By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Friday, January 21, 2005
To the uninitiated, hosting millions of pilgrims from around the globe and assisting them in performing the Haj might sound impossible, and it might well be impossible were it not for the dedicated people of Makkah.
The hospitality and generosity of Makkawis is legendary. For years, they have taken special pleasure in serving the guests of God. Each year, at least one member of every Saudi family in Makkah does voluntary work during Haj. This is done as a rule and is not an exception. However important a position they hold and whatever place they are posted in the Kingdom, these young Saudis come home during Haj and staff the establishments with which their fathers and forefathers have been associated.
Here in the tent city of Mina, you meet them everywhere. There are some who specialize only in Haj services. One such Saudi from Makkah is Dr. Khalid Sami Muhammad Hussain. His forebears have been serving the pilgrims for the last 400 years. He is young, bright and dynamic. He is highly educated, as well, having earned his bachelor’s degree at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and having completed his master’s and Ph.D. from George Washington University in the United States in engineering management.
Those skills are handily put to work as he is the quality assurance manager at the South Asian Establishment for Pilgrims. It was a pleasure listening to his chaste English as he explained the steps that are being taken every year by the tawafa organizations for better services. Although the Haj emphasizes the longstanding traditions of Islam, it takes some pretty sophisticated organizational methods to accommodate millions.
“We at the South Asian Establishment for Pilgrims have become the first such organization to receive this prestigious ISO9001 certificate for providing good services during Haj,” he said. His establishment is organizing Haj for 380,000 pilgrims this year. Despite the devastating tragedy that recently hit that region, many people from that part of the world are reaching out to Allah as pilgrims this year.
“It is amazing because we thought tsunami tragedy would reduce the number of pilgrims coming from South Asia, especially Sri Lanka,” he said. “We were worried, but Alhamdullilah, the number only increased. Last year, we hosted 360,000 pilgrims, and that number has gone up by almost 20,000 pilgrims, which is great.”
You might even call the preparations high-tech. “Each year we add value to Haj services. We are applying the latest technology and research in providing services in a very scientific way,” he said. “We call this continual improvement. This year we printed maps of the camps in Mina in many languages. Of course, that didn’t help some pilgrims from getting lost, but it has had its effect.”
They don’t look at their task as a logistical nightmare, but rather a challenge. “Let’s not forget that Haj logistics are a big challenge,” he said. “This is a unique event. Where else do you have nearly three million pilgrims on the move?”
Even with highly trained and educated people, such as Dr. Khalid Hussain, it still takes a little faith. “We once approached a European management center to ask them how best to organize them. They studied the videos, had lengthy discussions with us, and they finally told us: ‘This is impossible. Why don’t you organize Haj three times in a year,’” he said. “They are astounded even grasping what Haj is all about.”
Dr. Hussain himself performed Haj this year. The last time he performed Haj was nine years ago. “I was not associated with this Haj establishment then. I was with my relatives,” he said. “The one difference that you fail to notice is the number of people. There are so many people now — almost double of what we had nine years ago.”
Dr. Khalid Hussain is a representative of the generation that’s taking the reins from their elders to provide the best possible services to the guests of God. And if a little modern management and the latest technology make the experience more pleasant for the pilgrims, it’s all the better.
Pilgrim after pilgrim offer words of praise for the Saudi government and the Saudis themselves for doing what almost looks impossible and defies imagination. “This mass movement of people is amazing,” Dr. Khalid Hussain said, “and it provides a big challenge for the organizers.”