The students stared at the overhead screen and read the words in unison:
Labbaik. Allah humma labbaik.
The Southern California Muslims repeated those words -- "Here I am, Lord. I am here to serve you" -- as they donned pilgrims' robes last week in the Saudi Arabian city of Medina, a key step on their pilgrimage to Mecca.
On the night they watched the overhead projector, the pilgrims-to-be had assembled in a more prosaic spot, a mosque tucked in a nondescript Costa Mesa office park in the shadow of John Wayne Airport. They were gathered with their teacher, Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, to learn the intricate and ancient rituals surrounding the hajj, the pilgrimage that is considered the spiritual pinnacle of a devout Muslim's life.
"You are telling the Lord: I have traveled all this distance, left my home and my business," Qazwini said. "Here I am, Lord. I'm available for you. I am your servant."
Equal parts spiritual odyssey and physical endurance test, the hajj often demands years of planning, hoping and saving -- all culminating in an intense, sometimes dangerously chaotic five-day whirlwind.
This year, the hajj begins today. To help prepare about 25 of his students, Qazwini, 46, head of the Islamic Educational Center of Orange County, had organized a series of "hajj lessons" starting in late November. In them, he guided his charges through discussions that ranged from the spiritual (ask forgiveness of people you have offended) to the practical (the best places in Anaheim to buy hajj robes).
His tone ranged from high school teacher to stand-up comic. Pilgrims are prohibited from wearing cologne, perfume or beauty products, he taught, explaining: "You have to be as natural as God created you."