If this were Lebanon, Raef Hajjali would have returned from Saudi Arabia to a mini-parade of family and friends, a nice long rest and new social standing in the community.
Relatives and neighbors would have slaughtered a sheep in celebration and decorated his home with palm fronds. "The whole town would have been waiting," he said.
Instead, he and his wife, Ellen Hajjali, returned home to Altadena a few weeks ago to minimal fanfare, and he was back at work the next day. He didn't last long.
A construction engineer helping remodel the neonatal wing of a hospital in Torrance, he was coughing so much that his co-workers sent him home. How to explain that he was still fending off the severe chest cold known as the hajj flu?
But how to explain what it's like when 2.3 million people gather, as Ellen put it, at the House of Allah?
"It's impossible to explain what you get out of it," Raef said.
Raef and Ellen Hajjali were among about 40 Southern California Muslims who traveled in December to perform the exacting rituals of the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the pinnacle of an observant Muslim's life.
The pilgrims' leader, Imam Moustafa Al-Qazwini, told them in November that they would be embarking on an "amazing journey." Now, back home, having had months to reflect, the pilgrims say the journey was more rewarding and punishing, more joyful and miserable than they could have imagined.
In the midst of the hajj, several pilgrims wondered why nobody had told them it would be so difficult. Several had attended weekly "hajj lessons" at the Islamic Educational Center in Costa Mesa, but they still weren't prepared for the raucous crowds, the hours of trudging through the desert on blistered feet, the mayhem that pushed them to their physical limits.
The chaos followed one of the truly peaceful moments on the pilgrimage, the noon-to-sunset vigil on Mt. Arafat that is the centerpiece of the hajj. During the vigil, each hajji, as pilgrims are called, speaks directly to God -- confessing sins, asking forgiveness and seeking a clean slate for the future.
Islamic practice places a premium on group worship. Praying at the mosque, shoulder to shoulder in tight lines, is preferable to praying at home. But on Arafat pilgrims interact with God as they wish.
Many hajjis climbed the rough slopes of the Mountain of Mercy -- where tradition holds that Muhammad gave his last major sermon -- spread their hands and gazed skyward, some in tears. Others, including Ellen, ran down lists of friends and family, quietly praying for each person's health and safety.