Reflections on the trials of the holy pilgrimage and how the experience can be improved
Hajj is the largest annual gathering of people on Earth. The Saudi government avowedly considers serving the pilgrims, the “guests of God,” an honour, and dedicates vast manpower and financial resources to the proper conduct of the pilgrimage.
Over the past four decades, the Saudi government has dedicated billions of dollars to expand the Holy Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, as well as to establish modern airports, seaports, roads, lodging, and other amenities and services for the pilgrims. The Saudi state ensures the security and safety of the pilgrims, as well as their well-being and comfort. Numerous steps have been taken to establish facilities and services aimed at improving housing, health care, sanitation, and transportation during Hajj.
The Hajj experience is a profound journey that humbles a Muslim, and calls for the practice of total abstinence from disagreements and altercations among the pilgrims. As the pilgrimage unfolds, patience, courtesy, and a sincere commitment to helping others become the norm, shaping an environment of unity and mutual respect among all participants. It is evident that an aura of peace, serenity, and piety pervades the entire pilgrimage and touches the hearts of every pilgrim.
Muslims today can undertake the pilgrimage with relative ease, are warmly welcomed upon their arrival in Saudi Arabia, and are provided with modern facilities and services. However, any unpleasant experiences can serve as distractions, potentially hindering a haji from solely focusing on the spiritual aspect of the Hajj.
Complications in Hajj packages
It is important to recognize that not all hajis are treated the same way. The entitlement to Hajj facilities in Makkah, Mina, and Arafat are based on the categories defined by the Saudi state, which depends on the specific Hajj package each individual haji has purchased. This means that hajis are provided services in different categories.
During this Hajj, my wife and I, along with a number of fellow Bangladeshi hajis, were in category A, which is often referred to as a VIP package. Under this package, hajis are supposed to receive higher-quality facilities that are not available to hajis in other categories. We paid a significant amount to the agency for this VIP package, expecting these additional higher-quality services.
While my wife and I tried our best to maintain our focus on praying and performing the rituals, I must admit that at times, we found ourselves engaged in heated arguments with the representatives of the Hajj agency accompanying us. These disagreements arose due to the lack of facilities that we were supposed to get, particularly in Mina and Arafat.
Staying in Mina is not a mandatory act during Hajj, but it is considered part of the rites, following the tradition of our Prophet who also stayed in Mina before proceeding to Arafat. Our own experience in Mina, however, was unexpected and somewhat painful.
Upon our arrival, we were dismayed to find that the tents allotted to us were occupied by hajis from another South Asian country, according to our Hajj agency representative. After several hours of intense bickering and waiting, we finally managed to secure tents for both male and female hajis in our group.
Unfortunately, the female hajis who were in smaller numbers, were cramped in a small tent with malfunctioning air-conditioning, and the combination of human heat and scorching weather made it unbearable for many. Thankfully, after much persuasion, the air-conditioning was fixed and we stayed in the tents for three or four days.
Staying in Arafat is a mandatory requirement of Hajj, where pilgrims remember Allah with solemn devotion, seek His blessings and forgiveness for any sins committed. Unfortunately, in Arafat, we faced a similar situation as in Mina. Upon our arrival, we discovered that the tent assigned to us was already occupied by other hajis.
After waiting for several hours inside the bus that transported us to Arafat, some of our fellow hajis, especially the females, were accommodated in a cramped tent with other female hajis from a different group.
Meanwhile, a few male hajis, including myself, were placed in an overcrowded tent already occupied by a group of Pakistani hajis. Faced with this situation, a few of us male hajis opted to find a corner in the open yard and sought shelter under a large umbrella for the day.
Our Hajj experience could have been much better if we had not faced these unpleasant and unwanted occasions of bickering and tribulations. However, had someone not taken the initiative to claim the rightful facilities we were supposed to receive under our purchased package, it could’ve been far worse.
Our tribulations actually started the first day of our arrival in Saudi Arabia. I did not get my luggage until the fourth day. This was faced by many Bangladeshi hajis. In search of my luggage, I went to the hajj mission of Bangladesh, upon the advice of a fellow haji, and was finally able to spot my luggage there. There were many others who also got their luggage either earlier or much later.
As we continued our Hajj journey, we heard similar stories of chaotic arrangements faced by other hajis from Bangladesh. While these occasional caveats are part of the Hajj experience, I truly believe that the Saudi government is very keen on providing the best possible services to the hajis and continually strive to improve the Hajj experience for individuals from all countries.
In this pursuit, it is crucial for the Saudi government, the governments of the sending states, and the hajj agencies and Moallems, to work together in harmony, ensuring a pleasant and hassle-free Hajj experience for all pilgrims.
Physical challenges in the scorching heat
On the day of the symbolic stone-throwing at Jamarat, numerous hajis return to their hotels in Makkah from Jamarat. This journey from Jamarat to the hotel can be extremely challenging, especially for vulnerable hajis, such as females and the elderly, who may not be accustomed to the physical demands of walking and the challenges posed by the Saudi climate. Getting transportation from Jamarat to the hotel in Makkah is a daunting task, as one would be very lucky to find an available taxi or other means of transport during these days.
The scorching heat, unfamiliar to many hajis, made the return to our hotel in Makkah a great ordeal. The police had advised us to find taxis near Bin Dawood in Aziziyah, so we embarked on the walk with hope of securing a taxi. Unfortunately, there were no taxis available, and the fellow hajis of our group who walked with us faced the same struggle in finding transportation.
Left with no other options, I approached a young man on the street who had a wheelchair for rent and asked him if he could carry my wife in his wheelchair until we found a taxi. His kindness provided my wife with some much-needed temporary relief. However, both of us fell sick on the way due to the challenging conditions.
Desperate to reach our hotel, my wife managed to stop a rental car and requested the driver to take us there. But the driver refused to help us. Without hesitation, my wife opened the back seat doors, and we almost forcibly got into the car. The oppressive heat had taken its toll on my wife, and she felt like she was experiencing a heat stroke, while I suffered from muscle cramps in both legs the moment I got into the car. Lying flat on the seats, I was groaning with pain.
The driver expressed his utmost unhappiness when we got into his car. Left with no other options, we offered to pay him whatever amount he may ask for, and after a round of negotiation, he charged us 1200 riyals for a four/five-kilometer journey in Makkah. In the end, we managed to reach our hotel, but the journey had been physically and mentally taxing.
As we listened to the experiences shared by other hajis, we realized that many of them also faced physical challenges while navigating through the scorching heat and the roads on their way back to Makkah. It was evident that the journey was miserable for many.
With these reflections in mind, we sincerely hope that the services provided during the Hajj season will continue to improve in the future to ensure a smoother and more enriching journey for every individual performing Hajj. Our wish is for the pilgrimage experience to become more accessible and comfortable for all pilgrims, thereby avoiding such challenging ordeals.
Due to the unavailability of transportation, a large number of hajis walk from Jamarat to their place of abode in Makkah. Similarly, returning from Makkah to their tents in Mina is a hassle, as many hajis find it extremely difficult to locate their particular tent and get public transportation to get there. This becomes even more challenging and physically burdensome when carrying luggage.
My first suggestion deals with the process of collecting luggage from the airline. I believe there could be a system by which hajis would be able to collect their luggage either at the airport or at their hotel, depending on what is more convenient and feasible. This way, after arriving in Saudi Arabia, hajis can focus on the Hajj spirituality rather than worry about their luggage, which can otherwise be very uncomfortable and cause mental pressure.
The allocation of tents in Mina and Arafat must be according to the number of hajis who registered and paid through the system. The allocation process should be transparent and the list should be shared in advance on a web-application using the internet so that each haji knows which and what type of tent is allocated to them.
All facilities allocated under the purchased Hajj package should be made known to hajis in a language that is easily understandable, such as English, which is widely used by non-native Arabic speakers. Documentations provided solely in Arabic may not be comprehensible to many hajis from non-Arab countries.
Given the cosmopolitan nature of the Hajj event, there is also a crucial need for a signage system that is universally understandable to hajis from all countries and all socio-economic backgrounds. It would be highly beneficial if Saudi universities take the initiative to research and develop a more language-neutral signage system.
The Nusuk app and web-portal could be very useful for the hajis and the service providers as well. However, Nusuk is not currently user-friendly and did not allow me to use it, as not all the required fields were accessible for me to ensure login into the mobile app. Other hajis also reported that they could not access the app. As a result, we could not see what our packages entailed. The app can really make a difference and make the Hajj entitlements transparent to all parties.
Each tent in Mina should have comfortable access to ample bathrooms and toilet facilities, proportionate to the number of hajis it accommodates, complete with proper lighting and secure latches. This seemingly small issue carries significant importance, as the queuing for access to limited facilities can be a major inconvenience for hajis. Implementing these improvements should not be overly challenging, considering that the Saudi authorities have access to capital, land, and other necessary resources.
To ease the huge demand for transportation from Mina tents to Makkah, the authorities could consider implementing suspended monorails or pods connecting Mina, Jamarat, and surrounding areas to Haram and its surrounding neighbourhoods. Additionally, environment-friendly trams could be introduced as part of the transportation infrastructure.
While Hajj leads to a seasonal spike in transportation demand, the introduction of suspended sky trains and eco-friendly trams would not only benefit Hajj pilgrims, but also attract year-round Umrah pilgrims and tourists. Admittedly, Makkah and Madinah have the potential to become the most preferred destination for Muslim tourists and Islamic tourism.
The entire Hajj rite locations in Makkah, Mina, and Arafat, should be available through mobile network-based maps, utilizing IT-based solutions to enhance accessibility and navigation. Implementing a dynamic web-based application that provides easy access to all the maps, coupled with printing options, would further facilitate navigation for pilgrims.
While it is possible that some of the above suggestions have already been considered by the Saudi authorities in some form or another, I firmly believe that if the Saudi authorities addressed these shortcomings, it would make the hajj experience significantly more pleasant and hassle-free.
Finally, I must express my appreciation. Despite a few hiccups, our Hajj experience was overall a truly divine and spiritual renewal by the grace of God. We are immensely grateful to the Saudi authority for their unwavering sincerity in providing services to the hajis and undertaking the monumental task of managing millions of individuals with exceptional care and respect.
Abdullah Al Masud is a freelance contributor.
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