Additionally, touching or kissing the Holy Kabba is prohibited during this year’s Hajj
“I hope I can go for Hajj in 2020.”
These were not my mother’s words but my own, the previously ‘Reluctant Hajji from 2019’; a testament to how a small experience can change your entire perspective on life itself. While I tried my best to get out of Hajj 2019, this time around nostalgia threatens to overwhelm me every time Hajj 2020 is mentioned. This years annual Pilgrimage has rightly been termed by many as being ‘extraordinary’ given the prevailing circumstances due to Covid-19.
Back in May, as Covid-19 cases continued to surge with no end in sight, there were talks of cancelling Hajj altogether this year, something that was unprecedented in modern times – even though curbing attendance from high-risk areas has happened in recent years during the Ebola outbreak. Before any final decision had been reached, some countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Senegal and Singapore, had already announced that their citizens would not be performing Hajj-2020 because of Covid-19 concerns.
However, after much deliberation and finally yielding to international outcry, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia decided to scale the event down from the usual 2.5 million Muslims to around about 1000 pilgrims, all residing within Saudi borders. 70 percent comprise of foreigners from 160 nationalities while the remaining 30 percent are Saudi citizens, limited to health practitioners and security personnel who have recovered from Covid-19. They have been selected from a database of recovered patients, as an ode to their role during the battle against the virus.
While there has been criticism around how Riyadh is going to manage the Hajj this year, the Kingdom is adamant that Hajj will be conducted in line with the highest health and security measures. Hence, on the first of the holy month of Zilhajj, the lower part of the Kaaba garment (kiswa) was raised as per custom as a sign of the beginning of the month of the Hajj.
The 2020 Hajj security plan is premised on four pillars: organisation, security, humanitarian and health. The holy sites of Mecca, Minna, Arafat and Muzdalifah have already been cordoned off with heavy penalties of up to SR 10,000 imposed on anyone not having a Hajj permit and found to be violating the rules. The pilgrims too have had to meet certain criteria in order to perform the Hajj, namely that they should not be suffering from any protracted diseases, should not have performed Hajj previously, and should be between 20-50 years of age.
All pilgrims also have had to sign an undertaking stating they will adhere to the quarantine period both prior to and post Hajj. In addition to this, instead of the usual plastic band that showed the Hajji’s details, all pilgrims have been provided with a smart bracelet that will monitor their movements at all times. Wearing masks at all times is also mandatory and each pilgrim has to maintain a distance of a metre and a half while performing the rituals. Pictures of the sofa-cum-beds in tents in Arafat show that they have been placed at sizeable gaps. Additionally, touching or kissing the Holy Kaaba is prohibited during this year’s Hajj.
Safe to say, this year’s ‘extraordinary’ Hajj will not be the same. It has had its financial setbacks since for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia revenues from Hajj and Umrah constitutes about 20 percent of non-oil revenue. It has also been a major blow for international travel agencies, many of which who solely generate revenue based on providing Hajj services of packages ranging from Rs 600,000 up to Rs 1,800,000. Many people save up money their entire lives for this opportunity, which why is why a recent New York Times article points out ‘that grief has rocked the Muslim world’, rightfully encapsulating how many Muslims are feeling right now.
A lesson stemming from my Hajj 2019 experience is to never take anything for granted and to make the most of what one has. Moreover, it is time for countries to finally put their vested interests aside and to resolve their differences by joining hands to overcome common hurdles. If Covid-19 has taught us anything is that a world with a community-oriented approach can tackle any hurdle that falls in its way. On a final note, those who will not be able to partake in this year’s Hajj should not feel depressed or dejected. Yes, Hajj in itself is an irreplaceable experience, but the lessons which stem from it – such as practicing patience, gratitude, tolerance and forgiveness – should be emulated in our daily lives regardless.