A steady stream of pilgrims files past deserted merchant stalls. Sleek Mercedes and muscular Fords are forced to pull to the curb, unable to penetrate the accretion of foot traffic surging toward the end of the road. There, like Disneyland on halogen steroids, is Al-Masjid an-Nabawi—literally, “Place Where the Prophet Prostrated.” I catch myself as slack-jawed as an extra in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The cavernous interior space of the mosque is already packed to capacity, and the surrounding white marble plaza is quickly filling with pilgrims staking turf between the endless phalynx of pink sandstone towers capped with blazing brass lamps. Hundreds more emerge from opulent washrooms set at intervals on the plaza.
Scurrying to the outer edge of neatly arranged rows of pilgrims, Yassir and I lay our prayer rugs on a patch of cool marble, rub the sleep from our bloodshot eyes, bow our heads in niyat—our silent intention to shift into prayer mode—then perform takbir, open palms raised up to our ears as we declare: “Al-Llâh-u-akbar”—God is most great.
After performing salat, I sit back on my haunches and watch Yassir quietly recite the names of Al-Llâh on wooden subhah beads until the rising sun begins to penetrate layers of morning mist and dust on the horizon, tinting the marble plaza first primrose, and then golden. Soon the minarets are sparkling with a radiance that obliterates even the halogen lamps.