In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj

(The following was written after trips to Mecca in 2004 and 2005 as Reuters correspondent sent to cover hajj)

One of the jewels in the crown of the Saudi-Wahhabi state is its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When Abdulaziz assumed full sovereignty after his Ikhwan stormed into its cities, he added ‘King of the Hejaz’ to his list of titles. Pilgrim revenue, mainly from the hajj season, became the major domestic source of income for the nascent Saudi state, though the Najd-run entity still relied on foreign handouts to survive.(1) The state took control of pilgrim tour operations as part of the wider process of severing Hejazi autonomy and tying its political and economic life to Riyadh.(2) As the country moved into the era of modern communications then entered the petrodollar era in the 1970s, significantly larger numbers of pilgrims were able to visit, but the hajj they were to experience was a hajj with a very specific Saudi and Wahhabi stamp. Processing the world’s Muslims through Saudi-Wahhabi pilgrimage became a vast industry, a major preoccupation of the state and a key element in its self-legitimising rhetoric. Petrodollars are of vastly greater importance to state and princely finances, but, raking in some $24 billion a year in tourist receipts mainly linked to Mecca and Medina, hajj remains a major earner for Saudi Arabia.(3) It is also a monopolistic practice – there is little Saudi Arabia can do to compete with Shi’ite pilgrimage centres such as Najaf and Kerbala, but Jerusalem, which contains the Al-Aqsa mosque, the site towards which Islamic tradition says the first Muslims turned in prayer, is accorded little significance in Saudi media or Wahhabi religious discourse, whether it was under Jordanian or Israeli control. It is a rival to the prestige and revenue of the Saudi-Wahhabi state.(4)

Yet organising pilgrimage has been a complicated and controversial affair over the years. The event has been marred by a seemingly unending litany of tragedies, from fires, overcrowding, hotel collapses and flooding, to political disputes over demonstrations and granting of hajj visas,(5) to security operations to stop alleged al-Qa’ida attacks or Shi’ite plots, to failure to prevent militant operatives meeting under the guise of hajj to plan ahead. The hajj itself is a media spectacle of great political import for Saudi Arabia, an opportunity to demonstrate to Muslims and Muslim governments around the world its vast resources, its largesse and its leadership of Islam. After the debacle of 9/11, the policy of media openness extended to the pilgrimage: the information ministry invited most of the world’s major media outlets to send teams to cover the event, presented as a great feat of organisation despite the fact that millions more take part in several Hindu pilgrimages in India each year. News agencies began referring to the hajj as the world’s largest organised manifestation of mass religious devotion, a description that suited the Saudi authorities fine.

I visited Mecca twice under the auspices of the Saudi government’s invitation to media outlets to send teams to cover the event, in January 2004 and January 2005. Though all of us were there to do a job, the coverage involved going through the rites of pilgrimage: journalists were thrilled to have the chance to perform hajj, not least with someone else arranging it. It’s not quite five-star hajj, but it’s certainly a lot easier than travelling with many of the large tour groups. It was a thrilling experience on a personal and professional level; a chance to contemplate many issues, both spiritual and political. But I witnessed much that speaks to the criticisms often levelled at Saudi Arabia over its organisation of hajj and which illustrated the many stark differences between the claims of Saudi Islam and the practices of most of the world’s Muslims. Hajj is a testament to the diversity of Islam and Muslims, and Saudi Arabia struggles in vain to tame it.

Located in the rough mountains of the Jeddah hinterland, Mecca bears a character that is neither East nor West, Asian nor African, ancient nor modern. A community of believers of diverse origins comes together to seek forgiveness at the place on earth where they believe God will most appreciate their prayers. More a mega-pilgrimage or a number of pilgrimages rolled into one, the hajj consists of a circuit that is well over ten kilometres long, involving three visits to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a day at the plain of Arafa and three days at Mina where pilgrims must throw stones at three spots known as the Jamarat where the devil is said in Islamic tradition to have appeared to Ibrahim.6 It is an exhausting schedule, though many try to avoid doing as much as possible of it on foot these days. Muslims implicitly acknowledge the labour involved when they congratulate each other on completing the hajj, one of the five ‘pillars’ of Islam that God asks able-bodied Muslims to perform.

The complex rituals betray signs of merging a number of Arabian customs into one. Anthropologists see in the individual rites ancient cults connected with the seasons – for example, the day at Arafa was a rain-making cult, stone-throwing at Mina was to cast down the sun god, Muzdalifa where pilgrims spend time after the day at Arafa was associated with the thunder god Quzah (Saudi Arabia often calls for the nationwide ‘rain prayer’). Visiting and circumambulating the Kaaba is a well-attested pre-Islamic custom, and the idea of Mecca as a sacred precinct may have its origins in a pre-Islamic neutral zone where tribal warfare and bickering was put aside. ‘The central ritual of Islam, the Hajj, was arranged out of existing cultic practices. The actions themselves were almost unchanged, but their meaning was transformed to fit a new, vastly expanded, cosmic vision. The result was a religious and ideological tour de force’, Malise Ruthven writes.(7)

The hajj that fell in January 2004, when I first went, came after the fall of Baghdad and the outbreak of al-Qa’ida insurgency in Saudi Arabia, so media interest was high for material that would indicate responses these events. The teams of journalists, from text, pictures and television, usually gather days in advance in Jeddah, allowing a few days to attend government-arranged events such as the interior minister’s regular pre-hajj press conference, or visit the massive hajj terminal of Jeddah airport. While still based in Jeddah, we travelled to Mecca for pre-hajjumra, donning our white robes of ihram; on the way we passed through checkpoints where they didn’t bother checking our identities since we were Ministry of Information guests. In hindsight, the breezy arrival hinted at the divisions of class and culture that, as I was to discover, continue to lurk beneath the surface. Wealth and privilege help ease your path, and the Saudi authorities frown on those who don’t do things their way – in particular, Asians, who are in any case treated with some contempt in Saudi society and especially patronised if they are new converts.(8)

Mecca was a shock. I had expected the pristine, marble sense of space of the main cities. What I got was al-Azhar street in central Cairo. Crowded, polluted, randomly-built housing vying for space around the centre of the town where the Grand Mosque is situated and which brings to mind Prince Charles’ famous comment about St Paul’s Cathedral and London’s financial district: blocking the Mona Lisa with a team of basketball players. Hundreds of thousands of people squeezed into the town and into the mosque, but I suspected it was like this for much of the year. The setting in the mountains was quite stunning, but the position of the town was a heat and dust trap. For sure, before the modern age this was a place of great tranquillity and rough beauty. Now it was New Delhi meets Cairo in the hills. Around the holy mosque the sacred mixes with the profane. Traders cram the streets with shops selling trinkets and American fast food on streets lined with five-star hotels. American fast food – Burger King and KFC. Shops also sold Islamic alternatives to this Americana, drinks like Mecca Cola developed after the Palestinian intifada of 2000 inspired the desire to boycott all things American.

Mecca seems not to have been much known to the literate civilisations before the Islamic period. This has caused some Western historians to treat the centrality of Mecca in the early Arab-Islamic state with some scepticism. The Quran even refers to the place as Bakka – what sort of famed commercial and spiritual centre was that, that the Greeks hadn’t heard of it and the revelation gets its name wrong, one scholar infamously asked?!(9) Having visited it, I doubt it was ever much of a trading entrepôt myself, but there’s plenty to convince that it was a mystical site for the communities of the peninsula, a sheltered sanctuary inland from the hot coastal town of Jeddah, and a site that perhaps had become more important in the centuries preceding the Islamic conquests when Hejazi tribes were part of the Nabataean confederation that was based in modern Jordan. For all that really matters in Mecca is the mosque and its black stone. If all roads lead to Mecca, all roads in Mecca lead down the hill to the Kaaba. French director of Morrocan origin Ismail Ferroukhi captured the spirt of the city well in a ten-minute sequence in his film Le Grand Voyage: all cars, crowds and noise. I felt calm and relief when my feet touched the worn white marble of the mosque precinct.

Our driver let us out in an underground underpass with stairs that let up into the mosque complex. The mosque was huge – it has 85 entrances – and because of the stop-start nature of mosque expansions, it lacked a specific form or shape. We walked around it through the crowds interminably it seemed, until we found a fence where we thought we could leave our sandals. When we walked in we still had some way to go before we reached the central space where the black stone, or Kaaba, lay. What we passed through was one mega-mosque or a series of mosques around the central sahn. We passed the special section known as Safa and Marwa, a walkway the length of which pilgrims walk seven times after having circled the Kaaba seven times. This sounds straightforward, but as I was to find out, it was gruelling. Eventually we came to the sahn. Crowds of people sat on the ground on the outside, making it difficult to get into the mass of people walking round the large cube-shaped edifice. The closer you get to the Kaaba itself, the less distance you will be walking in all, and in fact many people, including the disabled, choose to walk around the roof of the mosque which, despite the comfort of no crowds and plenty of space, means walking some seven kilometres in all. Down in the square it was a mix of faith and violence, as the pilgrims jostled for space amid their prayers. The basic rule is to just keep moving with the flow. Entering and leaving the ring of circumambulators is the most fraught part of the process.

‘Oh Lord, bring us the good in this life and good in the hereafter and save us from hell’, pilgrims chant as they circle the Kaaba, the object which Muslims are facing when they pray towards Mecca. The river of people included Turks, Afghans and Indonesians, many in groups, tightly holding onto each other back-to-back to avoid getting lost. Their leader chants verses from the Quran while they repeat after him. Others go around individually saying private prayers. This is your chance to pray for all the things you want from God, from the grand and the political to the mundane and the personal. Friends will ask people to say a prayer for them at the Kaaba, and some were walking around sending and receiving text messages on their mobile phones, which, along with jewellery and the other accoutrements of daily life, should not really be there. The ring of worshippers squeezed ever harder against one another as they tried to near the Kaaba and the frenzy reached its peak at the inner circle closest to the black stone. Some kiss it, but for most the crush is too much to get that near, so they simply hold out their right hand and call out ‘in the name of God, God is greater’ each time they pass. It’s at this point, on one corner of the Kaaba, that the crush is the worst on each circumambulation.

It was the strangest experience. Some of the groups of pilgrims were rough, rude and violent, crushing through the crowd to get to the centre. It seemed the ultimate act of selfishness, the idea that their salvation was so important, and so much more likely, if they could just get closer to the stone. It also seemed singularly un-Muslim. Some nationalities stood out more than others. The movement of people pulled you round in nervous small steps amid the crush, as you grip your garments in case they fall or the pressure of people pulls them away. The prayers, the walking round and round, the crowds, the people all around – it seemed to induce a state of delirium at some level or another for most of the pilgrims. Counting the seven is not so easy, but once it’s done one heads to the Safa and Marwa area of the mosque complex. We had lost each other going round the Kaaba and I wasn’t clear on the next stage of the ritual, so I was gripped now with a fear of getting lost. It was mid-afternoon prayer time. Once that was over I walked around the outside of the mosque looking for my colleagues. The marble was cold on my bare feet, the distance was huge and the crowds endless. I couldn’t find the place where we had left our shoes, the only point where I could be sure of eventually finding them. After about an hour, in late afternoon, I found them by the fence where the sandals were. Now we needed to find the hotel where the other journalists were congregating and our driver. When we did, there was a congratulatory feeling in the air because everyone had performed ‘umra. At this point we were able to end our ihram, meaning we could don our normal clothes. The TV producer asked me over coffee how I found the going during the mas’a at Safa and Marwa. ‘What?!’ I asked. ‘No, I didn’t know I should do that. When I was lost I just wanted to find you guys. Will it still count?’ He laughed. ‘Don’t worry about it. It counts. Yataqabbal – God will accept your ‘umra.’ On the final day I had to fit extra time at the mas’a to make up for it.

Hajj for all its apparent complexity is in many ways beautifully simple: it revolves around the Kaaba. Simple and unpretentious against the grandiosity of the mosque, the large cube-shaped structure houses this mysterious black stone which centuries of veneration through kissing and touching has worn hollow. The Kaaba and the stone are located at a point which may have been mythologised as the centre of the world in pre-Islamic Arabia. It is regarded by some Muslims as where God’s presence is most felt on earth, which is why it’s the key place to lodge your prayer requests: here He might listen to you. ‘The Kaaba is the heart of Islam and to imagine that you are seeing this place where the Prophet was one day with all his followers touches your heart immediately’, an Egyptian colleague said when I asked her to describe her feelings on visiting the site for the first time during that week.

Islamic tradition says the Kaaba was built by Abraham and his son Ismail, who in the Islamic version of Semitic monotheism is regarded as the genealogical father of the Arabs (while Judaism emphasises Isaac as the father of the Jews), as the first temple to the one true God. All the hajj rituals are linked to Abraham. Safa and Marwa are the two points between which Abraham’s servant-wife Hagar – the Egyptian mother of Ismail – searched desperately for water and shelter with her young child. The walking between the two points inside the mosque symbolises the search that God brought to a happy end when she miraculously came upon the well of Zamzam. While secular and Muslim historians agree the Kaaba was the centre of pre-Islamic Arabian cults, Muslim tradition notes the obvious point that veneration of the stone is reminiscent of the idolatry Islam stridently opposes. The paradox is solved by the hadith attributed to the caliph Omar: he is said to have addressed the object, saying: ‘I know you are only a stone and can do neither good nor ill, and if I had not seen the Prophet kiss you, then I would not do so too.’

Some writers see a reflection of the cosmic order in the spatial movement of hajj. ‘The planets revolve around the sun, each in a separate orbit, with specific speed. In the same way, the Kaaba which God made the first sanctuary for mankind is located at the center of the earth’, Egyptian scholar Abdulhakam al-Sa’idi wrote on popular Islamic website islamonline. Sami Angawi, the Meccan Sufi scholar and architect, says hajj symbolises the continuity and change in the order of things. ‘The constant – the Kaaba – gives you unity and continuity, the variable – walking around it – gives you change and diversity. The two create a balance, an equilibrium’, he says. ‘The closer we get to the Kaaba the more we are pulled by its gravity. So we do tawaf. The Kaaba is a timeless point. All are one at this point, symbolising the house of God and Mecca and the Kaaba are the heart of the Muslim world.’ Sufis also see in hajj an act of purification, like the blood flowing around the body before returning to its vital organs. In one hadith the Prophet declares that ‘he who performs hajj voluntarily and without moral blemish has gone back to the day his mother gave birth to him’. Hajj is spiritual rebirth.

However, the in-gathering of Muslims in the universal city of Islam also offers a forum for revolutionary action. Saudi riot police are on hand to stop any displays of political activism, no matter how peaceful. The army of some 50,000 police and security force members involved in organising hajj includes a special ‘anti-protest’ force to stop pilgrims staging protests – Iranians have tried on numerous occasions since the 1979 revolution.10 In July 1987 up to 400 pilgrims died during shooting and a deadly stampede after Saudi police tried to close part of the route. The booklets the Saudis hand out in various languages to arriving pilgrims stress that the event is simply about doing things as the Prophet said they should be done in order to win God’s favour.

This went far beyond politics. For Saudi Arabia to welcome all these people as they are with their different ideas and customs is a major test of nerves for al-Wahhabiyya. In vain would the Saudi religious police try to force the mass of world Muslims to conform to their view of proper behaviour. The sheer volume of the crowds forces the religious police to take a back seat and let the assorted heretics and newbies be. The authorities ‘give general instructions not to interfere too much with pilgrims during the hajj’, says Mansour Nogaidan, a former Wahhabi rejectionist who left the country. ‘The clerics here need to realise that Islam isn’t one form and the world is more diverse than they want to accept. They want to impose their idea of Utopia on us all.’ Booklets and signposts in different languages ask pilgrims not to engage in acts which venerate individuals such as the Prophet through excessive interest in certain pilgrimage sites (for example, Mount Hira, off the hajj trail, where the Prophet is said to have received his first revelation). Mutawwa’een stood on the side of the Kaaba, sometimes with sticks, in an effort to push away worshippers who were trying to kiss and touch it in veneration, but with little success. As I was walking round the first level of the mosque doing tawaf, I found a mutawwa’ poking me in the back with a stick. ‘Lower!’ he snapped, because my robe was pulled high, showing my legs. Some of what they do is aimed at maintaining order. While I was going around the Kaaba I saw them shouting in vain at a group of men and women who wanted to pray in organised lines, as hundreds of people pushed their way round in circumambulation. ‘Don’t pray here, don’t pray here!’ they shouted.

I came across a Wahhabised American convert in a Jeddah hotel who seemed more preoccupied with the heresies of the masses than anything else. ‘Yeah, it’s something amazing to see people from different countries of the earth come together for one purpose’, he said when I asked him how he felt being on hajj. ‘It really touched me to see a long line of people in wheelchairs, the old and the pregnant. But you see inside the mosque people doing bida’ [unorthodox acts], like clinging on to the Place of Abraham [a point inside the sahn several metres from the Kaaba]. There’s a lot of innovation, polytheistic practices, Shia, Sufis and other different groups.’ Innovators, polytheists, Shi’ites, Sufis. It sounded like a list of crimes in some political show trial. Many pilgrims in turn talked of their distaste for the Saudi Islam. ‘Their Islam is very dry, there’s something missing. They have such a sense of orthodoxy and control’, Sayeed Mohamed, an imam from South Africa, told me.

The next day was the traditional tour of the holy sites made by interior minister Nayef before a news conference in the evening at Arafa, the huge plain in the mountains outside Mecca where the pilgrims spend the first day and night of hajj. First we saw a parade of some 5,000 troops including anti-terrorist forces in black balaclavas, elite special forces and crowd control personnel as they marched past Nayef. He was on his best form – later on we were kept waiting in a large hall for about two hours before he deigned to turn up. He sat alone at a long distance from the press pack on a large podium, so that with his headdress and robes on, we could hardly see him at all – court ceremonial intended to intimidate. His answers to questions, on the dubious theme of al-Qa’ida attacking pilgrims, were gruff and curt. ‘We are ready for anything that could happen’; ‘We always say there is no guarantee that nothing could happen but we trust the security forces to be able to do their job’; ‘All efforts are being made to secure the house of God. In past years and this year we give confidence to the pilgrims so they can safely carry out their rituals.’ Afterwards we were allowed to gorge ourselves on a fat buffet dinner in the open air before being taken back to Jeddah.

The real danger, however, was safety. In 1990, 1,426 people were crushed to death in a stampede in a road tunnel in Mecca; in 1998, 2001 and 2003, at least 172 people were killed in various other overcrowding incidents at the Jamarat, three spots where pilgrims gather over a three-day period to throw stones at a spot where the devil is said to have appeared to Abraham. Hajj affairs minister Iyad Madani was asked about Jamarat safety issues at the buffet on the grass after Nayef’s priggish performance. ‘Any gathering of people of this size in a limited geographical area could lead to problems but we have plans to prevent this’, he said. ‘We have started to bring pilgrims to the Jamarat on the basis of a specific timetable so that everyone doesn’t come at one time to the bridge. The other step is preventing cars completely from entering the Jamarat Bridge so there is no mix of cars and people. We hope these measures together will stop incidents.’

But according to Sami Angawi, the best-laid crowd control plans had been obstructed for years by the reluctance of the authorities to stop pilgrims coming in cars to the Jamarat area as well as the insistence of the Wahhabi religious establishment on everyone performing rites at specific times. Saudi clerics say the stone-throwing should take place in the afternoon of the third day, as booklets handed out to pilgrims advise. Angawi, who set up the kingdom’s Hajj Research Centre in 1975, said the problem was that there could be an estimated 50,000 cars at the same time in one location. ‘Seventy-five per cent of the pilgrims throw stones in 25 per cent of the available time and that’s because of the particular insistence of one school’, he said. ‘Now they want to increase the capacity of Jamarat, but then you create problems at the next stage. They always work on the space side, expanding roads and tunnels, but there are two factors: space and time.’

The hajj starts with pilgrims streaming out from Mecca on the eighth day of the month to the plain of Arafa where they must spend the ninth day in commemoration of the Prophet Mohammad’s farewell sermon 14 centuries ago. Though hundreds of thousands came on around 20,000 buses in a massive logistical operation, many come on foot tracing the Prophet’s path through mountain passes to Arafa. Sometimes referred to as Mount Arafat, the plain consists of a massive tented village that the Saudi authorities throw up every year to lodge the pilgrims according to nationality. On the first night there we headed down to the main mosque of Namura to speak to some pilgrims. The act of springing someone for a quote, with editors breathing down your phone, is rarely anything but deeply unsatisfying. Laying in wait for pilgrims was worse. The questions are clichéd and the answers even more so. ‘What will you be praying for this year?’ which we sometimes followed with, as an encouragement or prod in the right direction, ‘what with the war in Iraq and …’. Rarely would you get anything that veered away from standard responses that people felt obliged to offer. For example, Ribhy Yaseen, a Palestinian: ‘I feel like any Muslim who comes to the house of God – we want God to give the Islamic nation success, to liberate our land from the Jews and to return the al-Aqsa mosque to Muslims.’ Or Iraqi Qadir Khidr: ‘We hope God will give success to the Muslim people around the world and especially in our region.’ Some at Namura were not impressed with the media presence: ‘May God curse all cameramen!’ a Saudi hissed at our Mahmoud. He hit back: ‘You’re meant to have a pure heart and intent for the days of the hajj, so you shouldn’t say things like that.’

The morning of the day at Arafa began with pilgrims heading to a large rocky outcrop in the area called Jabal al-Rahma (Mount Mercy). It was at this spot specifically that the Prophet is said to have given his farewell sermon. This was one of most pleasant and memorable moments of the hajj. We must have risen at five in the morning in our pilgrim towels, then made our way the kilometre or so to the Mount. As the sun rose in the mountains surrounding the plains, it gradually became a blanket of white as pilgrims trekked to the top. Since we had got there early we reached the top without much problem, though getting back down looked like it would be tricky. There was one main path up between the huge boulders and hundreds were now streaming up the outcrop. Many had slept here the night before. People sat around and prayed in groups or alone, or chanted in Arabic the hajj refrain known as the talbiya: ‘O God, I am in thy presence again, there is no presence like Thine presence, to You is the praise, the power and domain, there is no equal to You.’ The beauty of the scene demanded a prayer, which five of us did, with the cameraman leading our group and us repeating after him, in the Muslim fashion.

Negotiating our way down the mountain as the crowds swarmed upwards, we had the first sense of the kind of chaos that was to come. Down below I noticed huge multilingual signposts from the Saudi authorities warning that the Prophet did not sanction prayer there, but clearly no one was paying any attention to what the Saudis thought. A carnival atmosphere was filling this huge pilgrim city at Arafa, which by mid-morning had come alive. Hawkers by the roadside sold everything from umbrellas to keep off the sun, to prayer mats and prayer beads. Men were offering to take pictures of pilgrim groups for up to $12 a shot and enterprising teenagers were offering camel rides for around $3. ‘It’s God that gives me my daily sustenance, but I get about 500 pilgrims every day during the hajj season’, one camel boy said shyly at being questioned about the time-honoured tradition of making money out of the pilgrims.

By night-time pilgrims began moving on to the next stage – heading back down towards Mecca to an area known as Muzdalifa and the Jamarat at Mina. I really didn’t know what was coming next at any stage, something that gave the whole experience a magical aspect. I imagine it was like this for everyone there for the first time. Everyone is in a group and learning as they go along about what hajj entails and the numerous booklets the authorities gave out were in general pretty useful. It was a nice evening, cool and pleasant. We sat around inside a ministry compound at Muzdalifa with waiters serving us big pots of Arabic coffee and tea as we lounged around on cushions and chatted. There were quite a few khawaga Westerners amongst us, and whilst I was aware of being a European in what some might consider a Third World religious event, the mix of people was too diverse to get lost in that dark alley: if anything, it was Saudi approaches to non-Western non-Arabs that constituted the major fault-line in the proceedings, a divide that involved issues of wealth and culture. The compound was full of small stone chips and people took the chance to gather stones for their trips to the three pillars marking the site of the temptation at Jamarat. Apparently, we would need 49 in all: later that evening we would throw seven at the central pillar, sometime in the 24 hours after that we would throw seven at each of the three pillars, and in the next 24 hours we would do the same again. The size of the stones, and the spirit in which they are thrown, is an issue of some debate. Wahhabi scholars also don’t like to see too much passion put into throwing stones at the pillars, which is a good thing, I’d say. Government booklets explained: ‘Some believe they are throwing stones at the devil himself, so they do it with anger and insults, but we are only asked to do the Jamarat in order to remember God. Some throw big stones, shoes or pieces of wood, but this is going too far and the Prophet forbade it.’

Later in the evening we drove down to the ministry’s lodgings at Mina on the mountainside overlooking the Jamarat, which were accessible via an aerial roadway or bridge which had been constructed around them for pilgrims to walk onto. Or they could throw stones at the pillars from under the bridge at their base. The Jamarat lay in a narrow bottleneck at the end of a deep valley overlooking Mecca and the bridge made the area even narrower. Most of the pilgrims were housed in camps on a wider part of the valley floor before the bridge area. As we drove down we witnessed the stunning site of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in white moving along the huge night-lit highway the Saudis had built between Arafa and Mina. It must have been around midnight by now. We dumped our stuff in the rooms allocated for us and where we’d spend the next three days and nights, then got on a bus which took us down to the Jamarat bridge.

The pillars were located some 50 metres apart, rising up through the middle of the specially designed roadway to allow access to those who walked over the bridge. We were underneath at the central one and there was a modest crowd of maybe 500 people. It was an odd atmosphere, sort of celebratory but a bit dangerous with stones flying everywhere. Since people are circling the pillar from every side, anyone can easily overthrow and hit those standing opposite. But mostly you wouldn’t want to risk getting too close to the inside of the group of pilgrims doing the throwing, and many timidly move up to the outer ring of the circle to throw their seven stones. ‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful’ is the standard utterance when throwing each one, or ‘I seek God’s help from the devil.’ The occasion seemed disappointingly inauspicious. Perhaps it was the location. It felt like standing at an ugly underpass in central Cairo. Grey concrete, huge pillars, stones, even the grey-brown of the mountainside. Someone had daubed ‘USA’ at the base of the central pillar in blue paint. ‘This country was founded on this faith and, God willing, will stick to it’, the mufti said that evening in his Namura sermon.

After that, at around one in the morning, we were taken into the heart of Mecca to the mosque for midnight tawaf and the mas’a at Safa and Marwa run that I hadn’t done before. It was quieter going round the Kaaba, but still there was a huge crowd and one was constantly trying to avoid being jabbed by an arm or rammed by a determined pilgrim heading on a new trajectory, or having one’s foot trodden on. In a spirit of martyrdom, perhaps, one utters non-stop praise and prayer to God and does not stop moving until the seventh wave is done. At that point you quickly try to eject yourself from the swirling circle without more violence being done to you. The entering and the leaving are delicate processes involving moving forward with the crowd but gradually moving outwards too. I saw the tall figure of Egyptian cabinet minister Ahmed Nazif moving more gracefully than some others with the crowd: it was a few months before he became prime minister, but seven years later he faced trial for corruption and wasting public money. Once I was out I drank holy Zamzam water at the numerous taps around. Pilgrims would come by and fill whole bottles with the stuff which they would then take home with them to friend and family, believing in its curative powers. Then I went over to the Safa and Marwa circuit. I was with Sohaib, our photographer who was my sheikh for the occasion since he was much more informed about these affairs than I was. There is a special passageway that runs up the middle of the hall which allows those in wheelchairs to move unhindered by the crowds. Some people seemed to think this was a good way to complete each circuit quickly without having to negotiate the crowds all around. I followed, protesting that this wasn’t an appropriate thing to do. I did two of the seven this way then decided to suffer with the other pilgrims. Tawaf in the cool of the night, on the eve of Eid al-Adha, was a blessing.

At some time around eight in the morning I collapsed onto the floor mattress at the ministry’s retreat on the mountainside. We had been up for 24 hours and had only slept four hours the night before that. No one had had a proper shower in two days and we were wearing these white robes. Then at 9.30am my colleague’s phone rang. There had been some accident down at the Jamarat, he said. I called the office then ran down the mountain steps to the Jamarat as fast as I could with my notebook, pen and phone. It was packed with people and I couldn’t get to the upper level of the bridge overlooking the Jamarat pillars because security police had blocked access. I asked a policeman what happened. Absolutely nothing, he said. I asked one of the medics at one of the portable clinics around the area. At least 100 people died in a crush on the bridge earlier, he said. My God, I thought. But he wasn’t going to give me his name. I asked another one. At least 200, he said. All I could do was tell the office what I had and try and find people who might have been there or in the vicinity when it happened. Our cameraman, meanwhile, had got onto the roof of the ministry lodge where he had a clear shot of dozens of bodies laid out on the ground on the bridge. When I’d done as much as I could do, I headed back up the steps and the road. The information ministry officials were furious that we had run a story saying the numbers of dead were in the dozens before the state news agency had made its official pronouncement.

Two hours later we were bussed to a press conference in Mecca with Madani. The minister’s revelation was that 244 people had died (the figure rose later to 251) and 244 were injured. ‘There were more than 400 metres of people pushing in the same direction [which] resulted in the collapse of those next to the stoning area and those behind. That led to panic’, he said. But he gave some odd comments suggesting a certain resignation regarding casualties and even nonchalance. The deaths represented ‘less than 1 per cent of 1 per cent of the pilgrims’, and ‘no matter what research work we do, incidents do happen’, ‘it’s bad luck rather than any lack of follow-up’. ‘I confirm that all preparations were made, but God’s intentions are sometimes unknowable’, he added. The problem, he said, was pilgrims who had not come on organised trips, but rather were ex-pat labour in the kingdom who had come on their own steam – illegally, since hajj requires special visas and permits. Many may have done hajj last year and stayed on in the kingdom illegally, he said: these people were moving around the pilgrimage carrying all their gear with them and that gear had got in the way of other pilgrims on the top of the bridge as hundreds of thousands surged ahead. Most of the dead were Indonesians, Pakistanis and other Asian nationalities.

No one ever produced statistics then or since to prove the dead were all illegal hajjis. There was clearly another problem: pilgrims knew how to get onto the bridge but there was no clear process for getting off. The bridge filled up with more and more people at a far faster rate than they were able, willing or encouraged to get off. Most pilgrims seemed largely unperturbed, though people were a bit wary during the stoning rituals on the rest of Sunday and on Monday. ‘I’m not frightened, but you have to be careful’, said Indian pilgrim Mohammed Seif later that day, complaining that some pilgrims were still aggressively pushing their way to the pillars. ‘You can stone any time, you don’t have to do it all at once’, he said, which was the view that some Saudi clerics were finally prepared to endorse in subsequent statements. ‘In the end it’s fate’, said Saudi pilgrim Hussein Ahmed. ‘What can you do with millions of people in the same spot?’ said Ilhami Osman, an Egyptian pilgrim, angry at fielding such questions from a foreigner. The government was still more concerned with terrorism, after Saudis had turned against the regime under the al-Qa’ida banner. ‘Terrorism is corruption on earth’, a joint statement from King Fahd and his crown prince Abdullah said. ‘Such acts must be confronted and their falseness exposed so they do not sway the ignorant. They are the result of sick minds and deviant ideologies alien to Islam’s laws and principles.’ The imam leading the Eid al-Adha prayer in Mecca attacked takfir itself. ‘This phenomenon has expanded so much that scholars must confront it with concrete proof from Islam to protect our youth from its stench and putridness’, Abdulrahman al-Sudais said. Western fears of Islamic fundamentalism had reached Mecca itself: this could have been Bush speaking, though for sure Bush would have used less colourful language.

At the Jamarat, meanwhile, security police had gone from nonchalant to aggressive. Crowd control warnings were blared via megaphones and helicopters hovered in the sky monitoring the situation. In the evening I went down there with a colleague to do another round of stone-throwing. The crush was as bad as ever. It was astounding. Tens of thousands of pilgrims had crowded under around and under the Jamarat bridge. The problem was that a huge portion of the available ground was taken up by pilgrims camped on the ground. We headed for underneath the bridge where there was a bit more space. A bulldozer had found its way through and was clearing away a mountain of small stones around the base of one of the pillars, dredging up dozens of plastic sandals and slippers apparently thrown by some who got a bit carried away with the ‘let-it-all-out’ vibe of the ritual. ‘USA’ had been removed from the central pillar, though the clearing of the stones had revealed ‘Bush’ written at the base of another. Men crowded in to get a good shot at the pillar while women strained at the back to hit the target. Stones clattered down through the hole through which the pillar reached up to the upper floor of the bridge where the pilgrims above were chucking their stones too. Though we moved away quickly once we’d finished, we weren’t in safety yet. The way back to the steps that take you up to the road on the mountain side was completely packed with the squatters. Police on the other side did nothing about it. ‘What can we do?’ one smirked like it was a comedy when we asked him about the chaos. A few children, some with deformities or missing limbs, sat on the road begging. ‘Something given for the sake of God!’ they shouted, pointlessly. No one was giving.

Despite everyone’s best efforts to maintain good spirits, tempers fray during hajj. With these increasingly large numbers of people ‘processed’ through narrow mountain passes since the early 1980s, it has become a severe stretch on even the good manners of even the most pious or good-natured. It is amazing to think there were only 20,000 people or so who attended during some hajj years in the early 1930s. That evening at the Jamarat some people’s behaviour was hard to excuse. A Yemeni man charged from the front with a woman in a wheelchair gasping for breath. An Egyptian came from behind on a motorbike. ‘I didn’t think there would be crowds here’, he announced with an inane grin on his face. ‘Is there anywhere here that isn’t crowded?’ I barked back. Men from Gulf countries tried to protect their fully-veiled wives, though the smells, the pushing and the shoving had all but left their modesty in shreds. The standard call for making your way through the crowds was ‘Tareeg, Ya Hajj!’ – ‘Please pilgrims, clear the way!’ – but it was useless in a situation like this.

As we eventually neared the stairway the ground was covered in compressed garbage – two days’ worth of plastic cups, bits of fruits, wrapping papers, and hair cut by an army of on-site barbers once pilgrims have made their first tawaf on Eid al-Adha. ‘These are people who don’t have homes in the first place’, I heard one person mutter. He touched on a very real point. Our complaints were the complaints of the relatively prosperous about the ways of the Asian poor who could not easily communicate with the Saudis or the other Arabs in Arabic. It was such an odd sight: the campers, who were mainly Indonesian, sat there silently staring at the mass of people before them. A policeman finally erupted at them. ‘Get out! Go!’ he screamed in Arabic at the front row. They scurried away without so much as a whimper, gathering up their mats, pots and pans and small parcels of food. In an instant the ideal of a microcosmic world without social or cultural distinctions or a word raised in anger was exposed for the lie, even if a beautiful lie, that it essentially was.

The authorities effected a radical renovation of the Jamarat for the hajj of 1425, which fell in January 2005. The pillars which rise from under the bridge and peak through the upper level on the bridge were transformed into a long wall and the barriers around them had been brought closer to the walls so there would be less of a crush of people trying to throw stones from a distance as in previous years. There were many more exits on the bridge, as well as large electronic signposts telling pilgrims in Arabic, English, French Bahasa Malay and Urdu not to push their way among the crowds. In fact, compared to before, this was so much easier that one wondered why they had only thought of it now. As one pilgrim told me: ‘For the first time it feels like it’s really organised. Everyone is saying it’s much better.’ I did wonder whether some sacrilegious act had been inflicted on the pillars through turning them into walls of stone, but then again one had to remember that the pillars themselves are neither sacred nor ancient – they simply represent a site and have been altered throughout the centuries. Since then, the last time I visited Mecca, the Jamarat bridge has morphed into a four-storey structure resembling a car park, with extended walls, to allow far more access to the walls, though the authorities see this as a means to bring even more pilgrims to perform hajj rather than purely a means of making the rites safer. With so many people – the authorities like to cite a figure of 3 million now – there is a danger that the hajj is being reduced to simply a set of actions emptied of any meaning at all, an empty shell, as tired pilgrims are herded from one point to the next and blamed for their own travails whenever disaster strikes, while the affluent live in the lap of luxury in Disneyland-in-the-sky hotel towers bearing down on the Kaaba. Mass transport is being introduced to the pilgrimage sites, but even that project betrays signs of tokenism: it’s a high-speed rail link between Mecca and Medina.

Though the ‘hajj overstayer’ is one of those great fears of Saudi bureaucracy that slips inexorably into racism, there are many Asians who find lives in Mecca, happy to make a humble living in the shadow of the mosque. For some it was what America was for the human surplus produced by the Industrial Revolution in nineteenth century Europe – sanctuary. Like all those who find their sanctuary in a far-off land, they want to belong and to assimilate. They speak Arabic, and if they’ve been there long enough will play down their foreign origins if they possibly can. Mecca has absorbed many in this manner over the ages, from West Africa and from East Asia. Many Saudis in Jeddah and Mecca betray a certain Malaysian or Indonesian look. At Mount Arafat I came across two men from Burma whose parents had settled in Mecca in the 1950s. ‘We have lived here all our lives, we have become part of the country’, they said. ‘But we don’t have nationality.’ I didn’t ask why or ask more. They sat quietly and motionless, keeping warm in their robes on simple plastic sheets by the side of the road, part of the half a million Saudi residents who had slipped into the pilgrimage on their own, confounding the efforts to control the hajj. I met a Bangladeshi working in a shop selling religious books and tapes who gave his name as Abd al-Tahar Mohammed. The name alone reveals only that he is a Muslim, and leaves no trace of his ethnic origin. ‘My life is working here in this shop and then going down to the Grand Mosque to pray. God be praised’, he beamed, clasping my hand. He had been here four years now, living within a stone’s throw of the Kaaba. As far as he was concerned, God had truly smiled on him. Another shop-worker I spoke to gave him name as Nour. He had an Indonesian or Malaysian look, and was coy on giving details about his origins. ‘From here’, he would just say. I didn’t press the point. He was pleasant with me, more so than his Egyptian boss who was rude and suspicious about the khawaga reporter asking all the questions.

Editors often wanted quotes from pilgrims that would provoke irritation from those questioned; for example, the CNN-esque ‘what do the pillars represent for you??’ Some said they were Bush, the Israeli leader Ariel Sharon or British prime minister Tony Blair. I’m not sure that any of them really meant it, with the possible exception of Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist and one-time captive with the Taliban who converted to Islam. I came across her on the chaotic road outside the government encampments on the mountainside. I had seen her earlier in the day speaking on Saudi TV from the rooftop studio inside our residence, though in her black robes and hijab she would pass for any other Muslim woman. She was on her first pilgrimage and was happy to talk. ‘During the stoning I couldn’t help thinking of Bush, Blair and Sharon’, she said. ‘It’s the greatest show on earth. There is nothing to compare anywhere on the planet. It shows how Islam transcends nationalisms, colours and cultures. We are all one – there is no rich, no poor, we are all just Muslims’, she said. I loved her next comment, so Nuevo Christiano: ‘In a way, it’s a shame that non-Muslims can’t come to witness this sort of unity.’ If women can pray alongside men in Mecca, why can’t they do it elsewhere, she asked? ‘Perhaps some mosque leaders should pay attention to this and promote this sort of unity.’ Her minder, who had the appearance of a mutawwa’, just smiled politely.

There was a similar media circus in January 2005 during the hajj of Islamic year 1425, which took place after the massive tsunami that hit countries of the southern Asian seaboard on 16 December 2004. Searching for a story in which to frame the hajj for audiences, editors wanted to know how the tsunami had lowered pilgrim numbers from Asia or cast a shadow over the rituals. Around 230,000 people died in 14 countries, 130,000 of them in Indonesia and thus Muslim. Some scholars in Saudi Arabia had suggested the tragedy was to punish Indonesia for welcoming Western tourists with mixed-sex beaches, bars and nightclubs. The Egyptian cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi suggested the same. We set up the equipment on a raised platform outside a KFC branch near the mosque in Mecca and hoisted those ready to speak onto the platform away from the crowd. It was all rather contrived in that I don’t think the tsunami was on so many people’s minds, unless they actually came from the afflicted areas in South Asia. Also, how much they are troubled by the opinions of a particular religious leader is open to question. Islam is full of muftis, imams and sheikhs, and Muslims can take their pick about whose opinions they want to follow; it’s not like there is a Pope. Even Sistani in Iraq is only ‘pope’ for those Shi’ites who choose to make him their marja’. ‘How can it be our fault? This tragedy was too big. There was an earthquake and a wave at the same time. I don’t think we could be so bad as that’’ one young Indonesian said. A Pakistani man in his fifties, who I think offered the opinion he did because he thought it was the answer we were looking for, said: ‘There is drinking and other things which go on in places in the West but which Muslims don’t expect to happen in their own countries.’ Perhaps the most thoughtful response came from the South African imam Sayeed Mohamed. ‘Although the Quran does talk about God using natural phenomenon to punish people who have gone astray, it is not for us to say or to know’, he said.

English is probably the most widely understood language of all among all the pilgrims at hajj, which might seem odd or even ironic, given the sentiments of Salafism in its various forms, but it’s not ultimately a surprise. Arabic-speakers, on the other hand, are the elite; they speak not just the language of God’s revelation, but that of His bureaucracy. Arabs share culture and understanding with the Saudis that make their life easier during hajj. Asian pilgrims dominate numerically, but must put up with the disdain of their hosts and many of the other Arabs towards them. Ultimately, however, the ingathering of peoples from all four corners of the globe to perform these ancient rites around the Kaaba was the humbling experience it should be; for all the complexities of movement and logistic, there was beauty in the simplicity of hajj, and it was comforting to stare afterwards at those stunning images the photographers managed to get – I’m sure not without some manipulation – of hundreds of thousands of people moving through the night-ether of the mosque, condensed into a mass of white-in-motion around a symmetrical black box, and to know that you were nothing but a pixel in the Meccan dream of one common humanity.

(from The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, Pluto, 2012)

Notes

  1. Fred Halliday, Arabia Without Sultans. London: Saqi Books, 2002, p. 49.
  2. Mai Yamani, Cradle of Islam: The Hijaz and the Quest for Identity in Saudi Arabia. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009, pp. 43–4.
  3. Fahd al-Jarboa, Assistant Deputy Secretary General of Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities: ‘Tourism Commission develops new strategies to attract international tourists’, Reuters Television, 31 October 2008.
  4. King Abdullah often cites the location of the Mecca and Medina sacred zones in discussions of rivalry with Iran over Muslim leadership. See US diplomatic report 12 July 2006, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2006/07/06RIYADH5546.html.
  5. Abdullah confesses that visas have been withheld from Iraqis for ‘political reasons’ in his US diplomatic cable of 16 September 2006, http://wikileaks. org/cable/2006/09/06RIYADH7211.html. Madawi Al-Rasheed says hajj visas are withheld from Saudi dissidents in Britain: ‘Al-hajj: siyasat al-sa’udiyya al-ma’zuma’, Al-Quds al-Arabi, 9 December 2008.
  6. The precise order of rites can differ according to when and where you enter the state of ihram and the sacred zone.
  7. Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World. London: Penguin, 2000, p. 48.
  8. Religious bodies including the Ministry of Islamic Affairs offer money to converts, as this US diplomatic report notes: 25 August 2007, http://wikileaks. org/cable/2007/08/07RIYADH1776.html.
  9. Patricia Crone, Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam. New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2004. 10. In 2009, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talked of ‘immoral and inhuman treatment’ of Iranian pilgrims and the mufti denounced attempts to stage political demonstrations. See US diplomatic cable 10 November 2009, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/11/09RIYADH1507.html.

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