At last, we agreed that we would perform the umra or the lesser hajj. It was the winter of 2018. My freshman classes had just ended. The mercury had begun to dip below twenty. The tuxedoed magpies were the only visitors in our frozen backyard. One of my wife’s crying jags woke me up in the wee hours of the morning. These had become more frequent ever since she hit menopause. The bedside lamp cast a sickly yellow light on her flushed face. Her fine cheekbones, usually hard to detect in a Bengali woman’s face, glistened with tears.

“I don’t care if you come with me or not. I am old enough to perform the hajj without a guardian,” she said and blew her nose into the tissue I handed her.

Her reasons were simple. She needed to make peace with Allah for her youthful transgressions. Marrying me, the parent-approved man, had brought her nothing but insecurity, and we had remained childless after all these years despite undergoing costly treatments.

My reasons were more complicated—regret, guilt, the need to justify and understand. I had spent all those years in US grad schools maintaining my GPA and earning a meager stipend teaching first-year English to callous youth. Before coming to North America, life had not been easier, but it had been much simpler. As is the case in most parts of the former British Empire, academia was more laid-back in my native country, and I had never adapted to the aggressive assertiveness that seems required within North American universities. So here was I at the age of forty-nine, still a sessional at a Canadian university, an aging academic midshipman in the hallowed tradition of those left behinds in the Hornblower saga.

I was also motivated by a curiosity about my history, about the holy cities one of my maternal granduncles had visited in the early twentieth century after undertaking a steamship passage and a long caravan trek across the desert. My forefathers had been converted to Islam at some point in the past several hundred years, most likely from lower caste Hindus. Mathura, Vrindavan, Varanasi, and Ayodhya of their own ancestors had been overwritten by Mecca, Medina, Karbala, and Baghdad.

Along the way, the British had come bearing the mixed blessings of the English language, which my ancestors eventually embraced because it was the only way to get a desk job. They also came to accept London as another shining city upon the hill, not that anyone in my family had ever made it to the vilayet of the memsahibs with hair like golden flax.

By the late 1990s, when I was finally able to travel westward, the academia in old England had already been saturated by scholars from the former colonies. Fortunately for me, lesser-known US universities were still looking to recruit pundits of postcolonialism. After interviewing me serval times, an officer in the fortress-like US consulate in Dhaka—the capital of my native Bangladesh—granted me a student visa to pursue a master’s degree but refused to give one to my wife. In my second year, Rani finally got a visa and joined me in the native state of General Robert E. Lee. That year of bliss went by so fast it left us breathless. In the summer of 2000, we were back in Bangladesh, clutching papers from a university in the Deep South that had accepted me as an English PhD student. It seemed as though the long line of visa seekers at the gates of the US embassy hadn’t moved at all. 

“I am giving you a visa not because you are going to write a dissertation about an obscure woman writer, but because you didn’t get your wife pregnant on American soil the first chance you got,” said the middle-aged officer with a sand-colored mustache. He stamped my papers with excessive force and mumbled something about “fucking anchor babies.” I walked out of the interview room with the officer’s mumbled expletives trapped inside my mind, like birds of prey trying to claw their way out. Yet I felt relief that I wouldn’t have to return empty-handed.

What the officer didn’t know was that Rani had nearly died of an ectopic pregnancy the year before I received my master’s scholarship. Besides, my basic student health insurance would never have covered the costs of a childbirth in the United States.

The next day, we boarded a British Airways flight from Dhaka to Delhi. We had a forty-eight-hour window to visit the Sufi Master Khwaja Baba’s shrine before returning to the airport to catch our connecting flight. We spent most of those hours on trains and buses, traveling through the Rajasthani desert to reach the ancient city of Ajmer. Baba’s blessings secured, we hustled back to Delhi and caught a flight to our new life in a southern campus town redolent of magnolias. We lived in student housing barracks, took the bus to grocery stores, spent our days in graduate seminars and undergrad lecture theaters, that is, until everything was interrupted by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

I was teaching a first-year class on world literature when the fire alarm went off, and we were told to vacate the building in an orderly fashion. As I walked to our apartment, I heard other international students talking about armed locals driving around in pickups. In a move that we thought was meant to protect us, campus security ordered us to stay indoors until further notice. Then, a few days later, Rani and I were herded by US marshals into an Immigration and Naturalization Service bus full of international students from Muslim-majority countries. We were driven to an office in downtown Atlanta where we were interrogated all day and were permitted to return home to the university only after being photographed and fingerprinted.

This was the dreaded Special Registration. For the next five years, we wouldn’t be able to travel outside the United States because if we left, we wouldn’t be allowed to come back. My wife and I were among the lucky ones. Others had parents die in the home country. Wives missed their husbands. Children grew up without fathers.

We heaved a sigh of relief when I finished my PhD in 2006 and our Canadian immigration application was also approved. After being grilled by heavily armed ICE officers at the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, we said goodbye to the American police state.

And now, nearly two decades later, here we were: relatively poor Canucks, approaching old age, and contemplating pilgrimage. Unlike my granduncle, it took us only a few clicks of the mouse to join a tour group of Muslim Canadian parents, their children, and a few single young men. We were the only childless couple. Inam al Haq, a Canadian-born Pakistani man in his late twenties was the owner-operator of the Zamzam Holy Tour Inc. Fluent in English, Arabic, and Urdu, he looked after our worldly needs while Sheikh Berelvi, the imam of a small-town mosque in British Columbia, labored to rectify our doctrinal shortcomings. On an overcast, snowy afternoon a few days before Christmas, we flew from Toronto Pearson Airport, and after a brief stopover at Cairo International, we boarded a plane bound for Medina.

My first encounter with the holy police took place in the courtyard of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. While waiting for the call to midday prayer, we decided to hold a halaka in the courtyard. Gigantic umbrellas with leaflike panels towered above us from an intricate network of steel girders and columns, casting a greenish shade, like the imperishable date trees of paradise. Our sheikh’s reedy voice struggled to rise above the freshening breeze and the hubbub of believers thronging the vast courtyard. The golf cart–like vehicles of the morality police crisscrossed the mosque grounds day and night, like alert beetles on steroids. As one approached us, a cloud of concern darkened the sheikh’s beaming face. He stopped expounding on the finer points of takwa, and Inam nimbly rose to his feet to greet the tall morality enforcement officer clad in an impossibly white thobe who sprang from the still-moving vehicle. The man’s head was covered by a red-and-white checkered shemagh, and his eyes were concealed by highly reflective wraparound shades.

“You should know better! Any discourse, religious or otherwise, is forbidden, except those delivered by the Grand Imam himself.” His Hijazi Arabic sounded like automatic gunfire.

“We were just about to leave, brother,” Inam replied with an oily smile.

“See that you do,” barked the swarthy young man before mumbling something unintelligible into his crackling walkie-talkie and hopping into the seat beside the driver.

The beetle drove away with a disapproving whir of its electric motor. As we dispersed quietly, the sheikh reassured us that such interventions were necessary to prevent the spread of heresy. What the sheikh meant by heresy were the deviant teachings of Shia Muslims, most of whom come from the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Saudi government had even constructed separate facilities for these heretics.

Besides patrolling the Prophet’s Mosque and his tomb, the mutawa also monitor the bookstores, marketplaces, and hotels built around them. I would later see the mutawa in action as we were browsing neon lighted, meat-heavy menus in the sprawling food court somewhere inside the labyrinthine bowels of the Makkah skyscraper that houses several international hotel chains and looms over the Kaaba like one of the towers of Mordor. The call to the last prayer of the day sounded, and just like that, the metal shutters started dropping, and the people followed suit, falling to their knees on prayer rugs that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Two middle-aged mutawa casually strolled past us with strings of prayer beads clicking in their hands. They were a far cry from the horror stories I’d heard about the Taliban and Islamic State enforcers who whip burka-clad women for talking loudly in markets or thrash Muslim men who wear jeans and shave their beards.

It was thanks to the mutawa that I came to understand why our Arab Muslim brethren sometimes refer to us Muslims from the Indian subcontinent as Talata (“third generation” or “a cousin thrice removed”). One evening, minutes before the call to evening prayer, my wife and I went to pay our respects to the Prophet’s grave in the green-domed shrine. When we arrived, we had to split up because men and women must use separate entrances; only during the tawaf or the circumambulation of the Kaaba in Makkah is the strict gender segregation relaxed a little. A long line had formed in front of the men’s gate, which was guarded by several men in spotless white thobes, regulation headgear, and heavy boots. They wielded short fiberglass batons.

I had barely made it to the front of the line, when a cry of despair went up from the believers behind me—“They are going to shut the gates, brothers!”

There was a mad rush toward the gate, and I found myself propelled forward. The two younger men in front of me almost made it through before one was tackled by a guard, and the other cried out in pain as a baton struck him across the shoulders. I felt hands on my chest, pushing me to the ground.   

“Yalla! Yalla,” screamed the officer-in-charge.

“Rush toward prayer, O believers,” proclaimed the muezzin of the Prophet’s Mosque.

It was time for evening prayer. Bending the knee to Allah, the one and only true God, took precedence over visiting the messenger’s grave or resting there in the dirt. I dusted myself off before joining the other believers inside the opulent Ottoman-era Prophet’s Mosque. After the prayers, I called my wife to coordinate our next move. She had also been thwarted by the female mutawa, who wear black burkas but otherwise resemble their male counterparts with big boots and batons.

“It’s so like you! I didn’t give them a chance to lay their hands on me,” she said. Apparently, I came from a long line of people with a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We decided to make another attempt before calling it a night.

This time I made it inside without being manhandled, but the visit lasted only a few minutes because the mutawa ensure that the pilgrims file past the graves of the Prophet and his companions in a steady stream. It was nothing like the time we visited the Baba’s shrine in India all those years ago. No overpowering scent of incense burning day and night. No heavy damask drapes enclosing the saint’s grave. Nor were there filigreed bronze panels around the grave to which the supplicants—Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs alike—tied strips of red cloth as reminders to the forgetful master. The singing and dancing dervishes were not there to fill the hearts of the devotees with ecstasy. There was no lack of fervor though. Even as the mutawa herded us past the graves—which were hidden by diamond-shaped stone lattices—and toward the exit, a few believers clung to the partitions.

Thunk, thunk, went the batons until the bruised fingers loosened their grips, and the wounded were borne away by the crowd. On my way out, I noticed signs in many languages, most of them South Asian. All had the same message: “It is shirk to offer prayers at grave sites.” Believers setting up rivals to Allah—even the Prophet himself—do so at their own peril, as the lost children of Israel discovered when they defied Yahweh by worshipping the golden calf.

It was in the Jannah al Baqih, the cemetery located to the southeast of the Prophet’s shrine, that I encountered the most formidable of the mutawa. The oldest Islamic graveyard, it is the resting place of some members of the Prophet’s immediate family, and it is still in use today. Occasionally, a few very lucky hajis who shuffle off the mortal coil while visiting the Prophet’s shrine are buried in this sprawling cemetery. It is considered an earthly extension of paradise, hence the Jannah or “heaven” in the name.

It was already four o’clock in the afternoon when a few of us men assembled at the square near the cemetery that sported an Ottoman-era clock tower. A cool breeze was driving cotton candy clouds across the blue sky. Hundreds of pigeons pecked at the grain that pilgrims had scattered all over the cobblestone. A stout, middle-aged Black woman, most likely from Mali or Chad judging by her colorful robe and magnificent turban-like headdress, stooped to scoop up some of the grain mixed with pigeon poop and place it in a plastic container. Her over-sized silver earrings glinted in the sun.

“That, my brothers, is bid’ah,” said Sheikh Berelvi. Bid’ahis anything done in the name of Islam that has no precedence in the Prophet’s actions or words as recorded by those who came immediately after him. We Muslims from the Indian subcontinent are also fond of amulets, holy water, relics, and other bid’ah.

It was a short walk from the clock tower to the cemetery. A large number of women clung to the steel perimeter fence, their voluminous abayas billowing in the wind.

“Tradition has it that the Prophet—peace be upon him—forbade the presence of women in graveyards because Allah has endowed them with overpowering emotions and whatnot but little self-control,” our sheikh explained.

Was the Prophet not reputed to be an orphan and an epileptic who had been supported by an older independently wealthy woman before he came into his prophethood? As I debated whether to voice my misgivings, I was distracted by the sight of several members of the mutawa who were marching up and down the concrete walkways inside the cemetery near the fences. It felt surreal or even comical to behold, as if I were Max Payne, the hero of the eponymous video game, and I had ventured deep into the heart of the São Paulo favela, where I was preparing to confront a hostile army of uniformed and heavily armed gang members who were far superior to the cheap rent-a-thugs that I had dispatched in earlier levels. A far-fetched comparison, perhaps, but these men were taller than the members of the morality police I had encountered earlier. They wore military camouflage that accentuated their muscular physiques and carried stout metal clubs at the ready.

Once inside the cemetery, we walked in single file through the rows of the oldest graves, the thousands upon thousands of low mounds of earth and rock baking in the sun—nary a blade of grass, let alone a flower. There were no weeping willows murmuring in the breeze, no gentle yews. We maintained silence whenever the mutawa marched past us, but when there was a safe distance between us and the patrols, the sheikh would explain in a hardly audible voice that this grave housed the remains of the Prophet’s son who had died in infancy, while that one over there was the grave of such and such companion.

We stayed in motion until the sheikh halted before a particular cluster of graves. “Here lie the men and women who refused to swear allegiance to Yazid ibn Muawiya,” he whispered.  According to Shia tradition, Yazid, son of Muawiya I, had usurped the caliphate from the Prophet’s beloved grandson, Hussein, whom Yazid had forced to embrace martyrdom in an unfair battle fought on the parched plains of Karbala. Then, Yazid marched on Medina to demand allegiance from the surviving members of the Prophet’s family and the remnant of his blessed companions—Yazid had them put to the sword when they refused to recognize him as the caliph. And today, none of their graves are marked or bear any traces of ancient masonry.

“But of course, it is Allah’s prerogative to decide whether Yazid’s actions were sinful or whatnot. By all accounts, he and his father were both fearful of Allah and did much to increase the glory of Islam,” the sheikh whispered. 

I took that to mean that the God of Abrahamic religions would rather condone mass murder than tolerate shirk. My innate lack of piety exacerbated by the years spent in the godless West must have clouded my judgement.

“The Wahhabis and their allies, the al Sauds, have systematically erased all the structures and whatnot that continued to be erected throughout the reigns of various caliphs down to the last days of the Ottomans,” said the sheikh.

The scion of a family of religious teachers who trace their lineage back to the Prophet himself, our sheikh hailed from the South Indian city of Hyderabad, famous for its magnificent palaces, mausoleums, and shrines built by Shia rulers. I recalled how he had sounded critical of Saudi architecture while we were waiting at the Ottoman clock tower for our group to gather.

“Wait till you see the ugly high rises and whatnot around the Kaaba in Mecca. They spell money and power,” he had said. Perhaps it was nothing more than the contempt of those with a long heritage for upstarts and arrivistes.

“Good thing they got rid of those old tombs. My dad once showed me a picture of a man praying inside one of them. Gross!” said Inam, a second generation Muslim Canadian, as we continued to stroll through the cemetery.

As we walked, I noted how the signs exhorting believers to guard against shirk cast long, hard-edged shadows across the cracked and scorched mounds. I thought then of a far better exhortation, one uttered by an iconoclast and nonconformist who lived mere decades before the birth of Abdel Wahhab, that eighteenth-century preacher whose version of Islam inspired the al Sauds to carve their kingdom out of the crumbling Ottoman Empire: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”[1]

The next day, I slept in. My cell phone vibrated and buzzed to no avail. I woke up to the sound of Rani rummaging through the dresser drawers.

“I just got pick pocketed,” she sobbed. She had gone to visit the Prophet’s grave one last time and found an opportunity to linger and say a prayer. When the guardians of propriety returned and drove the wayward women out, Rani discovered that the purse full of US and Canadian dollars she wore under her abaya had been neatly cut and pilfered. She had called me to come to her aid, but I disappointed her yet again.

Our guide listened to our tale of woe and tut-tutted: “They don’t have cameras in the women’s section for obvious reasons. It wouldn’t help anyway, with so many wearing niqabs.”  

And so, before we left Medina for Makkah, we went to the shrine police station to file a report. The line was long. A Pakistani young man with beetle leaf juice–stained teeth smiled at us. “They stole forty thousand [Pakistani] rupees from me,” he said. “I don’t know how I am going to pay for food tonight. How much did they take from you?”

“Two thousand,” my wife replied in Urdu.

“At least, they didn’t take your children! Be grateful to Allah and his Prophet, my sister.”

[1] John Milton, Areopagitica: A Speech of Mr. John Milton for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing, to the Parliament of England (Auckland, New Zealand: Floating Press, 2009), 26,