Right now, Islam’s holiest city is swarming with more than two million observers who have flocked to Mecca from all corners of the world to perform Hajj — the obligatory journey of absolution required once of all able-bodied Muslims.
The trek to Saudi Arabia pays tribute to the prophet Mohammed’s final sermon on Mount Arafat in 632 AD, and pilgrims — men are called “hajis” and women “hajjahs” — are supposed to depart with a kinship to life. A few do. Some don’t. Many pretend to.
Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in numbers, from tens of thousands of pilgrims in the 1970s to multi-millions today. Hajj has become fashionable, folks, particularly with young Muslims, many of whose parents have yet to take the journey.
Great Britain’s Muslim community was in its infancy when I grew up there in the mid-1970s. Back then, emigrés poured in from the colonies and established tight-knit communities, separating themselves from native Britons with a value system that condemned Western lifestyles, shunned personal freedom and became a birthing ground for modern-day terrorists.
One day, a neighbor who had returned from Hajj, came to visit, bearing “tofas” (gifts): dates, shelled pine nuts, a ring for my mother inscribed with a Koranic verse, an ounce of holy water, some “kajal” (black kohl eyeliner) and a miniature toy television for me, featuring a slide-show of Hajj hotspots.
“Wash the dates well, the fresh produce is rotten in Saudi Arabia!” the hajjah warned my mother, who later found maggots in them and promptly deposited them in the outside trash along with the pine nuts, which also contained creepy crawlies (the contraband had gone unchecked by British customs officials).
Mum poured the holy water down the drain because she was afraid it would give us the runs, and chucked the eyeliner after remembering reading in a British health magazine that it was made of lead and caused blindness.
The hajjah regaled us with tales of her trip. She told us that she had walked 10 miles and more a day for weeks along unpaved roads to retrace the prophet’s steps. She had conducted back-breaking rituals, including the symbolic stoning off the Jamarat Bridge to thwart the “shatan” (devil). The walkway is a dangerous bottleneck that caused the deaths of 251 pilgrims in 2004 and 362 in 2006, and a striking example of the Saudi commitment to its holy infrastructures.
The hajjah gossiped on, gleefully. She told us about the unsanitary conditions endured by the pilgrims in the oil-rich nation, including having to squat in stinking cesspits that passed for lavatories with no toilet paper in sight.
She told us that fetid tents housed large colonies of visitors, and that rapes and muggings in Mecca’s dank alleyways were as normal a sight as a platter of gone-off dates and figs.
The hajjah also relayed that brazen felonies escalated during Hajj, but pilgrims ignored them because reporting a crime in the sanctified site at the holiest time of all was taboo.
Her expedition, she added, had been exhausting, grim and unrepeatable, yet it had given her the egotistical fruit she had longed for. Now, wherever she went in the Muslim world, she commanded a god-like respect just for being a hajjah.