Journey to the holy land

Published: Saturday, March 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 28, 2003 at 11:23 p.m.
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Ocala physical therapist and chairman of the board of the Islamic Center of Gainesville, Shola Akinyode, admires an abya, a traditional islamic overcoat. The abya is a gift for Akinyode's father from Hoda Center chairman of the board, Ahmed El-Mahdawy, far left, who recently returned to Gainesville after his pilgrimage to Mecca. At center is Akinyode's father-in-law, Alhaji F.Y. Jinadu, who is visiting from Nigeria.

DOUG FINGER/ The Gainesville Sun
Ahmed El-Mahdawy was returning to Gainesville from his pilgrimage to Mecca last month, when an airline ticket mix-up tested his resolve to change.
El-Mahdawy said he was furious when he was told at the ticket counter that he and his wife would not be seated next to each other on the flight back home. But remembering the pilgrimage he had just made, he said he tried to remain calm.
"The hajj is a treatment for the human soul," said El-Mahdawy, 58, who has performed hajj at least five times, but still prays that he can go again. "You change for the better in every aspect of your life."
Able-bodied Muslims are required to perform the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, at least once in their lifetime if they can afford it, said Safwat Mohamed, 52, the imam at the Hoda Center on Hwy 441, who also performed hajj this year.
The multi-day ritual that begins in the nearby holy city of Mecca - the birthplace of Islam and its seventh-century prophet, Muhammad - comprises a spiritual journey that, according to Islamic teachings, cleanses the soul and wipes away sins.
Several pilgrims who call Gainesville home shared their experiences with each other at a gathering at the Hoda Center last week.
Jeb Beich, a 23-year-old software engineer who converted to Islam six years ago, didn't think he would be able to perform hajj for many years because of the cost of the trip. He was at the Islamic Center of Gainesville a month before hajj was to start, when the center president approached him and asked if he would like to go on an all-expense-paid trip to hajj.
The Saudi government has a program in which 700 people are chosen to go on all-expense-paid trips to hajj as guests of the royal family, Beich explained. Beich had applied to the program two years ago, but was initially denied; this year he got his chance
The nine-day trip was Beich's first time out of the country.
"It softened me, it increased my sense of brotherhood," Beich said. "I feel like my batteries have been charged up."
Beich said he felt closest to God when he was praying an afternoon prayer and was about 5 feet away from the Kabah, the place of worship built by Abraham and Ishmael more than 4,000 years ago.
"It's symbolic, I know, and maybe it shouldn't be that way, but to me it was like that," he said. "I felt close to God, and it doesn't happen often."
He said he is now trying to become a better person by not swearing and getting angry.
"Because I feel like God gave me a second chance," Beich said. "I feel I have opportunity not to make the same mistakes I made before."
Beich said the best thing he got from the trip, aside from the spiritual gain, was disproving the people who think Muslims from around the world hate Americans.
"Which turns out - even me, I admit I was scared - people were unbelievably kind and friendly," he said.
He said even though everyone he met knew he was American, they were all nice to him.
On another occasion at the end of Beich's trip, on the way back to Jeddah, his group stopped at a gas station with a restaurant and mosque attached to it. Beich went to the restaurant to buy food but he only had large American bills and the man at the restaurant didn't have enough change to break Beich's bills.
Beich left but came back after a few minutes to ask the man which direction the qiblah, the direction in which Muslims pray which is toward the Kabah, was. The man thought Beich was going to ask him to break a bill again, so the man gave him a big plate of rice, a whole chicken and a drink for free, because he knew Beich was hungry.
"He knew I was American, and he gave it to me because I was American," Beich said. "The trip was full of stuff like that."
Beich said the trip has given him a better picture of Muslims worldwide and he feels fortunate to be an American Muslim and to be back in his country.
"I was so happy to be back the first thing I did was buy a Mountain Dew and M&M's."

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