A quick 26 days tour of Makkah and Madina during Hajj 1431 taught me some new things in life. Each foreign visit broadens up your vision of the world, and tells you a few things you never learn from the media and the books.
Makkah Mukarma turned out to be very different from the image I had in my mind. To my surprise, it's a hilly area with very warm weather; it felt hot even in November. At the least, the area surrounding the Ka'aba consists entirely of mountainous terrain. There is almost no greenery, which makes me wonder where did they keep camels in this city!
Besides the hot weather and the relatively difficult terrain, there were thousands and thousands of pilgrims, which to some extent made it challenging to move around during rush hours---mainly the five prayer timings.
Amongst other impressions modified by this visit includes the commonly held belief that "Saudis, because of being Wahabi's, have lack of empathy for other sects/ interpretations of Islam." While this remains true to a large extent even today, I could witness some completely unheard of events: A group of young Shiites (perhaps Hezbollah members?) slanting "Labaik Ya Hussain" while performing Tawwa'f of Khana-e-Kaa'ba; Ayatollah's from the US; a huge gathering of Lebanese Shiite's on 7th Zilhajj and recitation of Sura-e-Baraat by them. Very rarely but surely one could find Muttawas holding and beating pilgrims who, according to them, were performing acts of shirk.
Madina left an impression very different from Makkah---firstly, it wasn't too populated since Hajj days were over; secondly, the weather was chilly. There was a sense of peace and calm in the city, and the city also seemed to be much more developed as compared to Makkah.
I specially liked the area around Masjid-Zu-qiblatain; extremely peaceful environment with modern shopping arcade at some distance and a small, very beautiful park close by. Yet, the visit to Madina wasn't without surprises either. On 18th Zilhaj, when we tried to go to Masjid-e-Nabawi (Salallaho Alay'he Wa Aal-e-hi Wassalam) after Isha prayers, we were not only stopped from entering the mosque, rather forcefully pushed away by Saudi Army. The mosque was sealed by Saudi armed forces and people were being drove away! After some time, we realized that only Irani passport holders were allowed to enter the mosque and the rest of the nationalities were forbidden. This was one of the most unimaginable thing for me.
Later, it was found out that on this particular night Irani pilgrims pray Dua-e-Kumail, and they are handed over the mic of the mosque for a few hours! The army was there to make sure that Iranis do not go beyond what's agreed with the Saudi government.
And the complete list of surprises includes the flood in Jeddah as well as the threat now Saudi government feels from Yemeni rebels.
A bonus informative point is that Madina hosts Sheikh Amri. Getting more information on this person is worth your time!