Just back from Saudi Arabia, Gboyega Alaka relives the pleasant memories of the holy cities as well as the lessons.
FOR a Nigerian from the Southwest and a first time visitor to Saudi Arabia, the first thing you notice, as your plane screech to a halt at the Prince Muhammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport in Medina is the distortion of your sense of night and day. It’s 5.30am and already broad daylight, with the sun high up, shinning bright. How does that happen? You wonder– more especially if you are not a wide traveler and has never witnessed such irregularity.
Next, you emerge from the big bird, and it’s as if you have just been ushered into a furnace. If you have ever read Basketball star Hakeem Olajuwon’s memoir of how he felt like turning back and heading home because of the chilling cold that greeted him at the airport in America, then you will understand this writer’s dilemma Weather analysis would shortly after reveal it was 43 degree centigrade! Never that hot in Lagos. Not even at noon or early afternoon.
But this writer, a devout Muslim, didn’t consider turning back. This was a rare opportunity presented on a platter of gold by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), to both cover and report its proceedings and activities, and also perform hajj – the fifth pillar of Islam, as recommended to every Muslim by the prophet, at least once in a lifetime.
City of Light
Medina, locally pronounced Madinah, is the capital of Al Madinah Region in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Before the prophet’s arrival, it was called Yathrib but renamed Al-Madinatul ‘l-Munawwarah (the lighted city or the radiant city). It is the site of Al-Masjid an Nabawi literally translated, The Prophet’s Mosque, which also houses the prophet’s burial place. The Masjid an Nabawi is the second holiest mosque in the Islamic pecking and constantly receives faithful, especially during hajj periods spanning the Islamic months of Thul-Qiddah and Thul-hijjah.
Medina is also home Quba Mosque and Masjid al-Qiblatayn, and has sites where the prophet fought most of the wars to ward off enemies of the new religion as it strived to find its footing in the early years, such as Mount Uhud.
Muslims on hajj are expected to spend at least seven days in Medina, during which time, they devotedly observe their five daily prayers, including voluntary nawafils, at the expansive Masjid an Nabawi. Those who could, also seize the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the burial site of the prophet in the mosque and say a prayer or two. Because of the strong belief in the efficacy of praying at this site, stampede can sometimes occur, which is why it is heavily policed and crowd control, strict.
Most spectacular however is the sheer size of the mosque, and the huge number of the gigantic skyscraper hotels and commerce that go on around its vicinity. The mosque, founded by Prophet Muhammad in AH 1 (622CE), has capacity for well over 250,000 worshipers at a go and occupies 82000 square meters, probably the size of the whole of Ladipo market in Lagos. During the hajj, mass of people of different nations, races and cultures could be seen trooping in and out of the mosque at intervals. The kingdom has also built on its nearly 1400 years experience of hosting throngs of pilgrims, to develop into a modern tourism hub, with hotel facilities able to comfortably accommodate several million of pilgrims at a go.
The same hotel scenario replicates in Makah, home of the grand mosque, Haram, which houses the holy Ka’abah, of which Oliver Wainwright of The Guardian in its recent international editions, noted that ‘Mecca’s mega architecture casts shadow over hajj.’ Wainwright was writing of Abraj al-Bait, the second tallest building in the world, towering 600meters over the grand mosque and visible 30 kilometers away. Abraj al-Bait comprises multiple floors of shopping malls and cosy hotel accommodations for the very wealthy, who crave nearness to the grand mosque. The whole of Misfallah area of Makah is also lined with high-rise hotels, some up to 25 floors, to house pilgrims. It is in this area that Nigeria’s whopping Seventy-nine thousand (79,000) pilgrims were mainly accommodated, giving them relatively easy access to the grand mosque, Haram, and the Ka’abah.
Hotels adorn everywhere in the two ancient cities, so much that a visitor is left to wonder what becomes of them when it is not hajj season.
Another striking thing about this city is its abundant electricity energy. Despite the numerous hotels and rooms running into hundreds of thousands, power, steady power remains a constant feature – whether you are in Medina or Makah. Not for once was their power outage or fluctuations. All rooms, including receptions are fully air-conditioned, giving pilgrims adequate respite from the furnace hot atmosphere in the streets.
The Nation’s findings was later to reveal that the City of Medina, which is just about 589KM2 in area and 1.2million in population, boasts of 40,000megawatts of electricity, while the Prophet’s Mosque alone has 10,000megawatts of energy at its disposal. This clearly explains why the mosque is always radiantly lit and permanently air-conditioned, creating a cool, welcoming ambience for worshippers coming from the hot streets.
Outdoor parts of the mosque are also not left out of the cooling efforts, as outdoor air-conditioners could be seen rotating and spewing cool air into the atmosphere to appease the heat for pilgrims who couldn’t get access into the inner abode of the mosque.
To say the least, the whole streets are radiantly lit, making movement a safe and pleasant experience, always.
Beauty on rocks
Another notable feature, which might also be responsible for the high temperature, is that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is situated largely on rocky plains and bounded by rocky mountains everywhere you turn. It then struck this reporter, that while cities like Lagos are having to chase and fill up the lagoons and the ocean to create land for building, in Makah and Medina, it is the rocks and mountains that are giving way. Tell-tale evidences of blasted rocks could be seen in most places where skyscraper structures and hotels have sprung or are under construction.
As a Saudi friend and trader, Abdelmajid, put it, “What can we do? It is our portion and we have to make the best of it.”
It must also be noted that both cities are extremely well-planned, beautiful and well-organised. Street sweepers could also be seen, sweeping and making sure, the streets are clean and devoid of litters. That’s in spite of the millions of pilgrims. Along with Jeddah (the third city this reporter was privileged to visit), Saudi Arabian cities are comparable to any in top American and European cities.
Despite its rocky nature, the kingdom has almost miraculously been able to overcome water problem. Everywhere you turn, water runs; even in topmost floors of the high rise hotels. Aside that, free portable water bottles are available in virtually every mosque, offices and facilities, while water dispensing machines also abound. In the alternative, 75-litre bottle water are available at very affordable 1Riyal (about N90).
Nigerians regaled in 5-star hotels
Unlike in the past when Nigerians used to be lodged in far flung areas away from the Prophet’s Mosque and were prone to vehicular accidents and missing their way, the umbrella body of all hajj activities in Nigeria, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON) has stepped up its game, so much that Nigerians now lodge in some of the best 5-star hotels within the vicinity of the mosque, such as Andalus Al Marsi, Al Andalus Suites, Guest Time, within the highbrow Markaziyah district and next to the Prophet’s Mosque.
According to NAHCON co-ordinator in Medina, Ahmed Maigari, putting the pilgrims in hotels close to the Haram was a conscious effort the commission made.
“Before now, Nigerian pilgrims used to be lodged around Qurba area, where the commission has its office and beyond, which is a bit far from the Haram and made them prone to accidents, as they used to be hit by vehicle, while crossing the roads, but since we took that conscious decision, we have recorded zero auto accidents.”
Umar Bala, Head, Civic Operations was to attest to this in a separate interview, when he said, “Nigeria is one of the five nations in the world with all her pilgrims occupying the vicinity of the Haram.”
Balikis Olalekan from Ikeja Local Government Area, Lagos State testified to the standard of accommodation provided to them.
Sporting a gold tooth reminiscent of pilgrims, Hadja Olalekan said, “So far, everything has been smooth, minus a few hitches here and there.”
Asked why she went for the tooth, she said, “It is more to discipline myself. People see it as a logo of a Muslim faithful who has gone on hajj, and what that means that one should not be seen anywhere or anything untoward or un-Islamic.”
Besides, she said, “The type I fixed is the removable type because as an educationist, there are places I may not want to parade it. So on such occasions, I simply remove it. And where it is suitable, I put it on.”
On her take-home from Mecca, she said, “My prayer to Almighty Allah is to for the sake of the prophet, grant our prayers in our country. If you ask me, there is no place like Mecca. Look at the crowd of all races milling round the Ka’abah. Do you think it is for nothing? They are seeking the face of Allah because they know he will grant their requests here.”
Waliyat Salaw from Apapa Local Government also testified to the standard of accommodation, even though she said there were a few hitches on the first day. They stayed five in a fully air-conditioned room and the food has been “more than adequate.”
The first day, they ate ofada rice, to her surprise. They have also been feted with amala, semo, usually with two big pieces of meat, sometimes with big chicken. “In fact, I’ve made up my mind that I will boycott chicken when I get home, considering the quantity I have consumed in this country. The last time I made a video call home, people were asking me what I was being fed with,” she said.
Salaw however has a complaint. The internet at her hotel in Mecca is not as strong as that of Medina, making it difficult for her to connect with home.
In the same vein, Shakiru Lateef from Mushin Local Government also in Lagos gave kudos to the Lagos State Pilgrims Welfare Board and the National Hajj Commission for the way they have handled this year’s hajj.
“I think they have done well in the area of accommodation. I give them pass mark.”
He however thinks Nigeria has a thing or two to learn from Saudi Arabia in the area of power and city management. “May Almighty Allah give our leaders the ability to replicate the good things they see here back home,” he prayed.
Aminat Momoh Abdulkadiri an Edo indigene resident in Abuja said she came with Oyo State Pilgrims Welfare Board because their fare was N100,000 cheaper than that of Abuja.
of the experience, she said it has been pleasant. “So far, so good. The food is good, the accommodation is okay and they have been carrying everybody along irrespective of your tribe or tongue.”
Of her gold tooth, she said she did it more to satisfy her children who had impressed it on her to fix it.”
Spiritually, she said the experience has been fulfilling and she hopes to come again and again and again.”
Stoning the Devil, Mount Arafat and the Naija menace
While space may not be enough to discuss the five days spent in Mina tents, during which pilgrims spend half the night in the plains of Musdalifah before proceeding to commence the three-day stoning of the devil and the one day supplication on Mount Arafat, it might be enough to state that Saudi hajj authorities, as testified by the representative of NAHCON in Saudi Arabia, Dr Aliyu Tanko, have put in a lot to improve the system, including the use of technology to ensure a more pleasant hajj experience and avoid any kind of casualty.
But like this reporter pointed out to the Acting Chairman of NAHCON, Barr. Abdullahi Mukhtar Muhammed, during a meeting with the media team, going forward, first time pilgrims must be informed of the distance of Jamurat, where they observe the symbolic stoning of the devil. This was a distance of about five kilometres but which uninformed pilgrims, including this reporter, embarked upon with so much vigour rather than take things easy and tired out even before they got half-way.
The Jamurat is also the spot where casualties have been recorded in the past due to fatigue and crowd stampede, but thankfully, this is fast becoming a thing of the past.
Mount Arafat, reputed to be the centre of the universe is the mountain where the prophet gave his last sermon. It is reputed to be the seal of the hajj process and pilgrims are expected to spend time on it and around its plains to supplicate on the 9th of Thul-hijjah. It is for this reason that the authorities in Saudi Arabia ensure that even the sick and bed-ridden are brought there on this day. The Muslim feast of Eid al Adha (Eid el Kabir), where faithful slaughter rams in commemoration of Prophet Ibrahim’s sacrifice of a ram in place of his son, Ismail, comes up the next day.
Naija menace. Like home, like abroad
NOTHING exemplifies the old joke that Nigerians will turn America to Nigeria within months, if relocated to that country and Americans will turn Nigeria to America if relocated to Nigeria, as what played out in Mina in the five days spent there.
Within a few hours of arriving the tent city, filth and refuse had started mounting within the Nigeria area. People could be seen eating and dumping the remnants right where they ate, thereby creating what could best be described as an eyesore. This was in spite of the fact the authorities had waste bins placed every 50 meters radius. Instructively, while Nigerians were busy littering their space, Asian pilgrims could be seen coming out of their tents to dump their wastes in the bins. As a result, there was a marked difference between Nigerian areas and Asian areas.
But that was a sneak preview. By the second day, when street trading by Nigerian traders had taken off full swing, the whole area had become a huge mess, with crowd permanently milling, and refuse and filth piling. This was in spite of the fact that the street cleaners never stopped working. At a point, the city’s police had to be coming in at intervals to enforce some sanity by kicking and throwing wares, reminiscent of how the authorities enforce sanity in Nigeria.
One of the cleaners, who couldn’t hide his indignation, shuddered and said in his smattering English: “Nigerian, dirty. Garbage everywhere!” He finished off by covering his nose and shaking his head in pity. This reporter could agree more. He went further to struggle to explain that he regretted being posted to the Nigeria area, arguing that his colleagues in other continent areas were virtually on holidays.
Nigeria can match Saudi in the area of power, if…
Are Musulumi of Yorubaland, Edo and Delta, Alhaji Dawud Makanjuola Akinola is of the opinion that Nigeria can attain the developmental level of Saudi Arabia, especially in the area of abundant power, if only it could summon a good dose of sincerity in its affairs. By Gboyega Alaka
MEDINA has 40,000 megawatt of power and the mosque in Medina has a whopping 10,000 megawatt committed to it, while the whole of Nigeria is struggling to have a steady 5,000 megawatts. How can Nigeria get out of this quagmire?
The God that created us is the same God that created the white man. All we can ask at this point is for God to take charge. I met a Saudi yesterday and he told me during our discussion that they have also been through the stage we find ourselves now, and that they took a conscious decision to turn things around, and they are today enjoying the result. Unfortunately, we are not such a serious people, which is why we have become a laughing stock to the rest of the world. We have become like the prodigal son, who fritter away his father’s (national) wealth and leaves his father’s house desolate.
God has blessed us. The resources we have in Nigeria, Britain does not have it. I’m not even sure America has it. But here we are. Most of our resources are yet to be tapped into. Our major problem is that we don’t trust ourselves. If you put a northerner in government, other tribes and regions will be trying to pull him down; same if you put a westerner or easterner. But we are the same country, and if we don’t sincerely come together to deliberate on our common issues and how to live together in a way that none will feel inferior or dominated, we may just never get it right.
What do you think is the way forward?
We must convene a genuine reconciliation conference to deliberate on our collective aspirations and how we want to live together. And if we want to do this, we must not let the politicians hijack it. We must not let them represent or select participants because such would go and further their selfish agenda. They should pick traditional rulers from each geopolitical zones or have them nominate participants. If the Obas and traditional rulers select delegates, such delegates would represent the traditional rulers who would not want their domain to retrogress or be stagnant. They are stakeholders in both the present and the future of their domains. And if things go awry, it will be easy to place the blame or trace the cause.
In the past, there have been conferences in which the politicians pick representatives whom the people don’t even know. Will such representative be able to aggregate or convey the people’s aspirations well? He will only go there to pursue his pocket’s desire.
But Saudi Arabia is not a democracy and they are getting it right. How so?
Yes, Saudi is ruled by a royal family but you can see the progress. Even though the so-called world democracies may be criticising them, the fact remains that the owner of a place would not want it to spoil. He will want to protect it, knowing that it is his inheritance and something he must preserve for his coming generations. Compare that to the vagabonds in power in Nigeria who have no heritage or allegiance to the nation called Nigeria. They only care about themselves and their families. You see Nigerian politicians maiming and killing all in a bid to go to Abuja. What does that tell you? Their mission is not to serve but to plunder. How many senators do we have in Nigeria? 105. How come they are spending 1/3 of the budget of the whole of Nigeria. What is it they are doing that is so expensive that they spend 1/3 of what about 150million people spend? In advanced countries, it is retired civil servants that go to senate. And they don’t earn salaries but allowances. These ones are pocketing N30milion and on top of that, they would still constitute all sorts of committees and still make themselves chairman of those committees, so that they can plunder the budgets of those sectors. So really, we have to be drastic to make a headway.
The Nation Newspaper
Preparatory to the 2024 Hajj religious exercise to the Kingdom of Saudi Arab…