Provisions for the Journey

زاد السبیل یا رحلۃ الرحیل Translated by: Daniel Majchrowicz. Original language: Urdu
Kamran Island

Rahil Begum Shervaniya

Aligarh, India

At Sea

It was necessary for me to take daily walks around the entire ship, for which reason I was privy to ever-new forms of spectacle. Seeing the way that my Indian brothers and sisters travel, I began to think that either these people were going to suffer greatly from the vast quantity of items they brought with them, or I was going to suffer greatly and regret deeply not having brought anything with me at all. Then I thought to myself that, regrets or no, I can’t possibly protect that many worldly goods until Judgement Day. In fact, I only have as much as I do because my husband’s older brother, Navab Jivan Yar Jang’s second daughter, Suleiman Sultan Begum – may god keep her happy and prosperous – came to visit me four days before my departure and organized my luggage according to the best of her understanding. Although she kept asking me about the status of my preparations, at that time my mind and good sense were too caught up in the cares of the world, a number of domestic issues, and the general disapproval of my friends toward my intended journey. I was so affected by melancholy that every time the poor child asked me a question I would only say to her, ‘Sister, if you think it’s necessary, then go ahead and put it in my bag, but please don’t pack too much.’ Without any exaggeration, the week of my departure I was so weak it was as though I had been severely ill for the preceding six months. First there was my sorrowful heart, my wounded heart. And then everyone’s opposition to this trip, compounded further by the impending separation from my fatherless children. May god on high bless Suleiman Begum on earth and in the hereafter, and may the family into which she marries fully appreciate her. May god give her enjoyment in both worlds. My heart is constantly saying prayers for that child. With what loving devotion did she help me with my preparations, for otherwise, it is no exaggeration to say that I was about to leave home with nothing but the clothes on my back. Yes, the luggage I have with me now is far more than I require, far more than necessary, but what’s done is done.

Now I am only worried about who will carry all these things, and that’s why I’ve had them left in the hold. I am astonished by those who have brought so many possessions and not left a single item below deck. I asked them why they hadn’t. ‘Oh no, ma’am,’ they responded, ‘we don’t trust anyone. We will watch over our things ourselves.’ I remained silent.

One of my benefactors said to me, ‘Sister, your room is bigger than everyone else’s.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘your rooms are filled with your belongings, and that’s why they feel cramped. All of my things are tucked away under the benches, which is why it feels spacious. ‘

‘But, sister, the ship’s crew gives you concessions at every turn, and they gave you a bigger room, too.’

‘Oh sure!,’ I said, ‘Namazi sahib is a relative of mine.’

‘Well, there must be some reason. If it’s not through Namazi sahib, you must have some connection with the government.’

‘To hell with people who travel to Mecca via government connections and to anyone who makes such accusations.’

Another woman spoke up: ‘No, it’s because her brother meets with the English, that’s why they’re getting special treatment.’

God knows why, but hearing all of this, I suddenly became incensed. ‘Sister! People are kind to me and ready to help me because I am close god and his Prophet. You seem to have completely forgotten god, that you allow yourself to speak like this. You have plenty of luggage, lots of men, and all sorts of people to help you. All I have is an inexperienced boy and god’s good name. When I set off from home entirely dependent on Him, then why shouldn’t He come to my aid? I would appreciate it if you people would be so kind as to stop giving your opinions about all of my personal matters. Have some fear of god. God only knows what situation I’m in right now! I’m at my wits end with all of this inane bickering.’

Who knows what got into me, but that day I told them all off, and ever since then things have gotten a little better.

As we eat from the ship’s kitchen, Mirza sahib, the storekeeper, suggested that we have our servants eat from the ship’s meals for the poor. I replied that that was not appropriate, and that he should make proper arrangements for them. Thus, we agreed to pay a rupee per person per day. The cooks provide food for our servants from the meals that they prepare for themselves. I also arranged for meals to be served to Maulvi Abdul Jalil sahib Nu’mani, who is my teacher and an old friend of my father’s. He eats very little – sometimes a sauce or two and some dry bread. Very little indeed. He would be served enough food that it would suffice for my servant, Bi Saidah, too. And sometimes I would ask my benefactor, Muhammad Amin’s mother, for two chapattis to be sent over. In short, we were all very comfortable and well-provided for, free from the struggles of cooking and the trouble of lugging foodstuffs about. Our Maulvi sahib would eat in the morning at nine, and again at seven. The ship’s cooks would bring him his food right when he required it…

Nor did the poor passengers have any reason to worry. Nevertheless, they constantly fought among themselves, stole from one another, and were all around ill-natured. They wouldn’t allow one another to pass in the walkways, and around sunset there would be such a tumult and such cursing on the deck that you could only seek refuge in god. Not once did it occur to them that they might gather together and enjoy one another’s company. Instead, they were all out for blood. There was so much water available for free on the ship that you could use it to bathe, wash clothes – whatever you wanted. There were no limits on its usage. And yet, people were ready to kill one another at the pumps to be the first to draw water. As Maulana Hali once said:

Fights on the riverbank, as people come and go

Some fighting to drink, others to give water [to their flocks][1]


Arrival in Arabia

…This was the general state of things for four days. Now it seems the passengers as a whole have become bored with the journey and are content to sit and watch the land pass by. During all this time, we have not seen another ship pass. I’ve been quite eager to see one, and I’d mentioned to Muhammad Shīs Khan on several occasions that he should ask the captain to inform me when one was to pass. Today, after five days, Muhammad Shīs Khan informed me that a ship would pass us at some point today. I was disappointed to learn in the next morning that it passed us the previous night. I learned that another ship would pass today. All the passengers watched it excitedly.

Today the mountains of Aden came into view. Our ship began to sail alongside them. We didn’t stop at Aden like other ships normally do, though. The lights of the city were visible throughout the night and for as long as I could see them I did not go to bed, and instead stayed up to watch this interesting spectacle. I could see the lighthouse until fairly late in the night. But as for Aden, I was unable to see anything more than its lights. This disappointed me.

21st Sha’ban – I offer all to God, through whose kindness this disappointment has been laid to rest. Today, I was able to set my eyes on an Arab city. Using my binoculars, I discerned a factory, though I could not read its name, which was written in English. Nevertheless, it is a small-ish, beautiful city. For as long as it remained in sight, all the passengers, including the European ones, continues to view it with delight. I put on a burqa and gazed at it through my binoculars. My father, Khasar sahib, had brought them for me a few years ago, and now they were paying off. They were unusable after sitting unused for so long, but I got the chief engineer of the ship to fix them for me.

The chief engineer is going to become a Muslim soon, inshallah.  He often speaks to Muhammad Shīs Khan about religious matters, but the two also joke around with one another. He often studies Khwaja Kamaluddin sahib’s English translation of the Holy Quran.[1] When he reads the Quran, he does so in his room with the door closed, in studious contemplation. He has written to his three or four children, instructing them to abandon church and religious study until he has returned to England. Insha allah, he will become a Muslim soon. He tells Muhammad Shīs Khan that he fervently wiShīs to perform the hajj. Muhammad Shīs Khan invited him to come along with us, but he replied with sorrow, ‘who would allow me to enter there? Only people like Lord Headley,[2] rich people, can go there. I’m just a poor man.’

When Shīs Khan conveyed to me the extent of his desire, I had him deliver a letter to the chief engineer in which I thanked him for his interest in Islam. Our religion, I wrote, is such that anyone with sense and wisdom, on examining it closely, would be unable to turn away. Your desire to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’ba can be fulfilled very soon, and very easily. Islam loves and values the poor. This is seen in the very word ‘Islam’ itself, which means ‘security’ and ‘peace.’ In our eyes, there is no difference between you and Lord Headley. The only difference is that he has already recited the kalma [the attestation of faith], whereas you will recite it soon, insha allah. If you announce your intention to convert while on the ship and enter into Islam with a true heart, then I will take you along with me to Mecca Mukarrama and assist you in every way possible. On receiving the letter, he thanked me profusely and praised my ideas and courage. Since that day he has addressed me as his elder sister. He has learned to say al-salam alaik from Muhammad Shīs Khan, and now has all the passengers annoyed with him. Our illiterate Muslims jump with surprise and fear when they hear him say salam. He is a good-natured Englishman. Perhaps I have a good impression of his principles because he will be a Muslim soon, insha allah. I gave him the name Salahuddin.  …

[On our arrival at the quarantine island of Kamran near our destination of Jeddah] small boats came up to the ship, and there was such a hue and cry among the passengers that the boat was nearly flipped upside down. Since the luggage was to remain aboard all of the passengers were desperate to tie their money to their waists so that it wasn’t stolen. Passengers continued to leave the boat from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon. Many of the first class passengers left as well, ignoring the instructions of the crew. There were only six or seven rooms’ worth of people left…

As soon as I came out [of the quarantine] I ran into Maulvi sahib and continued on with him. There was a building some distance away that was designated for the first class passengers, but most of them thought it was pointless to go so far for comfort and instead spread out wherever they found space. When I got to the building I found that our beds had been prepared, but that there were no arrangements for purdah. Accordingly, I strung up ropes and set up a section for purdah, claiming only a fourth of the room for myself. Now this part of the room was a purdah space for women, and the rest of the room was open to the others. Having seen us come to the first class area, other first class passengers showed up as well. When I had finished with this work and went to find the women who were living in the cabin opposite ours, I saw that there were small huts with curtains in front of them that were filled with countless women. I said to them, ‘Come with me, I’ve set up a nice little space for us.’ Muhammad Amin’s mother and Hafiz Hamidullah’s wife came with me. The others said that they were settled in and would stay where they were.

As it turns out, by the time we got back my fever had grown even worse than before. I threw myself into bed. My temperature must have been around 102°. I skipped lunch. Around four in the afternoon, the doctor and lady doctor came to do an examination. At that time around ten percent of the passengers had come down with fevers, first, because the weather on Kamran was bad to begin with, and second, because they were forced to bathe in cold water, then put into a warm room where they were drenched in sweat, and finally pushed outside, soaking wet, into the wind. Such a disaster can only be compared to Judgment Day. What else was supposed to happen, if not a fever?

I don’t understand what was achieved from this forced bath at Kamran. My experience was the opposite of the intent, by which I mean that the only result was that the healthy became ill. There were two passengers who were already sick when they boarded the ship. One of them was determined by the doctors to have small pox, and the other diarrhea. They were both detained at Kamran. Now I was worried that they might decide to detain me as well. Muhammad Shīs Khan asked me again and again if he should bring medicine. I told him not to even mention the fever in front of me. ‘For god’s sake, just be quiet.’

My fever got worse after sunset. I had to walk around all day, and now I wasn’t capable of getting up. I didn’t have dinner, and by night my temperature was 104°, or even higher. I passed a restless night, sometimes getting out of bed and lying on the floor. The wind sent tremors through my body. My eyes were swollen, my back aching, and my body was covered in spots that made me itch the whole night. I spent the night praying to god. In the morning, I told Muhammad Shīs Khan to get us back on the boat before anyone else. But then I learned that the gates to this prison still hadn’t been opened. We were locked up in a vast yard surrounded by iron fences. There were two larges gates at either end, both locked, and no one could come in or go out. The walls were higher than a person is tall.

Eventually one of the locks was removed and people were beginning to be allowed out. Although everyone told me not to, I went out and sat by the area where the boats were waiting to load passengers and take them back to the ship. At that time three boats had already carried pilgrims back to the ship. When they returned, we rode them back to the ship, too. Doctors were performing inspections at the top of the ladders. I told Muhammad Shīs Khan to tell the doctor that they’d set up a really splendid quarantine, one that makes the healthy sick.

The doctors made some medicine for me and came to check on me frequently that evening. Once all the pilgrims were back on the ship the Captain went to Kamran to pay a ten rupee per person fee which came to a total of twelve thousand rupees. Now we were ready to leave.

Tuesday, 25 Sha’ban – At four in the afternoon the ship left Kamran and notices were posted that we would be reach Yamlam in thirty-two hours, and that everyone should have finished their ablutions by morning. There would be one whistle before Yamlam and another when we had drawn even with it. A third would be sounded when we had passed it. These whistles would indicate when the pilgrims should put on their ihrams.[4] But people responded to this by saying that we are not going to put on our ihrams when told to by a kafir whistle, whether Yamlam comes or not. We are going to put them on right now. Thus, they did their ablutions and put their ihrams on as soon as we left Kamran. There was such chaos on the ship at this time that only god could save us. Every person wanted to be the first to put on their ihram. I still had a fever, so I stayed in my room and slept.


[1] Khwaja Kamaluddin is also briefly discussed in Begum Habibullah An’am’s piece in the Veiled Voyagers anthology.

[2] Rowland Allanson-Winn (1855-1935) was an Irish peer. He converted to Islam in 1913 and was closely associated with the Woking mosque and its leader, Khwaja Kamaluddin. He first performed the Hajj in 1923.

[3] For an alternative view of this experience, see Nur Begum (p. 14), who speaks of the experience more positively: “Praise be to God! What a wonderful, merciful and luxurious thing! Mothers and sisters all came together here, and laughing and playing, they dutifully washed themselves.”

[4] A garment made of two pieces of white, unstitched cloth worn during the Hajj. They are to be put on at pre-determined locations on the route to Mecca, of which Yamlam is one.