Sameea Jonnud, Aldershot, UK
As long as I can remember there have been three occasions every year that I have almost always attended; there are the two Eid days which our UK community used to celebrate together and there is Jalsa Salana, the Annual Convention. Eid now takes place regionally or locally but Jalsa has not only remained as one national event, it has grown over the years until now a mini town springs up in the Hampshire countryside to accommodate 35,000 plus attendees.
Before Hadeeqatul Mahdi became its home, Jalsa took place for many years at Islamabad in Tilford, near Farnham. I would travel there with my family by coach or car and if we were late and had to park near the gate we’d lament the ‘long’ walk to the marquee; now the memory makes us laugh as the current marquee area, the Jalsa arena, is bigger than the whole of Islamabad and transport is a park and ride system from a different site!
Jalsa has always been an event which, due to its three full days of speeches, congregational Prayers and a sense of separation from the world, has an intense effect of spiritual rejuvenation and reaffirmation of one’s faith. The congregational pledge taken at the hand of His Holiness the Khalifa is an annual experience that shakes one to the core.
One bonus of Jalsa is meeting up with family and friends you would not otherwise see regularly from different parts of the country and the world. There have been years when every single room in our house, except the bathroom, had guests sleeping in it, including a line of mattresses set up in the front room for all the male guests, a line I have had to tiptoe across just to reach the fridge when returning in the early hours from working at Jalsa! It is hectic but the year Jalsa was cancelled due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease felt so lonesome as if we were missing out on a part of our life.
Other than family we have had guests that we didn’t know; one year a mother and daughter from Kababir stayed with us. Many years later the youngest daughter married and came to live in the area leading to an emotional reunion despite the fact she herself hadn’t been on that Jalsa trip with the rest of her family. It is a wonderful feeling that Jalsa brings you together with people you would not otherwise meet.
Another bonus of Jalsa is the opportunity to become part of the vast team of volunteers that help to run such a large event. Whether it is jobs such as stage design, camera work, hospitality, car park attendant or cooking, it is volunteers who carry out the work. Imagine cooking lunch and dinner for 30,000 people – all those onions and potatoes to chop and fresh roti (flatbreads) to make in hot kitchens in the middle of summer! Like all the other volunteers they receive no monetary reward but do this work purely to gain the pleasure of God.
It is the same for the army of children who cheerfully patrol the marquees with fresh water to quench the thirst of guests; their eagerness and smiles make one take a cup of water with or without thirst which leaves the children happy.
I’ve never worked in the kitchens at Jalsa but I have worked in a variety of other jobs, for example cleaning, setting up guest accommodation areas, hospitality and food stalls. I drove golf buggies transporting guests for three years in weather ranging from hot sunshine resulting in strange tan lines on my feet, to wet mud and freezing nights with the cold wind rushing through the open buggy leaving me chilled to the bone.
One particular Monday I was driving guests to catch their coaches to London after the Jalsa; it was my fifth day of working long hours and exhaustion was threatening to make an appearance. One family from USA asked me who our Lajna (women’s association) president was and when I told them they said they wanted to write to her to say thank you for the Lajna members working tirelessly and cheerfully to look after them. My exhaustion receded and I was thankful to be among those that had cared for Jalsa guests and sent them home happy.
This year my Jalsa has already begun by sending invitations to non-Muslim friends and contacts to join us and experience Jalsa. As well as that I have been planning for the Jalsa days, both the work I’ll be doing, guests that will stay with me and shopping. Supplies including sunscreen, wellies in case of rain and crisps have become family necessities!
However this Jalsa turns out I know I will be storing up more memories of my Jalsa experience.