PBS goes on the Hajj with Muslim pilgrims from around Boston

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Marco Werman: Technology is changing our lives in every conceivable way. But an old fashioned pilgrimage, it turns out, is as popular as ever.


(Umar Salahadin): We are all here individually to connect individually with God and we each have our own prayers and our own way of connecting, yet we all have a larger common purpose--to connect with God, to pray with God, and to be forgiven by God.


Werman: That is Umar Salahdin from just down the road from our studios in Waltham, Massachusetts. He was speaking from Saudi Arabia though, where he took part in the Hajj pilgrimage, a religious duty for all Muslims.


Salahadin: I’ll be praying for myself, for this world and the hereafter, as well as for my family, my friends, my relatives, colleagues and for mankind.


Werman: Salahudin is one of the people in a PBS documentary series called “Sacred Journeys.” The episode followed a group of American Muslims from the Boston area who went on the Hajj. It was filmed by Anisa Mehdi, she’s a filmmaker from New York and has been on the Hajj several times. You worked with series producer Bruce Mehdi on this project but he was not able to shoot this part of the series because he’s not Muslim, did not go on the Hajj, and I guess you can’t go on the Hajj if you’re not Muslim. That’s kind of where you came in. How did things work out logistically?


Anisa Mehdi: Well, I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I know some of the ropes, but you never know the ropes well enough in a situation of documentary filmmaking because, as Alfred Hitchcock says, in feature films, the director is God, but in documentary, God is the director. We have very little control over what happens when.


Werman: How do you even make a film when you’re at the Hajj? It seems kind of chaotic; spiritually, it seems very organized but I imagine once you peel back things that it’s pretty chaotic.


Mehdi: One of the wonderful things about this story is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, so you have a built in structure and then you fill in the people. And we had marvelous people like Umar Salahadin, like Amina Kurachi, who is the Muslim chaplain at Wesley College, my alma mater, and like Jack Lindsey from down the street a little further from your studios, a number of really extraordinary human beings who let us into their lives. So, they fill in the narrative content in this structure that’s already there. Logistically, it’s tough because you have to get from place to place with somewhere between two and three million other people who are doing the same thing at the same time, everybody wanting to be in the same other place at the same time. And people from different cultures who are used to performing their religious rituals the way you do in Indonesia if you’re an Indonesian Muslim or in Malaysia, or in Pakistan, or in Bosnia, or in Nicaragua, or in Boston. And although some of these rituals are the same, culture imposes or broadens that expression. So people who are Muslim get to see “Ahh, this isn’t the only kind of Muslim there is.” It’s a real opening experience for the practitioners and, of course, for the filmmakers.


Werman: And of course all the linguistic differences between these people in talking about those rituals and their meaning. The Boston pilgrims in the film talk about the religious and spiritual meaning of walking in the footsteps of Muhammad and answering the call of Abraham, but this is also a grueling trip that really tests peoples’ patience and endurance. Let’s hear another clip from the film. We’ll hear the voice of a man who may have gotten in a little deeper than he was expecting.


Man: I’m really tired, I’m exhausted, and I’m physically uncomfortable. This is getting to me and I really want to shower and put on some normal clothes. I haven’t necessarily been washed over by any tremendous feelings. It’s hard to feel that way. This is a very industrial and rough environment. There’s no stars, there’s no beautiful nightsky. It’s not really that peaceful. And others may say it is and that’s fine. But I don’t feel that way.


Werman: Well, I guess it’s hard to be spiritual when you’re hungry and stinky.


Mehdi: But isn’t that the great challenge of this particular pilgrimage? And, in fact, it’s the challenge of the month of Ramadan as well, is to maintain your best behavior under very difficult circumstances because it’s easy to get grumpy, it’s easy to be a grouch, it’s easy to whine and moan and complain. But if the instruction is “Be the best human being you can be no matter how much you’re being tried and taxed,” that is spiritual enlightenment on steroids.


Werman: Anisa Mehdi, a filmmaker who handled the episode of the PBS documentary series “Sacred Journeys” focusing on the Hajj to Mecca. Great to meet you Anisa. Thank you.


Mehdi: Thank you Marco.


Werman: You can watch a short video from Anisa that shows the difficulties she faced. That’s at PRI.ORG. And catch the full episode of “Sacred Journeys” tonight on PBS. Check your local listings.