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.
On November 24th we traveled back to Mecca to get some images of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. This is where the Kaaba, the house of God, is located. This is the point where Muslims all over the world point to when they say their prayers. It is the home of Islam. We wanted to get some pictures of the Grand mosque from a point high above the mosque to get an overview. We went to a hotel to get permission to take pictures from their roof. Inside this 5 star hotel all the guests were dressed in the customary cloth covering for people performing the Haj. During the Haj, rooms overlooking the Grand Mosque cost around $4,000 per night as part of a 2 week package. Without taking any pictures inside the hotel we were quickly herded into an elevator and taken up and up and up to the 50th floor where it was still a construction site with more floors being added to the hotel.
It was a disappointing view towards the Grand Mosque because we had to take pictures through a dirty glass barrier and the angle was wrong. I made several images but kept telling the minder and accompanying hotel security personnel that we needed a better view. After some resistance one of the security guards said we could cross over to the neighboring hotel, but must be quick because we didn’t have permission to go there. We crossed a bridge made out of scaffolding pipes and boards to cross from one hotel to the next but the new view of the Kaaba was impressive. Happy with the images made we were taken back down to ground level and headed toward the Grand Mosque, but quickly the keepers of the mosque, a special religious police, made it clear that we were not allowed to take pictures inside the grounds of the mosque so our minder moved us out of the area.
The following morning we planned to leave Jeddah early with our own car to go to the camp set up in the Arafat plains to be in place for the start of the pilgrimage, but plans started to change because our car had broken down and the rain was pouring. Three hours after our planned departure we were taken to a hotel to go with the convoy of cars and buses which would take journalists to the plains of Arafat. Sixteen hours later we were told to get into our cars and buses for departure. Since we did not have a car we were forced to hitch rides with other teams of journalists. The team and luggage were split up in various cars and off we went driving through flooded streets towards Arafat with over 2 million pilgrims also traveling in cars and buses. We had a police escort but trying to keep up with the police car was a job in itself so the drive became a race. Several times we almost hit the car in front of us and several times we were almost hit from the back and finally one time we were hit. My image of a well-oiled machine with American style organization was beginning to falter.
At 2am we finally arrived at the Ministry of Information camp in Arafat and were reunited with the rest of the team and our luggage. We were told our tent number and found that we had about 10 more tent mates from other news organizations.
At sunrise photographers got up to take advantage of the morning light to get pictures of pilgrims praying on Mount Mercy. So many pilgrims were trying to climb the mountain that the normal route could not handle the traffic and people began to take alternate routes up the mountain.
Young and old pilgrims climbed up the mountain over boulders under people’s legs all with a goal to reach the peak. As the sun moved up the sky the stream of pilgrims grew. I decided to return to the camp to file my pictures but moving back toward the camp was quite atask because I was moving against the flow of traffic which was heading towards the mountain.
Upon arrival at the Ministry of Information camp I found that a pickpocket has helped himself to money and receipts in my back pocket.
For noon prayers at the Namira Mosque there was a mass of humanity all around the mosque to the point where ambulances were standing still with sirens blaring trying to take out those in need of medical help. It seems planning had not included how to move ambulances within the crowded streets. There were jets of mist being sprayed over the crowd to keep them cool as the temperatures were around 77 degrees Fahrenheit away from the crowds.
After sunset the media packed up and off we went to Muzdalifa where pilgrims stayed the night and collected stones to throw at the devil in Mina the following day. We drove the 10 miles to Muzdalifa with the crowds who were walking. At midnight we left Muzdalifa for Mina and arrived at a container camp for guests of the Ministry of Information. The rain had leaked into the rooms so there was a wet smell to the whole building and wet fake grass covering the floors. Everybody was so tired that the dampness was forgotten for a good night of sleep.
The following morning began the three days of stoning the devil, considered the most dangerous part of the Haj because of the sheer numbers of pilgrims moving past the pillars. Some pilgrims walked past and threw their stones in a very calm manner but some attacked the pillar with anger and zeal.
I was almost knocked over by 2 old ladies with an East Asian group who had a bone to pick with the pillar. Their anger was visible and palpable, but fortunately they threw their stones after pushing me out of the way. Others threw their stones from outside the melee but with not quite enough power and aim to hit the pillar so people standing in the front rows got hit on the back of the head as they threw their stones. One woman eager to protect her husband held her scarf up behind his head but in the end she got hit upside the head with a stone. I counted 10 hits on my head.
Photographing women in Islamic countries is difficult because the men feel that a camera will delve into their private lives and therefore prohibit photographers from taking pictures of their wives and daughters. Some women look away, cover their faces or sometimes actually run away because of their mistrust of cameras.
The Haj is a good experience, but one must be patient or they will get an ulcer. This is not a well-oiled machine. Everything seems to go wrong at the wrong time from transportation to the internet, … but the pictures one can make are amazing and well worth all the hassles. After it is all over you can laugh at all the things that went wrong, but the pictures remain forever.