How to pack for Umra: don’t pack light

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May your experience be more worthwhile with these practical styling tips by Ameera Al Hakwati.

Packing for Umra_Aquila Style

When you’re about to embark on a journey to the most revered place on Earth, the last thing on your mind is your clothes. Rightly so, some may hasten to add, but they’ve never tried climbing Jabal al-Nour in a pair of 90dhs (US$25) H&M ballet pumps, I’m sure. I have. And after coming back with bumps and blisters all over my feet and a heat rash on my chest and neck, I wish I had made some smarter choices with my clothing.

I assumed that every woman in Mecca and Medina would be dressed in sombre colours and black abayas and I really struggled to find dark-coloured scarves in my wardrobe that would keep me cool and aerated. All my black scarves were too thick, woolly or pashmina-style, and most of my cotton scarves were too colourful. I also struggled to find respectable clothes. Yes, I have around 50 abayas in my closet but I felt some of them were a little too (*cough*) form-fitting for Umra, others were too blingy and most of them were open, which would add the worry of what to wear underneath.

Packing for Umra was becoming more and more complicated by the minute. And I had only a couple of hours to get my gear together before I entered ihram and left for the airport. If only I’d known then what I know now…

Ihram is a state of purity achieved through fulfilling specific rituals necessary before performing the Umra and also the Hajj

Don’t pack light

Everyone always goes on about packing light when travelling. If you’re backpacking across Europe, fine. But if you’re taking a plane to Mecca and then a car or coach to Medina, with your suitcase safe in your hotel in between, there’s really no need to scrimp. In fact, not taking enough clothes means that you’ll probably have to hand wash key items while you’re there and hope they dry in time (keep reading and you will see). And if you don’t hand wash, you’ll be stuck with smelly, dirty clothes you can’t wear because of the sheer amount of sweat that will pour down your body, every time you step outside.

Scarves

I found four I thought were appropriate (right material, right colours) and I thought that would suffice. I was only going for five days after all. I was wrong. They all became damp with sweat during Umra (Alhamdulillah I performed three Umras during my three days in Mecca) and I wished I had packed more. I took two bandannas to wear under my hijab and this was okay as it was easy to wash one at the end of each day and it dried in time.

Abayas and outer garments

I packed three – the only loose, closed abayas I had. I wish I had packed one for each day as these got drenched with sweat, too. Even though there were fans inside the masjid, you spent hours outdoors – walking around the haram, doing tawaf, and even when performing Sa’i from Safa to Marwa, which may be sheltered from the sun but you sweat from the exertion.

Inner garments

I wished more than anything that I had packed more than one sports bra

I packed five t-shirts and three pairs of harem pants to wear under my abaya. This sufficed but I should have packed looser t-shirts. I was just so hot all the time and anything that clung to my skin made me feel uncomfortable. The pants were a great idea, though. They were cotton, baggy and didn’t restrict my movement in the slightest. I had finally done something right! As for underwear – I wished more than anything that I had packed more than one sports bra. I packed a couple of normal ones but the underwire was just plain uncomfortable in the heat. I ended up wearing my sports bra the most, washing it in the hotel’s bathroom sink every night.

Shoes and footwear

I took one pair of sandals, one pair of plain black ballet pumps and lots of pairs of socks on the advice of my sister. You have to take your shoes off when you’re in the haram, of course, and when you perform the Tawaf, Sa’i and so on. The best thing to do is wear socks so you can slip your shoes into a plastic bag and stuff them in your handbag and then walk around with socks. Much less painful than doing all that barefoot! 

If I had known that I’d be climbing, I would have taken a pair of decent trainers with me

The sandals were a disaster as they were my sister’s and a tad too small, so in the end I just wore my ballet pumps. That was fine going to the mosque or walking around Mecca and Medina, but totally inappropriate when trying to climb Jabal al-Nour or walking on rocks in Uhud. If I had known that I’d be climbing, I would have taken a pair of decent trainers with me.

Walking around Mecca is difficult as well with all the construction that’s going on. There’s a lot of controversy about that at the moment and, to be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about it. While I disagree with destroying historical artefacts, the reality is, the haram just cannot accommodate the huge number of pilgrims that visit each year. I’m not an architect or a historian; I don’t understand the logistics of it all, but as a Muslim visiting our holiest place on Earth massive cranes and mounds of rubble does kind of ruin the spiritual vibe.

Medina, on the other hand, is wonderfully peaceful and I definitely recommend going there after Mecca as it gives you a moment to unwind from the intensity of Umra while you’re still in a beautiful, holy setting.

Bags

I took one rucksack and one small handbag which was perfect. I used the rucksack on days I knew I’d spend a long time at the haram. There was enough space for my Qur’an, books, snacks, water bottle, shoes, hand sanitiser, tissues, wallet, sunglasses, phones and, of course, my shoes. I used the smaller bag when I was just popping over to the mosque for an hour and needed basics only.

Toiletries

This is a tricky one as you’re restricted in what you can use during ihram. As a result, I didn’t pack any sunblock, completely forgetting that I wouldn’t always be in ihram while I was there. The result? A horrible tan line right across my forehead!

Remember how I said I assumed everyone would be in subtle colours and black abayas? I was completely, and utterly wrong.

All around me, there were hundreds of Muslim women from all over the globe dressed in colourful, traditional outfits. There were Pakistani women in brightly patterned shalwar kameez, Turkish women in long skirts and fitted tops, Malaysian women in stark white headscarves and long dresses. Women from the Shaam in long, pale jackets, African women in bold prints. I was astounded and fascinated.

How ignorant of me to assume people would be dressed like me. But why should they? Islam spreads far beyond the Gulf and right there, in the centre of the Islamic world, was a taste of the depth of its culture.

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