Thai haj pilgrims find airport chaos a test of faith

(Photo:Anti-government protesters at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, 21 Nov 2008Kerek Wongsa)

David Fox of our Asia Desk in Singapore found this interesting faith story amid the protests at Bangkok’s international airport:

BANGKOK – Hundreds of Thai Muslims on a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca were spending a third night sleeping rough at Bangkok’s international airport on Thursday, victims of anti-government protests that have paralysed air travel.

Around 700 haj pilgrims, many elderly and frail but hoping to complete one of Islam’s most important pillars of faith before they die, prepared to camp out for a third night in the terminal building at Suvarnabhumi airport.

“Some of them have saved all their lives for this,” said Muhammed Yusouf, a haj tour guide accompanying the pilgrims, many of whom would be travelling by plane for the first time.

When an Indian pilgrimage becomes a vote bank

Y.S. Reddy comforts boat disaster victim in Andhra Pradesh, 19. Jan 2007/stringerFor an example of how India often struggles with its secular ideals, especially in election years, look no further than Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister Y.S. Reddy has decided the large southern Indian state will subsidise pilgrimages for Christians who want to travel to Israel.

This kind of subsidy is not new. The central government has for years offered subsidies to Muslims wanting to join the annual haj pilgrimage to Mecca. New Delhi even has a special haj air terminal for Muslims, who account for about 13 percent of India’s 1.1 billion population. Tens of thousands travel every year from India.

But the latest announcement has sparked debate in India over whether it further eats into the country’s secular ideals.

What were they thinking on the haj?

Muslim pilgrims arrive at the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007So what exactly were more than two million Muslim pilgrims doing on the plain of Arafat outside Mecca on the afternoon of December 18, also known as the 9th of Dhul Hijja? I was there too, among them, so I should know, shouldn’t I? I must have seen many thousands of them close up on the haj this year, looked into their faces and tried to guess what they were thinking.

The conventional wisdom is that they were praying, at least the ones who were staying still and not engaged in the more mundane tasks of life, such as setting up tents, fetching water for their families, or waiting to get a free breakfast from the charity container truck. Activities of that kind accounted for quite a proportion of the total, especially people walking, walking by the tens of thousands, walking to explore, walking to find better places to sit, walking to find lost friends and relatives or just walking because it was a change from sitting, where they might be buffeted by the feet and bags of passing pedestrians, or asphyxiated by the exhaust of giant buses, or Pilgrims sit at Jabal al-Rahman, the Mount of Mercy, at the centre of the plain of Arafat, near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007troubled by the accumulating piles of rubbish as people threw down orange peel, biscuit wrappers, milk cartons and discarded flipflops. Of those who were sitting, quite a number were chatting with their friends and neighbours and, judging by the snippets of conversation I overheard, much of the talk was of the basic logistics of surviving the day. How far is it to Mohamed’s tent? Which lavatories do you think are the best? How much are the bananas?

Now there were some people praying, or at least going through the motions of praying. Maybe their eyes were closed or their hands were cupped in that distinctive manner, or their lips were moving silently, or they were rocking rhythmically from side to side. If you found someone with the time to talk, they would invariably tell you that they had prayed and that this was one of their reasons for being there. I might add that they were talking about personal prayers, to Muslims something quite distinct from the formal prayers which they say five times a day at set times. In the formal prayers you can’t slip inMuslim pilgrims pray on the plain of Arafat near Mecca, 18 Dec 2007 one for your sick grandmother. That’s a separate operation, with distinct rules. Most of the pilgrims spent at least five hours on the plain, about the minimum to qualify as a certified haji. But interestingly, prayer on the plain is not obligatory. The best explanation I heard came from a Sudanese carpenter who had performed the pilgrimage many times. He said that prayer on the plain on that particular day was especially effective, so it was wise to take advantage of the opportunity. That seems to be a view close to the traditional consensus.

On the haj, be fit and bring sturdy sandals

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.

On the haj: circling the Kaaba in Mecca

The Kabaa, 24 Dec 2007“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.

The overwhelming impression was of dazzling white marble and of arches with white plaster crenellations receding into the distance. The Saudi government has spared no expense in making this mosque, built around the focal point of daily worship for hundreds of millions of Muslims, into a monument inspiring awe and wonder among the millions who visit every year — especially those here for the first time. But the austere simplicity of the Kaaba itself, a plain stone cubic building covered in black cloth and wrapped in Arabic writing in golden silk, makes an even greater impression on visitors. Many raise their arms as it looms into sight from the edge of the inner courtyard, as if to protect themselves from some mysterious power, or perhaps to absorb some of the blessings they think it radiates.

Muslim pilgrims wait for a bus outside the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 14 Dec. 2007We skipped down the marble steps into the courtyard and made our way towards the Kaaba, joining a crowd of several thousand performing the tawaf ritual – the counter-clockwise circumambulation of the Kaaba, the first part of the umra ceremony which pilgrims usually perform on arrival in Mecca. The tawaf ritual predates Islam, possibly by many hundreds of years, and its origins may be lost in the mists of time. Muslims associate the Kaaba with the prophet Ibrahim, the biblical Abraham, seen as the founder of a pure monotheism which slowly declined until revived in the 7th century by the prophet of Islam.