife is not Muslim, but she gives him dates for Ramadan! Ajwa dates! For Ramadan!" A chorus of Mashallahs would come in response.
He gifted miswaks, a sort of natural toothbrush, as a gesture to inch his American friend closer to Muhammad's (ﷺ) habits. He did the same with a bottle of perfume.
The charity continued the next day. We drove to Quba and prayed in a mosque that, according to old Muslim records, is a place where none other than Muhammad (ﷺ) himself arranged the first stones after migrating from Makkah. So special is the mosque, tradition holds that praying two rak'ats there, (after having made ablutions at home) will be counted as Umrah.
We went across the street to the home where Muhammad (ﷺ) stayed before ultimately ending up in Madinah. The story goes that the owner of the home begged Muhammad (ﷺ) to stay in the upstairs area, because the owner couldn't abide the idea of ever being elevated above his Prophet (ﷺ).
We drank from the well that has been flowing there ever since. We went down the road and had falafel with fried egg. Later we had chicken and rice and freshly squeezed mango juice. In between, we visited another of his friends, this time a hafiz whose sweet spirit and vast knowledge made him seem like someone from another age. He gave his American guest a bowl of ice cream and a small bottle of perfume. Then it was back to the Prophet's (ﷺ) mosque.
It would be the last night in Madinah, the last night of the pilgrimage. One group of pilgrims beside us was breaking their fast. Soon the world would be shutting down due to the COVID-19 epidemic. Even the Prophet's mosque would close its doors for a while. But that night, friendship was everywhere inside. One of the men gave a parting gift: 2 kg of the best ajwa dates that could be bought in Madinah.
Strangely, the friend who had spent the past two days caring and nurturing and teaching and loving, was nowhere to be seen. But even this seemed appropriate, nothing less than a gift of charity. Because by foregoing the prayer in the Prophet's (ﷺ) mosque that night, he made sure a painful good-bye never had to be said.