All are equal on the haj, but some just more than others
The haj is supposed to be a time when Muslim pilgrims from all walks of life forget the material aspects of life on earth to wipe the slate clean of their sins and declare their acceptance of Islam as God’s ultimate religion for mankind. The simple white robe and sandals the male pilgrims wear are meant to symbolise the equality of all the faithful in the eyes of God. While these spiritual aspects are certainly present at the annual event, pilgrims are also confronted daily with scenes reminding them today’s haj is far from the way it started out 1,400 years ago. But most of them seem to come to terms with that.
(Photo: Huge luxury hotel complex towers over Mecca’s Grand Mosque, 9 Dec 2008/Ahmed Jadallah — click on pictures to enlarge them)
The vast majority of the 2.3 million Muslims here come from some of the world’s least democratic, poorest and most corrupt nations where wide social disparities prevail mainly to unequal opportunities and poor education. The scenes at the holy shrines during haj do not contrast much from what the majority of pilgrims endure back home, but they all strive to achieve the spiritual purpose of their journey to Mecca. At the end of the day, it boils down to what sort of treatment a Muslim can afford to get at the haj. The disparities can be as wide here as anywhere else in the Muslim world.
It’s hard to imagine how some pilgrims clear their minds of earthly life’s material comforts when they are booked into one of the luxury hotels that surround the Grand Mosque and overlook its cube-shaped Kaaba. The $600 a night fee for a room at one of these hotels is far beyond the means of most pilgrims.
(Photo: Hillside camp in Mena, 28 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz — click on pictures to enlarge them)
Some customers don’t even bother to go down to the Grand Mosque to perform the five daily prayers. “They stand in front of the window to pray and at the same time watch other pilgrims praying in the mosque,” a receptionist at one of the hotels told me.
The poorest of pilgrims may not ever see the inside of a hotel at all. They tend to squat at or around the Grand Mosque and sleep in the open, while others rent a small room at one of thousands of squalid buildings a bit further away. If they have no lodgings, many camp where they can.
Only the fittest and most influential can touch the Black Stone on a side of the Kaaba cube in the middle of the Grand Mosque, around which pilgrims circle seven times. If the pilgrim happens to be a foreign or local dignitary, Saudi policemen just push and shove to clear the way to the Black Stone, which many Muslims believe to have supernatural powers.
(Photo: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (r) and Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal stand at Black Stone, 9 Feb 2007/Suhaib Salem)
I once saw a female pilgrim well in her 50s reduced to tears and pain after a Saudi policeman used full strength to shove her away and clear a path for a visiting Qatari prince.
Pilgrims often complain of rough treatment by the Saudi police force, the vast majority of whom do not speak a second language. The haj draws Muslims from around the world and one wonders how wise it is to have the event policed by men who cannot communicate with a large number of them.
Before going to Mount Arafat for the haj’s ritual climax, pilgrims have to spend the night at huge tent camps in Mena. Here again, the disparities stand out. Some pilgrims cannot stand for less than air-conditioned tents with open food buffets dispensing snacks and fresh fruit juices all day long — in addition to the regular three meals per day.
(Photo: Pilgrim tent in Mena, 28 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)
Once wealthier pilgrims have finished in Mount Arafat, travel agencies arrange for them to be picked up by limousines and SUVs whose Saudi drivers aren’t shy about nudging walking pilgrims to force their way through crowds that have to wait for a bus that may never come to take them back to Mena.