By Sharmeen Ahmad and Taufiq Ahmad
How excited and thrilled our Daddy was in February 2020 as he packed his suitcases for his trip to Karachi and then to Makkah all the way from Chicago. While he was enjoying the company of his loved ones in Karachi, the news suddenly broke out that all flights to Makkah and Madinah had been cancelled indefinitely. To Daddy’s great dismay, he was suddenly forced to board the first flight out of Karachi and back home to Chicago without being able to perform his much-anticipated Umrah. I can never forget the extremely sad and disheartened look on his face upon arrival back home.
Seeing our father in this state of confusion moved me to tears. He was not only devastated, being unable to perform the Umrah, but was also panicked as the entire world fell deep into the darkness of this awful pandemic. The trip that was supposed to uplift his faith, bring peace and tranquility to his heart, and arouse a deeper feeling of connection with Allah especially at his senior age, turned into a nightmare of many months of anguish and solitary confinement. As the world locked itself down and tried to grapple with the unforeseen COVID pandemic, uncertainties and fears not only grew but exploded. We, like all others, kept praying and begging to Allah the Almighty to end this terrible pandemic and to open the doors of His mercy and forgiveness for all humankind once again.
Alhumdulillah, despite all the uncertainties of the ongoing COVID pandemic, Allah blessed not just our father but also our family to perform the much-awaited Umrah in the beginning of January 2022. I still haven’t overcome the joy of gratitude that I feel deep inside my heart for being able to start this year in the shade of the glorious Kabah.
Stepping into the sacred Haram boundaries felt surreal at first with people raising their voices praising Allah from under their face coverings as they got closer and closer to the majestic Kabah. To us it almost seemed like that the Holy Kabah was beaming with a fresh light of glory and mercy as humanity crept slowly toward some form of normalcy.
Performing Umrah during COVID times was a whole new experience altogether. Although it was extremely rewarding and truly satisfying to our hearts, it also brought its own set of challenges and hurdles. All the pilgrims were to follow the strict COVID protocols put in place by the local authorities for keeping everyone safe and protected. We found social distancing protocols being enforced at all times and heavy fines being given to those not complying with proper masking protocols. It was remarkable to see how methodically the government had put a high-tech digital system in place where the entire Umrah process is made possible by a click of a button on our own smartphones. All pilgrims were required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and to update their vaccination status through online Muqeem registration. Next, they were to show a negative PCR test upon arrival in the Kingdom.
The most challenging part of the Umrah process for us was to download the Tawakkalna (توكلنا) and Eatmarna (اعتمرنا) apps on everyone’s smartphone devices as advised by the local authorities. Through these apps the authorities were able to validate the vaccination status and issue permits for Umrah and the five daily prayers. The permits were also required for the Prophet’s (sa) mosque in Madinah. Some pilgrims did experience a few hurdles downloading the apps and making it work on their phones. One aspect that was really impressive was how diligently the authorities were checking each and everyone’s personal devices for permits before allowing entry into the mosques. Younger children (below 7 years) were not allowed to get permits or perform the Umrah. It is worth mentioning here that for those pilgrims who needed any assistance in regards to the digital system, the local authorities had established a center known as the Inaya Center providing daily tech-support.
After performing our Umrah we were off to Madinah for a few days. This time we decided to explore the latest high speed train that the authorities have very successfully made available to all pilgrims. Our experience was absolutely phenomenal, as we arrived in Madinah in less than 2.5 hours, a trip that would have otherwise taken more than five hours. At speeds of approximately 300 km per hour, we knew it was the fastest we had ever travelled on land. The massive state of the art train stations in both cities of Makkah and Madinah boasted countless elements of modernity and sophistication. Massive sitting lounges with food courts and restroom facilities were a great source of rest and relaxation during the hectic Umrah journey.
In Madinah everyone could feel the tranquility in the air although this time around we did find Madinah to be very quiet and subdued. The COVID pandemic has definitely dimmed the hustle and bustle with many shops and hotels forced to close due to lack of business. Many food vendors have been forced out of work and the few places that are open are forced to serve the many people waiting in long lines. Applying for the permits for Riyadhul Jannah was another challenge that we encountered. Out of all the family members, only my daughter and I were fortunate enough to get the permits. Masha’Allah our experience was mind blowing where for the first time ever there was no pushing and shoving between the pilgrims. Everyone in the women’s section prayed socially distanced and with complete peace and sukoon. At many junctions the women authorities did check our phones for permits and also took a few screenshots. I can never thank Allah enough for this amazing gift that He bestowed upon us. Once we completed our Ibadah at the Prophet’s Mosque, we took our flights back home full of humility, gratitude and thankfulness to Allah in our hearts!
Key Steps and Important Notes
- Before travelling, make sure that every individual has their own smartphone which is unlocked and can use another service provider’s SIM. In this case, you’ll need to use a Saudi SIM in the smartphone.
- Muqeeem Arrival Registration
- This is done within 72 hours of departure and is the arrival registration of the vaccination details and the travel details. Keep a paper printout of the registration.
- COVID-19 Testing for Travel to Saudi Arabia
- This is done within 48 hours of departure. Keep a paper printout of the results.
- Local Saudi SIM
- Upon arrival in Saudi Arabia, immediately get a prepaid SIM from one of the local service providers (stc, Mobily or Zain).
- Activate the SIM and note down your local Saudi mobile number. This number is very important and you’ll be using it several times.
- Tawakkalna app (توكلنا)
- Download the Tawakkalna app and set it up. Pay close attention to the selections you need to make.
- If you are not a local or a GCC resident, select the visitor option. If you are doing it for the first time, select the new user option.
- Use the passport number where the visa was issued. This is really important if you got a new passport since the visa was issued.
- This app is used for vaccination status for gaining entry to many places such as the mosque, hotel, restaurants, train stations and the airports.
- This app can also be used for permits just like the Eatmarna app.
- Eatmarna app (اعتمرنا)
- Download the app and set it up.
- Use this app to get the permits
- Praying in the Grand Mosque – Daily prayers in Masjid Al Haram (Makkah)
- Praying in the Noble Rawdah – Prayer in Riyadhul Jannah in Madinah.
- Prophet visit – Saying Salam on the Prophet (SA)
- Use this app to also display the permit when asked by security
- Umrah Permits
- Umrah permits are issued in 3-hour time slots. Select the time that best suits your plan taking into account all the activities building up to the Umrah time.
- The permit can become active before or at your reserved time.
- When the permit is active, you can proceed for the Umrah using the Umrah access.
- COVID Testing for Return Trip
- Make sure you make arrangements for your COVID testing for your return trip.
- Taxi/Cab drivers and hotel staff can assist you with it.