Every year during hajj, thousands of Muslims travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and participate in rituals. Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, meaning it’s a required part of the faith — for those who can afford it.
Poor and underprivileged Sufi Muslims of Egypt and North Africa might plan hajj as their only trip abroad in their lives, often as their plan for retirement. However, life obligations usually deplete their resources before achieving their life dream. In Humaithara Valley, a desert region in eastern Egypt, the annual moulid of Sheikh Abu al-Hassan al-Shazly provides a temporary solution.
This “poor men’s hajj” was inspired by the hajj of Sheikh Abu al-Hassan al-Shazly, the founder of the Shadhili sect of Sufism, with his disciples. The sheikh was traveling from Morocco to Mecca and died near the Red Sea in Humaithara Valley, where his disciples buried him; the site later became a shrine. In Islam, those who die during their pilgrimage are traditionally accorded the same status as those who reach Mecca.
Poor Sufi Muslims find solace and inspiration in the trial of Sheikh Abu al-Hassan al-Shazly and the story of his hajj. Pilgrims follow the sheikh’s steps, and his shrine is their destination, where they commemorate his death.
At a transportation hub in Edfu, Aswan, about 300 kilometers northwest of Humaithara Valley, families and friends gather before sunrise to prepare their trucks for travel. Sheikh Shady, who is from Luxor, rents a pickup truck and brings the wood and rope required to create a second level on the roof of the truck. A man with auto-mechanical experience checks on the truck’s motor. Young men who accompany Sheikh Shady fill barrels of water for the trip. The truck driver brings water in a bucket and washes the rear window, the front cabin and the four wheels with a yellow sponge. Omar, 9, who arrived with his father, takes care of a goat they brought to slaughter for the feast. Other men bring chairs from a street cafe for women and children to rest until the preparations are ready.
A few hours were spent packing up and getting ready to go, with time for one last bathroom break and phone call before the cell reception disappears. Women, children, and the goat occupy the bottom level of the truck along with food, water, and a gas cylinder for cooking. The men take their place on the upper level of the pickup truck. Some sleep immediately, after the long night of work, while the rest chant praises to the rhythm of a tambourine; chants to God, the Prophet Mohamed and Sheikh al-Shazly with jubilation: “Shazly Abu al-Hassan, we are the sons of Abu al-Hassan. Our sheikh in the mountains. Hey grandma, where are you going with that velvet bag? I am going to visit the Prophet Mohamed and the sacred Kaaba.”
Nine hours later, the group run out of water, and all are exhausted from the heat of the sun. Eventually, the truck reaches the Humaithara Valley.
The shrine of Sheikh Abu al-Hassan al-Shazly is the first site pilgrims visit upon arrival. Worshippers move around the sanctuary counter-clockwise, as pilgrims do around the sacred Kaaba in Mecca. ُThe pilgrims climb the mountain of Humaithara, as they would Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia and later in the day, the practitioners gather for meals, and prayer rituals with chanting, music and dancing.