Makkah – Performing the Hajj pilgrimage

Installment 1:

I began working for the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last year in mid-November. At that time, I perceived myself to be a moderate Muslim, not too much into religion, a sort of average person. About four days after my entry there, I went to Makkah to perform my first Umraah … a sort of prelude to the Hajj, the once-in-a-year annual pilgrimage performed by millions of devout Muslims from all over the world. The experience I had at my first Umraah made me a stronger Muslim than I had been earlier. During my first eleven months, I performed the Umraah three more times, each time hoping to return for the Hajj in October 2012.

What prevented me from actually considering this was the fact that my co-pediatrician was first in line to go for Hajj as he had joined before me. Then, due to some personal reasons, he opted out at the eleventh hour, and I suddenly realised that I could, after all, go for Hajj.

Unlike pilgrims who are brought from overseas to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, I had only 5 days in which to complete the rituals that make up the official visit to Hajj. These five days are the “core days” of Hajj. In fact, overseas pilgrims, including those from India, come much before the actual date for the performance of the Hajj, and spend their money and time doing whatever suits their temperament. Once the dates for Hajj have passed, most tourists often hang on forever … or at least a week more. No such luxury for me.

I was going to Hajj with several of the doctors from my hospital along with their family members (in some cases). We were a contingent of 20+ with children and old persons in addition to the six or seven of us, the doctors. Arrangements had been made with a travel organizer by the name of Sk. Jamal for his bus to pick us all up from the village, and to bring us all back at the end of the pilgrimage.

Thus it was that on the eve of 23rd October, all of us gathered at the pre-agreed rendezvous to board our bus. It was a 19-seater small bus, and there were already about 12 people inside. The bus had come from Riyadh, and had passengers who had already boarded it from there.

We were all sort of wondering how the organiser planned to accommodate twenty other people in the 8-10 remaining seats, when the driver announced that there were foldable seats attached to each of the rows of seats that would unfold in the aisle … thereby opening 10 extra seats!

We gave our luggage to the driver who now stood atop the bus, adjusting our luggage in the carrier at the top. By around half past nine, we set off. This journey would count among one of my most unique journeys. While I was unprepared for the troubles we would all soon face, I was totally surprised by the overall result of this trip. More of this follows.

***

A trip to Makkah normally takes about three hours, give or take. The actual distance from my village to it is about 290 km. This night, though, we took over ten hours to reach Makkah, and over 16 hours to finally reach the hotel rooms where we would all be staying. I would tell you all the sordid details, but suffice it to know that our agent had arranged the whole trip ILLEGALLY … that is, there was no payment made to the Government of Saudi Arabia for performance of a legal journey. We were performing Hajj at a very low cost … the cost would include the transportation to Makkah and the return from it, and the 11-persons-per-room stay in a hotel in Makkah. Food, internal travelling, comforts etc. were EXCLUDED. Of course, the organiser’s huge profit margin was INCLUDED in the 1800 Saudi Riyals per person package!

As we were not official pilgrims, the police stopped our bus at many places. At one spot, we were immediately directed to the opposite side and asked to return to Ta’if, the city from which we had just left; we tried to re-negotiate this barricade, and failed again. Then, in a burst of creativity, one of my co-passengers simply shifted one of the barricades aside and we drove past it, out of sight of the police! Ahead, as night deepened, most of us went off to sleep. The bus plodded on, inch by inch, as it neared Makkah. At the break of dawn, the driver woke us all and asked us to get off the bus, while he tried to get the bus past yet another police barricade. We got off, and walked past the lingering police with hundreds of other pilgrims in a similar predicament. Finding some flat, even ground on the side of the road, we all plopped there to await the bus that would come to pick us up. It was another two hours before it did. In the meantime, night turned into day and the sun climbed up, changing the weather from a balmy, warm one into an uncomfortable, hot one.

We got back inside our bus as it came around, and after a tiring, slow run of another few hours, we reached the third, and as it turned out, the final police outpost about 20 km before Makkah. This spot was, in fact, a huge parking lot or “sharaaya“, and the unforgiving policemen here brought our journey to a complete halt as they refused to allow the bus to proceed ahead.

We all got off, unloaded our baggages, and trudged towards the public bus stand. We were all told to reach Makkah, now a mere 20 km away, by public buses.

More in Part 2 of this series. … Read on.

14 Comments

  • D.L.Narayan says:

    Interesting curtain raiser to what is undoubtedly one of the greatest pilgrimages in the world. By all accounts, it is an inspiring and intensely spiritual and rewarding experience that has the power of transforming people forever. Looking forward eagerly to learn more of your experiences during the Hajj pilgrimage. Please include photographs too in your future posts.

    You have been very honest in admitting certain irregularities. In my humble opinion, these regulations are justified since the holy city has to accommodate millions of pilgrims from all over the world. If all residents of Saudi Arabia were to travel to Makkah during the Hajj period, it will result in utter chaos. I am also not sure if there can be any justification for breaking rules while performing the Hajj.

    I apologise, Dr. Taher, if you feel hurt by my comments, but that is not my intention.

    • drtaher says:

      No, Mr. Narayan, you are correct – it did seem to me to be unjust, but most of the pilgrims who travel unofficially feel that levies and charges imposed by the Saudi Government are unjust and illegal … which means that we are not doing anything illegal insofar as our pilgrimage is concerned, but yes, we are doing something illegal insofar as the issue of legality with the government is concerned.

      Thank you for your kind comments.

  • This is a learning opportunity for me to understand about Hajj.
    I am not surprised at the hanky panky travel agent….they are every where, more so around religious places.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    I have only visited Dubai in the middle east and that too as a harmless tourist, hopping from one point to another. But for some reason, I always thought that ‘Law and Order’ is supreme in the rich places of that area. I could never imagine that an illegal (from the standpoint of Government and Legality) would be possible.

    Eagerly waiting to read and know more about Hajj. Thank you Doc for taking us there. It is a FOG.

  • Praveen Wadhwa says:

    Wow! What an ordeal.
    Crooked agents even in Saudi Arabia where petty stealing is punished by the loss of limb or may be these punishments are for ordinary mortals.
    And still agents steal in gross from pilgrims.
    Thanks for providing the true account of your journey.

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    Interesting one :-)

    eagerly waiting for next post.

  • jaishree says:

    I could not believe that one could dare to do something illegal there. But sometimes the urge to be with HIM overpowers us…….. and it is a domain where no rules apply…….. there are days when you are in HIS remembrance all day and then days when you just forget HIM, but HE never forgets us.

  • I have always wondered as to how this pilgrimage is performed. Wanted to know the details but even though several of my Muslim friends have been to Hajj, I somehow never sat long enough with them to hear their story. May be they were not as good a story teller as you are, Dr. Taher. Thank you for bringing in for us the first hand account in a very interesting manner.

  • Vipin says:

    Thank you Dr. Taher for sharing your travel tale to one of the holiest places on earth. It’s very interesting to know about this pilgrimage. We would highly appreciate if you could provide the detailed step by step account of performing this pilgrimage in the coming posts and a bunch of associated photos will definitely be a treat to relish the coming tales…

  • Gita AM says:

    Very well written and oh how interesting! I was not aware that there was any ‘unofficial’ way to perform this pilgrimage.

    Eagerly awaiting the next installment.

  • drtaher says:

    To all of you who are shocked at the “illegality” of the pilgrimage, here is the reply: Hajj is a personal communion of a Muslim with Allah; there is no issue of illegality here, so one’s chances of the Hajj being accepted or not accepted by Allah are as good or as bad as any other person, who may have paid a huge amount and done the Hajj legally. The legal/illegal issue is only w.r.t. the government of Saudi Arabia … and they are not the owners, but only the CUSTODIANS of the Holy Mosque.

  • saleem says:

    Nice post .. Thanks !! Especially for the Non-Muslim readers of the blog to give them an insight into what the HAJJ Pilgrimage is about ..

  • drtaher says:

    Thanks, Saleem. I appreciate your visiting my article and your appreciating it.

    Taher

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