Sunday, January 15, 2006

A Hajj Experience

One of the most interesting assignments that I covered in my 14-year career as a journalist was the Hajj in Saudi Arabia five years ago. Luckily, that year was free of incidents such as what happened two days ago when more than 350 pilgrims were killed in a stampede as they were going to perform the ritual of stoning the devil.
I was living in Cairo then and with thousands of Egyptians going to the Hajj, I was not able to find a seat on a plane to Saudi Arabia so I flew to Dubai and from there back to Jiddah, a trip that took about seven hours of flying instead of two hours directly from Cairo.
Going to the Hajj, a person wonders how can more than two million people gather in the small area of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the adjacent areas of Muzdalifa, Mount Arafat and Mina, a small tent town that comes to life for few days every year during the Hajj.
Most of the stampedes occur when the ritual of stoning the devil is performed, when most Muslims say it should be done before the noon prayers. Usually tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, move in the direction of three pillars representing the Satan and throw seven stones at each one. Any mistake or fall could cause a disaster like the one we witnessed this week.
After several days in Saudi, of which I used to spend the day in Mecca and return to sleep in Jiddah, the Hajj officially began on the 8th of the Muslim month of Dhil-Hijjah. Most of us, journalists from around the world, put our Ihram, a seamless white uniform that all pilgrims wear, and were taken in information ministry buses to Mount Arafat where we spent the night. The next day was Yawm al-Wukuf or the Day of Standing when Muslims spend their day praying at the holy Mount Arafat.
After sunset of the 9th we headed to the nearby area of Muzdalifa where the sunset and night prayers were performed before we collected stones to be used in stoning the devil. On the 10th, which is the Feast of Sacrifice we headed very early in the morning to nearby Mina where we stoned the devil and later in the day I had a sheep slaughtered and shaved my head which meant I could end the state of Ihram, which is take off our white seamless uniforms and putting on our normal clothes.
For three days we were staying at a camp in Mina and we used to go back and forth for prayers at the Grand Mosque in Mecca where we had to circle the Kaaba, or walk around it, seven times. on the 13th of the month we headed back to Jiddah and from there paid a visit to Madina, where Prophet Muhammad's tomb is located, before heading back to Cairo but through Dubai.
Speaking on Thursday night after the death of 363 pilgrims and the injury of 289, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz called Muslim scholars around the world to issue new rules that would make it easier for pilgrims to perform the stoning of the devil that for years have led to the death of thousands of people.
At some points I felt the danger of being in the middle of hundreds of thousands of people in closed places such as inside the Grand Mosque or when we were on a bridge moving slowly to stone the devil. Still it was very emotional and impressive to be in such a holy place and also to see equality among human beings when you cannot tell who is rich or poor since everyone is wearing the same uniform.
Going to Hajj also shows how worldwide Islam is where I saw people of all colors and ethnic groups speaking different languages, but what was common is that they all felt at home.
Bassem Mroue
Beirut January 15, 2006
1:45 p.m.


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