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Hundreds Of Muslims Attend Drive-Through Hajj In Maryland

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is the time of year when many Muslims undertake the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. It is, of course, a year like no other, and Saudi Arabia is limiting the annual pilgrimage just to people living inside the kingdom. It's a disappointment for many American Muslims who are planning to go. From our member station WAMU, Daniella Cheslow reports on a community in Maryland that held a drive-through Hajj instead.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing in non-English language).

DANIELLA CHESLOW, BYLINE: Loudspeakers blast prayers on a hot afternoon as Mona Eldadah watches her 77-year-old father. He's copying a ritual known as tawaf, walking around an 8-foot-tall black cube that's a replica of the Kaaba shrine in Mecca. Eldadah tells him he's doing it wrong.

MONA ELDADAH: No, Daddy. The idea is that the car is actually going to do the tawaf. It's a drive-through.

CHESLOW: Hadi Rahnama relents. He's done the real pilgrimage to Mecca three times. He remembers a sea of Muslims from all over the world all wearing the same white clothes.

HADI RAHNAMA: And so nobody knows whether they're poor, they're rich or whatever - equality 100%. And that is the beauty of tawaf.

CHESLOW: Today, Hondas and Teslas drive around the Kaaba. It's not a substitute for the Hajj, which all Muslims must try to make in their lifetime. Mona Eldadah is creative director at the Next Wave Muslim Initiative, a group in Montgomery County, Md. The pandemic ruined her pilgrimage plans, so she suggested to her colleagues, how about a local version of Hajj - by car?

ELDADAH: I was telling them it's kind of like the way that, in the wintertime, there's Christmas light shows, and all you're doing is kind of looking out from your window.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

CHESLOW: At Sandy Spring Friends School, Eldadah greets drivers moving along a short track.

YASEEN: Yes.

CHESLOW: At one station, a boy in a green shirt leans out of a white minivan to throw pebbles at a cardboard pillar. That's to evoke another Hajj ritual - casting stones to drive out the devil. The boy introduces himself as Yaseen.

YASEEN: It's spelled Y-A-S-E-E-N. Last name is Khan, but I kind of forgot how to spell it.

CHESLOW: His dad Faisal Khan says he's been avoiding mosques because of the pandemic, but he still wanted to teach his two boys about the holiday.

FAISAL KHAN: It definitely feels much more safe. We're in a car, not close to a bunch of people. So it's really nice, what they did.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

CHESLOW: At a different stage of this Hajj, visitors could hear a prayer that's recited at the mountain where the Prophet Mohammed gave his final sermon. That was meaningful for Ranwa Abdelnabi and Haithem Trabeek, who recently moved from Egypt with their daughter. The past few months have been isolating.

RANWA ABDELNABI: It takes time to really build strong relationships. So the pandemic is not helping that.

CHESLOW: They say, besides this interview, they didn't chat much to anyone new at the drive-through.

ABDELNABI: This is the longest conversation we've had with someone.

(LAUGHTER)

HAITHEM TRABEEK: Actually, the longest conversation we've had for weeks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

CHESLOW: It's a challenge to forge new connections during the pandemic, but this time does spark new ways of thinking. Eldadah estimates about 500 people came, and many drove away with inspiration to go on the real Hajj when it's possible again.

For NPR News, I'm Daniella Cheslow.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "CHILL KINGDOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.