Pilgrims' Progress

Here we were, four brothers on the Feast of the Sacrifice with no idea of what to do. 'Maybe we'll just have a barbecue?' my younger brother suggested.

My mother decided she was going to become religiously observant. She was always afraid of God, so she started to pray, and a few months ago she started to cover her head with a kind of colorful kerchief. At first she tied it in some ridiculous way, but with time she got the hang of it, and since then she never leaves the house without a kerchief. She now even goes to the gym, which she insists on calling Homeless Place, in Nike shoes and a kerchief. The truth is that nothing has changed in the house since my mother found religion. She is still hooked on Egyptian TV series, massive furniture and paintings of birds, preferably black swans on Swiss lakes.

Illustration Sayed Kashua Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

The blow landed a few months ago, when Mom decided that the time had come to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. Pilgrimage is one of the five basic precepts in Islam, and Mom was determined to fulfill it. "You are going on pilgrimage with me to Mecca," she said to Dad, who at first was reluctant, because of his illness, and suggested a weekend in Bulgaria instead.

My father lost his faith in God at some point in 1967. "Not only because of the defeat," he told me once. "You have to understand: When I was a boy, I was told that there is a rock in Jerusalem that floats in the air and on which you can see the footprint of the Prophet Mohammed, who ascended to heaven from there. After the occupation I went there and didn't see any rock floating in the air. On the spot I became a communist."

But Mom persisted. At first she tried to persuade him by gentle means. It's a spiritual revelation, she said; they would both go through the process together, slowly, without complications. She spoke of the blessing the pilgrimage would bring to their lives and to the lives of their children. But Dad wasn't persuaded, so Mom had no choice but to move to the contingency plan: "Do you want people to remember you as a communist infidel? Who will come to your funeral? And I haven't even got to the part about the torments of the grave and the fire in which you will roast in hell."

She instilled fear in Dad's heart. He started to pray, and registered with Mom for the Hajj. I did all I could to talk them out of it. I talked about the crowding, his illness, and what would happen if, heaven forbid, he should need treatment there. I have to say that I myself was very frightened, mainly because of the familiar stories about pilgrims who are trampled to death from time to time for unclear reasons. Mom said it's a blessing to die there, because you are ensured a direct entry into paradise. Dad said that the ones who get trampled in Mecca are mainly Indonesians, Pakistanis and Indians, who, if they did not die because of the crowding in Mecca, would certainly drown in some mudslide or other natural disaster. My father claims it's a curse they suffer from, and has nothing to do with the ordeals of the Hajj.

They went a few weeks ago and left me by myself for the longest period I have ever known: They were gone for 25 whole days. Back when I was a boy I really hated it when my parents went on a trip; I was worried, I got uptight, I was sure they would never come back. Since growing up I was sure I had overcome this, but their trip to Mecca showed me that I am not yet ready, I still need them, and I still don't know how I will be able to cope if something should happen to them, heaven forbid.

The peak came at the Feast of the Sacrifice. It was the first time I had come home for the holiday without my parents being in the house. We didn't know what to do: my brothers and I were at a loss. Usually our parents see to everything, but here we were, four brothers on the Feast of the Sacrifice with no idea of what to do. "Maybe we'll just have a barbecue?" my younger brother suggested as a compromise. But it was too late, because everyone buys the meat before the holiday and not on the day itself, when all the butcher shops are closed. Finally we bought frozen hot dogs and hamburgers from some supermarket in Kfar Sava.

During the holiday, the Arab TV networks broadcast live from Mecca. We followed the ceremonies closely, trying to spot our parents amid the incomprehensible crowd of four million pilgrims all dressed in white and all performing the same rites.

"What will we do about decorations?" my older brother asked two days before my parents were expected back. "That's right," we all replied. "Everyone decorates ahead of the pilgrims' return."

"What will we do?" my younger brother asked.

"We will do nothing," I suggested.

"But what if they're disappointed?" my older brother asked.

"Why should they be disappointed?" I asked.

"Maybe they underwent substantial changes, I don't know, what if something happened to them there and they want to be true pilgrims?"

The thought that my parents might have changed in some substantial way frightened me very much. In my mind's eye I saw my father kneeling opposite the Black Stone in Mecca, weeping bitterly and seeing the light. He probably already has a beard, I thought to myself, and Mom has probably changed the colorful kerchief for a hijab - maybe she's already walking around with her eyes covered, like the most pious women.

"Why do you say things like that?" I scolded my brother, trying to chase out these thoughts.

"Well," he replied, "things like that happen. You never know. Besides, our parents were always extreme."

In the end we pasted up huge banners on the walls of the house and my brother went to Ra'anana to buy balloons with hearts on them and ribbons saying "Welcome home" in Hebrew.

We didn't know exactly when our parents would get back from Saudi Arabia. After the holiday I had to get back to Jerusalem with my family for work and school. I continued to follow the news and called home to Tira every few hours, to check if my parents had happened to return already, primed for whatever changes the journey might have caused, and waiting to find out if they were still the same. Sometimes, when I held the receiver waiting for an answer, I was afraid my father would answer with "Salaam aleikum" and declare that he was not going to let me into the house again if I continued to drink.

And then it came. Another routine ring and my mother answered.



"Hi, how are you all?"

"Fine. How are you? How's Dad? How was it?"

"Excellent. We bought the children an Xbox."


"Yes. Just a minute, I'll put Dad on."


"How are you?"

"Fine. How are you and Mom?"

"We bought the children an Xbox in Mecca."


"Yes, it plays burned DVDs, too."