FaithWorld

from Photographers' Blog:

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Coverage of the 2009 Haj pilgrimage was an enlightening experience for me as a photographer. I have covered many religious events in Iran but never anything as enormous as the Haj - this year complete with the added threat of H1N1.

I arrived in Jeddah several days before the start of the Haj and found Saudi Arabia to have all the luxuries and organization of the United States. My picture was taken at passport control and fingerprints scanned.  I was met at the airport by our minder from the Ministry of Information with a driver and a large American SUV. We went straight to the media center to get my press credentials and on to the road leading to Mecca to take pictures of checkpoints and security. Police officers were wearing masks to protect them from flu as were many pilgrims.

The following day we left for Mecca at 3 am to be on top of Noor Mountain at sunrise. It was a long, tiring climb but well worth it as the sun started to rise and light allowed me to make images. In the afternoon we went to a military base to take pictures of security arrangements for the Haj, attended by many Saudi and foreign dignitaries including Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Naef bin Abdul Aziz. It was basically a military parade showing the security hardware for police to deal with any security concerns.

The following afternoon we went back to Mecca to cover a show of medical services for pilgrims attended by Saudi Arabian Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah along with the RVN team who had arrived in the morning. This was a show of new ambulances and mobile clinics to treat pilgrims with any medical problems.

The organization of the pilgrimage looked well planned and perfect. After many years experience it seemed the pilgrimage was a well-oiled machine.

All are equal on the haj, but some just more than others

haj-hotelThe 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.

tents-on-hillsideIt’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.

Age-old haj stoning of devil pillars in modern multistory complex

mena (Photo: Haj pilgrims stone pillars symbolising the devil in Mena outside Mecca, 27 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)

Around two million Muslim pilgrims stoned pillars symbolising the devil in a narrow valley in Saudi Arabia on Friday at what has traditionally been the most dangerous stage of the haj pilgrimage. The pillars stand at Mena, where Muslims believe the devil appeared to the Prophet Abraham.

The Jamarat Bridge in the valley of Mena outside the holy city of Mecca, where pilgrims stone the walls three times over three to four days, has been the scene of a number of stampedes, including one which killed 362 in 2006. But Saudi Arabia has erected a massive four-level building with several platforms for throwing stones to ease congestion and prevent stampedes at the Jamarat stoning areas.

mena-2 (Photo: Haj pilgrims walk from camp to Jamarat to throw stones at pillars in Mena 27 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)

Throngs of predominantly white-clad pilgrims filled the road that leads them to and from the Jamarat Bridge. Some stopped to buy fried chicken nuggets while groups from different countries formed human chains with their fellow countrymen to move more quickly through the crowds.

Amid the prayers, some haj pilgrims talk football

mecca-mosqueThe haj is supposed to be a spiritual highlight in a Muslim’s life, but everyday issues can sometimes intrude. In between prayers and visits to various sites, pilgrims often discuss all kinds of current issues. Among Algerians and Egyptians on the haj here this year, the buzz is about the public row sparked by a soccer game to qualify for the 2010 World Cup. Algeria won that match 1-0. (Photo: Haj pilgrims at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 24 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)

The football rivalry has caused considerable bad blood between the two countries. Egypt has recalled its ambassador from Algiers after the play-off, accusing Algerian fans of post-match thuggery at the game’s venue in Khartoum. Egypt had earlier complained when Algerian fans trashed the Algiers headquarters of Egypt-based Orascom Telecom’s Djezzy mobile subsidiary. Before that, Algeria was irked after Egyptian fans pelted the Algerian team’s bus with stones and some fans were hurt in scuffles on game-day in the first round of the qualifier in Cairo.

“We are brothers … This should have never happened and I blame the media in the two countries for instigating ill feelings among the most foolish of us,” said Khaled Salam Abdallah from Cairo.

Saudi Arabia seeks to curb flu and stop protest at haj

haj-maskMore than two million Muslims gather this week for the annual haj pilgrimage to Islam’s holy city of Mecca, where Saudi authorities hope to minimize spread of the H1N1 virus and prevent any political demonstration. (Photo: Saudi security official at a checkpoint between  Jeddah and Mecca, 21 Nov 2009/Caren Firouz)

The haj, one of the world’s biggest displays of mass religious devotion and a duty for Muslims who can perform it, has been marred in the past by fires, hotel collapses, police clashes with protesters and deadly stampedes.

This year, the mainly Sunni Muslim kingdom is battling Shi’ite Yemeni rebels after they raided its territory, an issue that raises fears of possible protests by fellow Shi’ite Muslims during the rituals. Saudi Arabia bans public protests.

Pilgrims snub H1N1 flu and flock to Saudi Arabia

haj-flu (Photo: Palestinian pilgrim gets vaccinated in Gaza Strip, 6 Nov 2009/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Standing in the middle of a long queue at Jeddah airport, Mahdi Sharif is one of millions of Muslims waiting to enter Saudi Arabia to start the annual haj pilgrimage despite a global outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus.

Little fazed by the spread of the virus, Sharif, who has been waiting for two years to be selected from a raffle of 5,000 Kurdish Iraqis to visit Mecca, wears a protection mask but never thought for a second of delaying his pilgrimage.

“This year I was chosen so I came, I could not say no. The happiness of being chosen is stronger than fear (of illness),” said Sharif in a muffled voice through his medical mask.

Health experts say haj pilgrims risk H1N1 flu wave

grand-mosque-mecca2

Waves of H1N1 swine flu spread by some three million pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca for next month’s haj threaten to pile pressure on healthcare systems around the world, disease experts said on Thursday.

“No region can be considered free from risk,” said the U.S. and Arab experts, including Saudia Arabia’s deputy minister for preventative medicine, in a study in the journal Science.  The pilgrimage itself, in the last week of November, provides perfect conditions for the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, which is transmitted in droplets and by physical contact.

“The density of pilgrims, the nature of the rituals, and the shoulder-to-shoulder contact recommended during prayers provide a perfect transmission atmosphere,” wrote Shahul Ebrahim of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Ziad Memish of Saudi Arabia’s health ministry.

Swine flu fears hit religious tourism to Saudi Arabia

mecca-boymecca-minaretsStanding behind a wall of pearls and prayer beads in a shop in Mecca, souvenir dealer Mohammad Hamdi says business has never been so bad.  Shops, hotels and tour operators in Islam’s holiest city in western Saudi Arabia are counting the losses as many pilgrims, worried about swine flu, stay at home.

The haj, one of the world’s biggest religious gatherings, is still two months away but there has already been a marked fall in visitors for the minor pilgrimage known as umra, which can be done at any time of the year.

“In previous years people were buying a lot but now only a few come which is hitting sales,” said Hamdi, from Egypt. Hotel occupancy rates during the last ten days of the fasting month of Ramadan, when many perform umra, fell by more than a third to 55 percent compared to last year, said Walid Abu Sabaa, head of the tourism and hotels committee at the Mecca chamber of commerce.

Pope Benedict on “haj” in Jordan

haj-1Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.

With some effort on my part, that arc of Arabic calligraphy up top revealed itself as saying al-haj al-babawi. The haj of baba … hmmm… Arabic has no “p,” so that could be the haj of papa. The Italians call him papa, so it must be talking about the pope and saying the pope’s haj. Huh? The pope’s haj?

Of course, the word haj simply means “pilgrimage” in Arabic. Western languages have taken it over as the specific term for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the pope has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to get there. Haj means pilgrimage, no more and no less, and it describes the pope’s visit just the same way as he does in the words of the many western languages he speaks.

Time for trains to help pilgrims perform the haj

(Photo: Pilgrims on the plains of Arafat, 7 Dec 2008/Saudi Press Agency)

Muslims taking part in the annual haj pilgrimage often say they have no words to describe the spiritual experience they have. Their practical struggles with the logistics are another thing altogether.

Many multi-billion-dollar improvements have been carried out over the past few years to improve safety for  pilgrims, expand the Grand Mosque and build tent cities in several areas where pilgrims have to stay for a day or more. The logistics of the haj are the main challenge that both pilgrims and the organizers face during the few days in which pilgrims are required to travel back and forth to several places to perform the rituals. There have been stampedes, fires and other accidents in the past as Muslims from around the world answered the call made by the Prophet Mohammad more than 1,400 years ago.

The benefits were clear at this year’s haj, in which over two million pilgrims have taken part without any major incident. There is still room for improvement, though, and my preference is for a train system to help pilgrims get around to perform the rituals tracking the Prophet’s steps.