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Friday, 30 November 2007

Some Hajj advice from Me!

This section does not deal with how to do Hajj but what to expect during Hajj and how to make it easier. I was privileged to do Hajj last year with my mother, my aunt, my cousin; his wife and their 3 year old daughter. Hajj was the most beautiful experience ever, and if you havn't done so I'd recommend you do it straight away.

Here are some general advices on Hajj. (I have also added some advice from fellow Hajjis from hajj.org.au and jannah.org - do check out these sites)

In brief:
· Choose a good travel agent/ Hajj group - ensure that your accommodation is very close to the Al-Masjid al-Harām in Makkah and the Prophets mosque in Madinah.
· Prepare yourself well in advance (i.e. the rituals and duas) – go to your local Imam, read books, watch DVDs etc.
· If possible do not look at pictures of the Kaaba before you go (from now until you see it with your own two eyes) It ruins the impact it has on your heart.
· Pack lightly if possible – but do prepare for the weather. Make sure you take comfortable clothes & comfortable pair of sandals & flip-flops rather than new ones that you are not used to.
· Make sure you are clean before you travel - trim finger and toe-nails, shave off hair from armpits and pubic hair and do proper gushal. You may want to trim your hair before you go to make it easier on the barbers during Hajj.
· Make sure you always wear the wrist band and identity tag provided to you.
· If your group is not lead by a Sheik or Imam, make sure there will be one with the group the whole way through the journey; and not just a guest Sheik that will give the occasional speech or lesson. The Sheik\Imam needs to be there to answer questions that may arise and to keep up your iman through the trip.
· Also you'll be able to spot individuals in your tent who are knowledgeable about Islam. Get close to them and seek clarifications about matters that are not clear to you.
· Do make multiple Umrahs. Remember you can also make umrah on behalf of another person, a dead relative or someone back home who could not make it.
· Make sure that the barbers use fresh blades when you instruct them to shave off your hair after you have completed Umrahs and Hajj. There is always chance of getting blood related diseases - so it is very important to check!
· Eat healthily; when eating out make sure food is cooked properly, avoid food poisoning whilst doing Hajj.
· Make a list of the people you want to make Dua for during Hajj (include people who have asked you to make Dua) – this list will be useful so you don’t forget. Make plenty of Dua for the Ummah (Islamic community throughout the world).
· Drink plenty of Zam-Zam water, always try and take a bottle of Zam Zam water with you everywhere. It is very important for drinking or emergency Wadu, or even wetting the hair before getting it shaved off by the barber (in case barber does not have water/ shaving lotion).
· If you are going to use private transport please agree price in advance and do be careful. Sometimes private car owners would offer taxi rides and leave pilgrims deserted – this happened to me and my fellow pilgrims.
· There are plenty of dry cleaning facilities in Makkah and Madinah but don’t expect the standard of cleaning to be high during your stay.
· Remember if you are taking females & elderly pilgrims with you that you have a larger responsibility to protect them. Don’t be selfish. Think about the best times and place to do acts of Ibadah during your Hajj trip.
· Remember to be considerate to others, be patient and be happy.
· Inshallah you will have a lovely experience.

In more detail:

Preparation on Picking Hajj travel agents
(1) Pick an agent that other Hajj pilgrims used in the past and have recommended, make sure that the agent is regulated. If in doubt pick an agent from the list of approved agents by the Saudi Embassy in your country. In the UK make sure that the agents are IATA and ATOL approved. In terms of direct flights from the UK to Riyadh – Last year (2006) it was Saudi Airlines and British Midlands offering this service.

(2) Try and get as much detail of the flight plan, accommodation - basically the Itinerary of the Hajj. Make sure that the hotel is close to the Masjid Al Haram and the prophets Mosque. Let them give you a map if possible) of the location of accommodation to the mosque. It must be noted that there are no online maps to distinguish between streets in Makkah. Ask them about the type of accommodation – ask to see pictures, ask if you will be staying alone or sharing with other pilgrims. Ask if they provide meals at the hotels as well as throughout the Hajj (at Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah). Ask them how many representatives they will be taking with them and the physical and spiritual assistance they will be providing throughout the Hajj.

(3) After you have chosen the travel agent, and paid them the monies and had been approved to go to Hajj by the Saudi authorities – get the details of their tour representatives that will be taking you there – e.g. mobile numbers, hotel telephone numbers etc. for here and Saudi Arabia.

Preparation before the journey
(1) For those who made intentions to do Hajj and praise to Allah (SWT) were granted visas to do Hajj, think yourself lucky as millions of people who also made the same intensions are not able to go. Thank Allah (SWT) that he has chosen you.

(2) Please prepare well in advance (i.e. months and months ahead of Hajj), correct your salat, memorise all the dua's for Hajj, go through all the rituals of Hajj.

The best preparation is to ask your local imam or someone who has done Hajj to help you - I am not talking about a one day session but something that could run for a couple of weeks/ months. Alternatively there are many books, videos/ DVD's and websites that you can utilise to assist you.

As stated earlier, prepare in advance because the last thing you would want is to rely on other people to assist as the Hajj emphasis is on you. But if you do need assistance ask any knowledgeable pilgrims or the guide that is assisting you with Hajj. Never be too shy or too proud to ask questions. The more we ask the more we learn and the better for us.

(3) Write down on a piece of paper contact details of the representatives taking you, your hotel details etc. These details might be important if you get lost/ or are involved in an accident in Saudi Arabia. Make copies of the details and make a photocopy of your passport. Keep one set behind with a relative in your country and take one set with you to Hajj.

(3) Materials that you should take with you. This section only deals with Men only. I will try and add at a later date (or maybe a sister can contribute) what ladies should take).

- Cotton Ihram (also spelt Ahram or Ehram) x 2 i.e. two sets (4 sheets in total). I would personally recommend the towel version. The towel version will keep you warm during the cold nights and cool under the hot weather during the day time. My main reason for towel is that it will keep you modesty in tact and absorb sweat from under the heat of the sun. I recommend two sets because when one set gets too dirty you can change it for the other one.

- 1 X Hajj waist belt (these look more like miniature versions of belts you see boxers displacing at a title fight rather than a simple bum bag). This is the belt where you should keep all your cash and other important paperwork. Try and get a white coloured one to it matches your ihram.

- Also consider getting a slightly larger bum bag (one that would fit over your neck/ around your shoulder. You can use this to keep small change of monies for everyday use - i.e. buying food/ or when giving charity monies to the poor. If possible choose a bag that might fit a pocket Qur’an.

- A pocket Qur'an. You will have plenty of spare time during Hajj that you can utilise by reading the holy book. Buy one from the country you reside in so that you are familiar with the style of print/ calligraphy. Buy one that you can read clearly i.e. print is not too small.

- A few carrier bags (any plastic shopping bag)/ canvass bag to put your sandals (flip flops). This is important so that you can distinguish your pair of sandals from other pilgrims. Many people have told me that some pilgrims take other pilgrims sandals by mistake or by intent but I believe it is caused by poor memory of placement of sandals.

- Toiletries: unscented soap, a roll of toilet paper/ kitchen towel, a miswak (instead of tooth brush & paste), small face towel, normal bath towel (make sure you don't take anything scented as it is forbidden). It is forbidden to use perfume/ Attr when in state of Ihram. You can buy perfume and wear them when not in state of Ihram or after you have completed Hajj.

- A first aid kit. This is important as a precaution for any accidents that may happen. Try and get a good kit that will include bandages, slings, a pair of scissors and safety pins)

- Ensure you take the meningitis injection as soon possible.

- Take your normal medication with you - consider also taking diarrhea tablets, allergy tablets, small tub of Vaseline, a packet of paracetamol, a small tub of Vicks.

- A roll of duct tape & small sellotape (always useful for emergency), a permanent marker pen (useful when writing name on ZamZam Water container - if you decide to bring some back). For me personally - all these had a lot of benefits.

- A nice sleeping bag. Get one that is comfortable (not too expensive). Make sure that the bag is able to unzip completely (possibly into two pieces) - You will need that in Mina & Muzdalifah. Remember that when sleeping it is important that you do not cover your head or feet - they must not be covered when in state of Ihram.

- A blow up (air) cushion. This is a must if you want to sleep comfortably. Don't substitute it for one of those neck/ flight cushion!

- In terms of clothes: two/ three pairs of underwear (note: you cannot wear underwear when under state of Ihram), 2 pairs of Shelwar Kamiz (Phajama & Phanjabee) or 2 sets of Dishdashas (also known as Jalabiyahs), a Chadoor (type of showl - make sure that it is not stitched).

- A prayer mat.

- In terms of the type of luggage to take I’d recommend getting a medium sized luggage that has wheels and a pulley handle. But it is really for you to decide.

Also buy a cheap small shoulder bag/ rucksack (size of a small flight bag). This is where you will keep your temporary clothes etc. Also consider getting a fold-away bag – useful for storing dirty laundry/ or used as an additional luggage piece.

In all - don't take too much luggage with you as you wont need them (or be able to fit into your luggage) and if required you can always buy clothes (and all the stuff mentioned above) whilst in Makkah/ or even at Jeddah airport (apart from first aid kit possibly).

- In terms of food/ snacks - take some sachets of soup and a few nutrition bars for emergency. There will be plenty of shops and diners in Makkah and Madinah to buy food but there will be times where you won't feel like going out for meals. Makkah is more commercial than you would expect, Madinah even more (there is even a KFC in Madinah! - but expect to pay UK/ US prices)

- and Lastly be happy that you are going to Hajj and thank Allah (SWT) for giving you the privilege.

Journey to Mecca - on the plane and at Jeddah airport
(1) I would recommend that you make your recommended Dua’s and wear your ihram before you leave your house to board the plane. Some people change into their ihram on board the plane (i.e. when the pilot tells everyone that they are near the airspace of the holy land).

(2) When you land at Jeddah airport, your patience will be tested. The whole airport is really a large tent! It could take 4-5 hours before you leave the airport because the Sauidi airport staff are very slow at clearing pilgrims. It is one of those "jobs for the boys", they tend to take their time peeling a sticker from a piece of paper and putting them into a page in your passport then he will pass it on to another staff who will do the same and so on. There is no computerised system. Everything is done on paper and at their leisure. Don't expect them to understand and speak English as they don't or won't. The process is important but slow - think of the millions of people they have to process, so be considerate of their duties!

One important paperwork is the numbered sticker number issued to people. If you are going as a group make sure that you have the same sticker number so that you are not separated. I think the sticker number 46 was issued to European/ American pilgrims – It might change year to year. Different numbers corresponds to different sections of residence in Mina, Arafat & Muzalifa. Buses are numbered accordingly. Whatever the case stay within your group and get the same number as your group members. Your tour guide might do this work for you.

(3) At the airport there will be bureau de change - place to change Pound Sterling/ Dollars to Saudi Rhiyals. Just exchange enough to get you by a day or two. There will be plenty of places to exchange money at Makkah/ Madinah. There will be shops (to purchase garments, air pillows, sleeping bags etc - but avoid these as they will be priced very high and you can buy the same stuff with more choices at Makkah. Also available are small eating places, small prayer areas and wadu/ toilet facilities. There will also be a mobile phone sim card operator - avoid these and get a sim card whilst in Mecca. Ask the hotel staff to recommend a good company - Usually they will have someone that sells them inside the hotel, he will also offer top-ups.

(4) The toilets at the airport as well as those in Mecca are the ones with a hole on the ground - with water hoses to clean ones-self. In a row of 15-20 toilets there will be at least two that are British toilets. Most of the Saudi toilets also operate as bathing areas for showers. I've been informed that this system is popular and is the Saudi way. I recommended taking a roll of toilet paper only to keep the toilet seat clean (if you use British type toilets) - otherwise they don't have much purpose other than to use as normal tissue paper. If you have never used these toilets before then I suggest you start practising the posture! Most large mosques in your home town should have these toilets if you really need to practice.

(5) When your Bus is ready then you will ready to go to Makkah. Again stick with your group. The numbers on the sticker corresponds to the number of the bus and the drop off points. The journey time is about 6 hours by Bus. Whilst on the Bus make sure that that you get up and stretch your legs. If you have long legs then sit on the aisles. The bus will make occasional stops for refuelling or will stop near mosques if it's close to prayer times. It will also stop to pick up breakfast (croissant, small carton of milk a carton of orange, some dates and small bottle of ZamZam water). Keep the bottle of Zam Zam water (don't throw it away) It will be very useful to use through your Hajj journey - you can refill it with Zam Zam water anytime whilst in the Mosque. Keep it in your hotel or take it with you.

(6) The bus will stop at a location in Makkah and hopefully your guide in Makkah will take you direct to the hotel.

Whilst in Mecca
(1) From the moment you enter your hotel - Have a quick rest and unpack. When you are ready you should go straight to the Kabba to start your Umrah. When you come back (trust me you will not want to come back too quickly) to your hotel, ask the staff to give you a timetable of salat. This will be useful to ensure that you make your way in time for Salat and this will get you organised. Write the times on a note pad and stick it on the door of your room. Try and buy a cheap alarm clock from any of the shops/ markets to help you get up in time particular for Fajr. You will notice that there will be a lot of people praying Salat at-Tahajjud (and so should you) so go extra early. Most entrances will be closed into the holy mosque by security staff during busy periods for safety reasons, so you might find yourself praying outside.

(2) You will notice that at Fajr time the city is cold. When you are NOT in a state of Ihram - take a pair of socks/ jumper or a thin summer jacket. You will notice that after Fajr the sun rises and it will get hot pretty quickly.

(3) At the mosque try and familiarise yourself – look for different entrances and exits, locations for Wadu, toilets, Zam Zam water drinking fountains, locations for easy access for wheelchair users etc. This is important and will save you time during your Hajj. Locate a place within or outside the mosque to go if you get lost so other group members can find you.

(4) When doing Tawaf (circulating around the Kabba) try and avoid getting mixed up with other larger groups. You will no doubt see large groups - pilgrims holding onto each others shoulder like a large chain, especially amongst pilgrims from Indonesia. I would suggest against forming such long chains as it makes it awkward and requires extra patience from other pilgrims for the chain to pass them. Also be patient if the back of your heels gets poked by toe-nails from other pilgrims. Make sure you cut your nails before you go to Hajj so that you do not cause distress to other pilgrims should you make any accidental contact. The nearer you circulate to the Kabba and get close to the Maqam Ibrahim the more likely you will get squashed – so try and avoid yourself from being crushed and hurting others in the process. Also when doing Tawaf try and pick any coloured gate for a meeting place if anyone within the group gets lost. Always be patient and courteous to other pilgrims.

(5) When going to pray inside the mosque, you will no doubt find places that most of the suitable prayer places have been taken up by other pilgrims and you will natirally try and pray wherever you can. You will no doubt be confronted by a security official telling you to move one (in the softest of voices) please do as they say and do not confront them or get into any argument. They are doing their jobs for the benefit for all the pilgrims; their job is to try to ensure no one is blocking any passages. Please avoid staking a place in the mosque for your own benefit and denying others a change to pray.

The same security officials may check you when entering the mosque – so only take the bare minimum with you as everything required is already provided.

(6) Watch out for pick-pockets. I have heard stories from people that their monies had been stolen; bags had been snatched by thieves without them knowing. The only advice I can give here is make sure your money belt is concealed. Prevention of being a victim of theft is the best method. Why not follow my example - have one bag on display containing small change that can be used for normal everyday use, whilst have another belt with all the Hajj budget deeply concealed.

(7) You will no doubt also come across beggars in the streets (and possibly inside the mosque). I cannot give much advice here other than do what your heart says. If you deeply feel they are genuine then help as much as possible. You may offer to buy them food or alternatives - this is a decision that you should choose yourself. One note of caution is to avoid taking too much money out at the same time. As there is a chance that money could be grabbed out of your hands - this happened to me but luckily it was loose change.

(8) Whilst in Mecca please try and refrain from doing any shopping/ buying gifts for relatives. You should really do this after you have completed Hajj. You may buy stuff that you need e.g. any essentials items to complete Hajj or something to eat during your Hajj like dates. For buying dates, the most popular are called Ajwa (they were favoured by the Prophet Muhammad - P.B.U.H), they are smaller than normal dates and they taste great as well - but are very expensive compared to other dates. I think they were 60 Riyals per KG. Other dates go between 10 to 20 Riyals per KG some dates even go as low as 5 Riyal. You can sample before you buy – but ask the vendor first!

If you decide to do shopping after Hajj then do consider the weight of your luggage and the amount your plane ticket allows otherwise you will be paying excess weight charges. Also try and look at price differences between shops before buying items.

Items most people buy/ take back with them:
Ajwa Dates (Buy them in Makkah or buy them direct from the Madinah factory if you go to Madinah)
Zamzam water
Tasbeeh Beads
Hijabs & Jilbabs
Prayer Rugs
Gold Jewellery
Metal work (tea sets etc)
Perfumes/ Attr
Qur’an and Islamic Books

(7) At you hotel - the hotel staff should provide Zam-Zam water for you to consume. If not use any empty water bottle or buy some containers and fill up at the mosque. If you want to take some Zam Zam water back to your country after Hajj make sure you get the container sealed and labelled. I think you are allowed 20 Litres each – but check with your travel agent/ Hajj representatives.

(8) Your tour guide/ hotel might also offer a tour of Makkah as well as all the other sites Mina, Muzalifa, Arafat etc. You may chose to visit these places before it gets packed during the actual Hajj or you may chose to simply continue praying in Makkah - Why not do multiple Umrah's?

Mina (a brief guide)
(1) Mina could be considered the tent city. There are thousands and thousands of large tents everywhere. You will be taken there from your hotel by a government coach. The tent is carpeted with sand underneath it. The tents have electric lights as well as a socket to plug in any electrical items.

Each tent is numbered. Remember your location, as you could easily get lost. Maps are placed within certain points in Mina. Study the maps carefully.

(2) Mina does get cold at night, so there is a chance that you catch cold due to change in weather. When sleeping try not to sleep nearer the exit as the draft is very cold and you will really notice it when pilgrims come and go into the tent.

(3) There are toilets/ shower facilities and Wadu facilities close to the tents. Depending on where you stay you may find that the facilities are mostly dirty. The toilets again are the low level toilets with a couple of British style toilets on the side. Again the shower is above the toilet. Toilet paper to clean the seats becomes useful If you decide to use the British style toilets. There will be queues for these toilets during busy times so make notes on when to avoid these queues. If you are going to do Wadu or have a Shower be prepared for cold water! Please also consider leaving it as clean as possible for other pilgrims to use.

(4) Each tent has a large Zam-Zam water container that gets filled regularly. I recommend you avoid drinking from it as I saw a maintenance staff refill the tanks from taps located close to the Wadu area – I believe that the same water is used for the shower/ toilet. I believe this water is not Zam-Zam water - I could be wrong and may Allah (SWT) forgive me. If in doubt there are always water fountains nearby to drink water. Also consider taking Zam Zam water in containers filled in Makkah to drink during your stay at Mina.

(5) There are also lots of food outlets as well as stalls selling clothes close to the road exiting Mina.

(6) Also nearby is the bank to pay for the Qurbani. Your Hajj guide should provide you with the details during the Hajj and may do the work for you.

(7) For those that would like to buy the animal physically and have it sacrificed in front of you eyes, there are farms and slaughter houses close to Mina. There are cows, camels, goats & sheep to choose from. You may use the slaughter house or if you have contacts in Makkah buy the animal and arrange for local person to slaughter it. This method does consume a lot of time and if you do decide this method, make sure you purchase a mask to cover your nose and mouth to prevent inhaling dust whilst choosing the animals. Always choose a healthy animal without any defects for the sacrifice. Again you will need to be good at haggling as the farmers/ operators know it's the season that they make the most money.

Arafat (a brief guide)
(1) Mountain of mercy – this is the place to spend your time making Dua – always make Dua facing Mecca.

(2) In terms of facilities there is not much there apart from large tents (again these are carpeted) constructed by the Saudi Government. Your tour guide will allocate a tent for you and should provide food for you. There are no real facilities to buy food. There might be one or two stalls but I did not notice any.

(3) There are toilet and Wadu facilities. There will be queues but they should be small.

(4) The bus drop off points and pick up points might be far from your tent so be prepared to walk. The buses are not regular and so you will need to be patient.

Muzalifa (a brief guide)
(1) This is the place where you will be sleeping under the sky. As almost everyone is sleeping under one area be careful that men and women are not sleeping close to one other. This almost happened to us where our families were sleeping in one area and noticed that another group of pilgrims (male) were being very careless and were sleeping close to the female members of our family – so we were quick to react and changed to more suitable positions. So be careful and be considerate to others when deciding where to sleep.

(2) There are no food stalls in Muzalifa, there might be one or two persons selling tea, hot water etc. but that will be it. You may want to take some snacks and Zam Zam water with you (but I did notice that the Saudi officials did provide Zam Zam water bottles).

(3) With regards to Toilet and Wadu facilities – you may wish to eat less and and avoid going to the toilet. If required go early as possible because during the night there will be queues lasting 45 minutes each. There will be at least 10 people in line for each cubicle!

(4) Muzalifa is also the place to collect the stones to throw at the shaytan. You will not need to look far as the whole area made of sand & little stones. The Saudi government has deliberately placed these stones in the area to make it easy for the pilgrims. So these stones will literally be under your feet. When you do collect the stones (ensure that they are not bigger than a chick pea) and make sure they are cleaned. You can simply put them in a bottle, fill it up with water and give it a few good shakes. This will clean the stones and at the same time dissolve any dirt that may look like stones.

(5) There will be sufficient lighting provided by the Saudi government and so there won’t be any real need to take a torch.

(6) When sleeping make sure you place a mat or one part of the sleeping bag on the floor, otherwise you will get dirty. Ensure you don’t cover your head and feet whilst sleeping.

(7) The bus services out of Muzalifa is poorly organised. Your tour leader might have to go out and find one. So please be patient.

Stoning the pillars of Satan (a brief guide)
(1) The original pillars had been surrounded by huge walls, making it easier and safer for large crowds to throw stones.

(2) The Saudi government had constructed three layers of roads (what could be described as flyovers). Most likely you will be on the top tier.

(3) It is a long walk from Mina and equally long walk to Makkah. Make sure your flip-flops/ Sandals are comfortable.

(4) It is best to go as close as possible to the wall to throw the stones - be patient as your turn will come inshallah. When you have finished get out of the area and let other pilgrims have their chance. I’ve seen pilgrims grow stones from a distance in trying to avoid the crowds. In most cases they would accidentally hit people in front of them. The stones are so small so they will be no real impact if you get hit but please be cautious (do protect your eyes when heading away from the wall).

(5) The throwing of the stones are symbolic, throw them one by one. - Never throw them all together or substitute them for larger rocks or other items thinking that this will hurt the shaytan the most.

(6) Again make sure to make dua towards Qibla.

(7) For those elderly, there might be a few wheelchair runners on the streets. They will probably charge up to 50 Rhiyals during the main Hajj. You might need to haggle to get it to that rate. If you do want to purchase a wheelchair in Makkah then the price is approximately 300 Rhiyals. Most hotels will have wheelchairs to give out (I think mostly left by Pilgrims that used that hotel in the past)

Madinah (a brief guide)
(1) If you go to Madinah before or after your Hajj, then you will notice that the Prophets Mosque is such as beautiful mosque. The people of Madinah are so friendly and more happier than those in Makkah or any other place. The whole place is kept pristine.

(2) Madinah is the place to do any shopping (after you had done your Hajj). The area is very commercial (as stated earlier there is even a KFC close to the mosque)

(3) The weather is very different to that of Makkah. You will notice the difference during your bus journey. If you are doing a night journey from Makkah – make sure you wear or have something warm to wear during the journey (even if it is very hot inside the bus).

(4) Whilst at the Prophets Mosque you will notice that the men and women have separate facilities. So again if you take family members make sure you have a meeting point to meet if you get lost or meet after prayers.

(5) There will be queues to visit the grave of the Prophet (PBUH) and his companions – so please be patient. There will be even more queues to pray salat at the area known as the “garden from paradise”. Please pray there and leave once you have finished. Please don’t camp yourself there preventing other to pray. Be patient for your turn and be considerate to others.

(6) Also in Madinah is the Baqee’ (graveyard of Madinah, where most of the companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are buried.

(7) Check with your tour guide/ Hotel if they will do tour of Madinah, i.e. visit Quba (The first mosque in Islam) and other mosques. Sometimes the tour will take you to the Madinah dates factory.

After Hajj
Hajj does not end when you leave Meccah. The scholars have said that one of the signs that Allah (SWT) has accepted your Hajj is that you will come back a better person than when you left.

If you have found any of this information useful please make Dua for myself and my family, and all those who contributed to this article, as well as those who contribute to this blogsite and the Ummah in general. I pray that your Hajj gets accepted by Allah (SWT) and you come back a better person - Ameen.