From war or wealth: The many faces of hajj

  • 15 Sep 2016

Pilgrims from around the world have walked the same path for the five grueling days of the hajj and each one of them has a unique story to tell.

Muslim pilgrims wave as they leave Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca at the end of the Hajj annual Muslim pilgrimage on September 14, 2016. ( TRT World and Agencies )

As early as Friday, pilgrims will leave the city of Mecca for their return flight home after an exhaustive few days of performing the rites of hajj.

Donning the ihram, the compulsory all-white clothes worn by males and females throughout the five days of hajj, is meant to remind pilgrims that no matter what their background, they are on a spiritual journey fulfilling the fifth pillar of Islam and seeking God's forgiveness from sin.

Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016.(Reuters)

Yet among the 1.8 million pilgrims who have completed this year's hajj, each has a unique story to tell. There are those who come from countries at war, others who saved their entire lives, and some making the pilgrimage for the umpteenth time.

A return to war

Abu Fadel al-Shaush resides in Rima, Yemen where a 17-month war continues on between a Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Iran-allied Houthis, who control the capital of Sanaa and much of northern Yemen.

In several days Shaush will travel back home to a country where "you don't know if you will arrive safely."

To get to Mecca, Shaush, 43, first had to travel east to Wadia, the only border crossing still open between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which carries out regular air strikes in Yemen. Then he headed northwest to Mecca.

In all, it was a journey of thousands of kilometres by bus.

"If there was no vehicle I would have walked," said Shaush, who works for the justice ministry.

"A Yemeni will do whatever it takes to perform the hajj."

Like him, 20,000 Yemenis performed hajj this year.

All has changed

Forty years is a long time. That's when last Talib ul-Haq first performed the hajj. At that time, aged 26, he was one of thousands of Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia.

Picture released on November 1948 of Muslim pilgrims on Hajj, at the holy city of Mecca.(AFP)

Thanks to five years of labour in the oil-rich kingdom where Islam was born, he returned home to marry and raise six girls.

Now 66, he has come back with his wife and three youngest daughters to find that "absolutely everything has changed" in Mecca.

"The first time I came by car, and I could almost park right at the entrance of the holy sites," he said.

Private vehicle access is now restricted so the rivers of pilgrims can flow freely.

Haq spoke on one of the many pedestrian walkways connecting the different stages of the pilgrimage, a total distance of about 15 kilometres.

Muslim pilgrims from all around the world circle around the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque, in the Saudi city of Mecca on September 14, 2016.(AFP)

This time, he arrived by plane from Karachi at a cost of more than $7,500.

Wearing a blue jalabiya, a type of long shirt, and a black cap on his shaved head, Haq said that, despite the cost, he has experienced a priceless happiness "at seeing in reality the holy site to which I have faced to pray since I was small."

Multiple pilgrimages

Soukaeena Ba, aged 60, is from Senegal in West Africa and has performed the hajj more than five times.

She has a busy life back home, between work as a judicial counsellor and her activities with an association of female legal experts, she regularly comes to Mecca and undertakes the sacred journey "to keep grounded".

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and capable Muslims must perform it at least once.

Many poor Muslims must wait years for the chance, leading some critics to complain about those who make multiple pilgrimages.

Muslim pilgrims leave Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca at the end of the Hajj annual pilgrimage on September 14, 2016.(AFP)

This year Ba came with friends from her legal association.

Like other times, "I question again many aspects of material life," said the elegant mother wearing a white veil through which gold earrings are visible.

She says the challenge now, after returning home, is to maintain "the humility that enters us in Mecca when we face the grandeur of God."

On a journey of self-discovery

Karim Rafass, 33, grew up in the south of France and now lives in the Gulf emirate of Dubai where he works in manufacturing.

Rafass joined his parents and brother, who came from France, to make the pilgrimage together.

"Performing hajj does not depend on being young or old because the reason you come here is to find your inner self," he said, holding his mother's arm to help her along a street in the middle of a crowd of pilgrims.

Although in material terms Rafass said he "had no financial difficulties," the pilgrimage asks "an investment of time". To attend, he had to ask his boss for time off work.

It was worth it because the hajj "is an exercise of faith."

Mass exodus begins

At the end of Wednesday, the second day of Tashreeq, also known as the days of stoning the symbolic devil, many pilgrims have opted to leave the valley of Mina to return to Mecca for the farewell circumambulation of the Kabaah.

Some pilgrims, not in a haste to return home, will remain for the third and final day of Tashreeq on Thursday before returning to Mecca.

More than 2,100 hajj flights are scheduled to depart from Prince Muhammad Bin Abdul Aziz International Airport within the next few days, a 17 percent increase from last year's flights.

Speaking to the Saudi Gazette, the director of the airport, Muhammad Al-Fadil confirmed 2,091 flights operated by Saudi Arabian Airlines and 41 other international airlines will carry home more than 500,000 pilgrims.

Fadil said the first hajj flight out of the country will depart on Friday and the last flight will leave the airport on October, 15.