On the haj, be fit and bring sturdy sandals

December 20, 2007

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the Plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007If you’re going on the haj pilgrimage, be fit and bring a sturdy pair of sandals. As with any pilgrimage, walking long distances is hard to avoid. The alternative is to sit in endless traffic jams inhaling diesel fumes. I didn’t walk as much as the real pilgrims did on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but when I fell asleep at 7 a.m. in a resthouse, I had been walking since 1.30 a.m.

The journey began at sunset on Tuesday, the peak of the pilgrimage. Pilgrims have to spend the afternoon in a confined area on the Plain of Arafat. ‘Being there’ is what counts. Clerics say private prayers said during this period are particularly effective . Some people slept in tents or just walked around, in as much as that was possible amid more than two million people, the heat and the rapidly accumulating rubbish.

As the sun went down, pilgrims dressed in loose white cloth pressed against the western limits of the confined area. Once it disappeared behind the rocky hills, they surged forward towards Mecca, like a liquid boiling over. We journalists took cars this time. As we approached Muzdalifa, the first station on the way back to Mecca, I could see that people had trekked into the rocky hills and were settling down to sleep a few hours in the rough. Our car took us to another guesthouse, where we had dinner, the usual boiled sheep and rice that Saudis seem to live on. Apart from breakfast, it’s the only dish we’ve eaten since our journey began on Monday.

Muslim pilgrims cast seven stones at pillars symbolizing Satan in Mena, outside Mecca, 19 Dec 2007In Muzdalifa we had to collect pebbles to throw at the stone pillars further towards Mecca the next day. Opinion was divided on how many we needed. One person said just seven, but the Ministry of Haj web site clearly said 70. “Seventy was just a typo for seven,” one of my companions said. I took his advice and picked seven, but by the time we left, opinion in the group had shifted to 49 plus some spares. So I made it 70 after all.

After midnight, I hitched a ride with Saudis from a religious television station called Tafaani, roughly translatable as ‘total dedication (to God)’. They left me at another resthouse where I found my windowless dormitory room. By this stage, stains from spilt tea and smudges from squeezing between buses at Arafat had soiled large sections of my once white clothes. I hadn’t shaved for days because I wasn’t sure it was permitted. But I had to complete certain procedures before I could change clothes and shave. The first was to walk 280 steps down the hill to throw my seven stones at the Big Jamara, one of three ‘pillars’ — now walls — in a ceremony symbolising defiance of the devil. It was like a giant underground car park, with vast pillars and walkways of bare grey concrete devised to channel millions of people a day through without them crushing each other to death. The stoning took at most 20 seconds.

Muslim pilgrims shave their heads during the haj pilgrimage in Mena, 19 Dec 2007Around the corner, some people had started cutting their hair or shaving their heads. Serious men have the shave, but I was not about to let some stranger with a rusty razor start cutting into my scalp. Hacking away with my own nail scissors in semi-darkness without a mirror, I took off at least half of it all round. Several people came up and asked me to cut their hair, and I gladly agreed. One old man had so little hair anyway that it was a challenge finding any to cut.

Back up the 280 steps, I looked in the mirror and made some adjustments to the parts which were noticeable longer. Then I consulted the nearest Saudi on what to do next. Return to the Kaaba in Mecca, reperform the rites there and buy a sacrifice voucher, he said. I set off into the night, walking for half an hour until a broad pedestrian walkway appeared to the right. I joined the pilgrims taking it, confident we were all headed in the right direction.

The Kaaba as seen from the first floor of the Grand Mosque sanctuary, 20 Dec 2007Another half hour and we entered a vast concrete tunnel, ventilated by powerful and noisy fans set in the ceiling. The tunnel, one mile long and sloping steeply downwards, ends in the underground precincts of the Mecca sanctuary. Coming up the stairs, there was the overpowering marble mosque, brightly lit at 3 a.m. and full of people. The inner courtyard at ground level was too crowded for me to tackle so I went up to the first floor. Since circling the Kaaba there is much longer, I went for bare minimum option, three circumbulations instead of the preferred seven. The walk was hazardous. Crazed young Saudis zipped people in wheelchairs round the circuit, coming up behind me and hissing for me to move out of the way. After the three circuits, I had to go say two prayers facing the Station of Abraham. Then off for the sa’y ritual, again three times instead of seven.

By this time it was about 5 a.m. and I was ready to go home. Mistakenly taking the road to the right of a mysterious fortress-like complex towering above the Grand Mosque sanctuary, I trudged along for some time before seeing it veered off into the hills. On my way back down to the sanctuary, I saw the complex belonged to the Royal Guard and could probably hold a garrison of thousands, ready for deployment in case of trouble.

Lambs are slaughtered to celebrate the Eid-al-Adha in Arafat, 10 Jan 2006Hiking the four or five miles back to Mina, I thought about the traditional sheep sacrifice at the end of the rituals. For ethical and environmental reasons, I don’t approve of bringing live sheep in ships from New Zealand, slaughtering them in Mecca and then sending the frozen meat to people in Bangladesh. Using land to raise sheep is not the way to help feed the poor, carrying them on ships is unnecessary cruelty and people around these parts eat far too much red meat anyway. In the time of the Prophet Mohammad, sacrificing a sheep was a special occasion, not a daily occurrence, and the sheep were locally reared in a way that was ecologically sustainable. I’ll take my chances on God accepting a modern substitute, a donation the equivalent of 390 Saudi riyals ($104) — the price of a sheep — to a charity that really helps the poor. And that is a solemn vow.

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