Elisabeth Parker, Tampa Bay Times
"Congratulations," Mahmoud Gomaa said to a class of first-graders standing under a model airplane. "You've just arrived in the holy city of Mecca."
Gomaa, vice principal of the American Youth Academy, came to the school seven years ago and brought the annual hajj simulation to teach children about the rite, the fifth pillar of Islam.
The annual five-day pilgrimage to Islam's holiest city starts Sunday. But in Tampa, more than 400 students at the private Islamic school started early, re-enacting significant events in the lives of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael as chronicled in the Koran.
Older students had built replicas of buildings and a mountain that students might see in Mecca more than 7,000 miles away.
Gomaa welcomed students into the large room and told the children they were in a safe place. First, they would get clean and put on special clothes -- a white drape exposing the right shoulders of the boys and modest clothes covering all but the hands and faces of the girls. Then they lay under a tent.
Gomaa said the simulation is the best way to educate people, and invites anyone interested to call the office to schedule a visit. He said the journey of Abraham, commanded by God to sacrifice his son, is similar to stories in Judaism and Christianity. (Read more)