Returning Hajis Find Makkah a City Transformed

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on November 12, 2010

The first thing that strikes you upon entering the holy city from Jeddah is the number of mighty yellow-and red-colored cranes on the skyline from all the ongoing construction projects in Makkah. Where once stood old buildings, multistory hotels and even hills, there is now leveled land fenced off by metal sheets. Inside, construction workers are busy erecting massive towers that will house pilgrims in the coming years.

One of busiest areas on the Holy Mosque’s western side when you enter from Jeddah used to be the Shamia district. It is completely under construction now. This district used to house hundreds of pilgrims from South Asia and Arab countries. Some of the pilgrims who have been to Makkah in the past look longingly at the area and try to figure out where they had stayed on past visits.

“Everything has changed in five years,” said Mukhtar Nadwi, a pilgrim from Saharanpur, India. “I was here in 2005 along with my wife and my mother. We used to stay at a hotel just opposite Bab Al-Umrah, which is one of the many imposing gates leading into the Holy Mosque. I went there last night to see if I could find the place, but there is no trace of it. The whole area is unrecognizable.” He wondered where the Bangladeshi man who helped his aging mother those days was.

Pakistani national of Yemeni origin Syed Ashfaq Muscati is also amazed by the speed with which Makkah's skyline has changed. “I was here six years ago, and our group of pilgrims was staying in an old building located behind Ibrahim Khalil Road,” he said. “The whole area is now part of the massive Jabal Omar project. I remember the tiny Pakistani eatery where we would go to have our favorite subcontinental food — all that is gone. We are told that huge buildings will be coming up here.”

Both Nadwi and Muscati are this time staying in Makkah's Aziziah district. It is quite a distance from the Holy Mosque, but pilgrim establishments and tour operators are providing shuttle services between Aziziah and the Holy Mosque. The free shuttles operate through the tunnels that have been specifically created for these 40-seat coaches. “It is an excellent service. They drop us at the basement of the Makkah Clock Tower, and in a matter of minutes we are in the courtyard of the Holy Mosque. We take a similar route going back,” Nadwi said.

Aziziah district is one of Makkah’s best-planned areas, featuring comfortable accommodation and a road network leading straight to the Holy Mosque through a tunnel reserved for pilgrims. Since the beginning of the massive construction projects around the holy city, Saudi authorities have been promoting Aziziah as a planned Haj township. Although it is a considerable distance from the Holy Mosque, because of the construction and consequent congestion, it is nonetheless a viable housing alternative. In the past, Aziziah used to be favored by Emiratis, Indonesians and Bahrainis. They would deliberately opt for Aziziah in order to avoid problems associated with buildings closer to the Grand Mosque.

The lack of residential space in the areas in the immediate proximity of the Grand Mosque has forced many private tour operators, especially from India and Pakistan, to cut down on the number of pilgrims they would normally bring in during Haj time. “People back home in Pakistan have now become very conscious of where they will be staying,” said Zahiruddin Jamaluddin Abro from Sukkur in Pakistan’s Sindh province. “They demand that we tell them the name of the hotels we arrange for them to stay in and the areas in which these hotels are located. They then go on Google and find out the exact location and distance between their hotel and the Grand Mosque.”

He added that in the past, Pakistani Haj operators had no such problem, hiring the best possible hotels very close to the Grand Mosque. “People are ready to pay, they need services. Our business runs on word of mouth. If we don’t deliver what we have promised then next year nobody would come to us. The returning pilgrims would approach the media, and then all our credibility would be lost,” he added.

Abro says they now tell would-be pilgrims about the lack of residential space around the holy city. “What we are doing instead is telling those pilgrims staying in Aziziah that they will be shifted to hotels close to the Grand Mosque after Haj,” he said. “After Haj, these nearby hotels will be empty, and most of their current occupants will head to Madinah. Our Haj package is generally 40 days, and so we make sure that our pilgrims pray at ease and in peace after Haj.”

Sri Lankan pilgrim Inayat Mohibullah and his wife have no complaints despite staying quite far from the Grand Mosque. “We are staying in a district that is near the Ruseifah parking lot. Everyday, we walk to this place because we can’t afford the high rates these taxi drivers demand,” Mohibullah told Arab News, while digging into his favorite chicken at Al-Tazaj. “It takes us 40 minutes on foot. We did get into taxis on a couple of occasions, but the road is so crowded with pilgrims that it is better to walk than sit in a vehicle that moves literally at a snail’s pace."

He said Haj was all about endurance and sacrifice. “It is the journey at the end of which one is like a newborn baby,” he said. “For that to happen, one will have to go through small difficulties. What amazes me and touches me, however, is the helping nature of the pilgrims. The other day I saw an old man with a deeply furrowed face pushing a wheelchair with his wife in it. He was having difficulty negotiating a steep incline. There were so many young men who went rushing toward them to help the old man. It is this feeling and these images that keep our spirits and our adrenaline high as we look forward to the five-day rituals that we have to perform beginning Sunday.”


Praying for King Abdullah's Long and Healthy Life

By Siraj Wahab

Saudi Arabia's 86-year-old king is suffering from slipped disc and has been advised complete rest. He will not be overseeing the Haj this year which begins on Sunday, Nov. 14.

An official Royal Court statement released late on Friday night said: “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud is suffering from back problems which doctors diagnosed as a herniated disc. Doctors have advised him rest.”

According to doctors quoted by news agencies, the slipping or rupturing of one of the discs in the spine, a herniated disc, is not life-threatening and is usually treated by rest, physical therapy and anti-inflammatory drugs.

There were concerns when the king failed to chair the Cabinet meeting on Monday. It was the king's younger brother, Prince Naif bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, who presided over the weekly session. At 76, Prince Naif is No. 3 in the royal hierarchy. The No. 2, 84-year-old Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, is also ostensibly not keeping well. He has been in Morocco since the end of August.

On Saturday, the king officially appointed Prince Naif to oversee the five-day Haj pilgrimage. King Abdullah became the sovereign in 2005 after the death of his brother King Fahd.

King Abdullah's popularity ratings continues to soar because of a series of path-breaking changes that he has helped usher in. He has restored Saudi Arabia's standing in the world after the severe battering it received in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Last week leading American business magazine Forbes ranked him as the third most powerful man in the world after Chinese President Hu Jintao and US President Barack Obama.

Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing a second oil boom and the kingdom has poured billions of dollars in infrastructural projects. Foreign investors too are lining up to have a piece of the pie. Saudi Arabia is among the few nations that came out unscathed after the recent global downturn.

Friday Sermon Stirs Millions in Makkah

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Saturday, November 14, 2010

About two million pilgrims listened with rapt attention to Imam Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais’ soul-stirring 40-minute sermon on Friday from the Grand Mosque in Makkah. The sermon was carried live on state television and many Arab, African and Asian television stations. On many occasions during the sermon the congregation was reduced to tears as the imam spoke about the tough times that Muslim world faces in these critical times.

Al-Sudais called for the liberation of Palestine and said now is the time for Palestinian factions to bury their differences. “These differences have only added to the miseries of our brothers and sisters in Palestine. This inhuman blockade has made life hellish for them. Now is the time for Muslim countries to unify their ranks and liberate Palestinians from the shackles of this inhuman bondage,” he said. “All differences among regional countries should be and can be resolved in the true spirit of Islam. The best example of our unity is this congregation in which every Muslim from every corner is united through the love of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Holy Qur’an.”

The imam described Palestine as the single biggest problem confronting the nation of Islam. “Every day brings a new form of misery for them,” he said, breaking down in tears. “O Allah, unite all Muslim nations.” The congregation responded with a vociferous “Aameen.”

Al-Sudais repeatedly stressed the value of unity. “Our divisions have given our adversaries the ruse to exploit us. We are fragmented despite being in such a large number. Unity is the key to our well-being. The message of Haj is unity. Let us pray for the unification of Muslims throughout the planet.”

The imam also stressed the need for hope and optimism with trust in Allah at all times of adversity. He quoted the Holy Qur’an: “And never give up hope in God’s soothing mercy: Truly no one despairs of God’s soothing mercy except those who have no faith.”

Al-Sudais congratulated the pilgrims for undertaking the most important journey of their lives. “This was your lifelong dream. You always wanted to be here. You always wanted to carry out this important task of Haj. Well, here you are in the holy land. You are lucky. It is all due to the blessings of Allah the Almighty. I congratulate you. From here you should take the most important message of Islam and that is tawheed (the oneness of Allah).”

Referring to Iraq, he said the cycle of unending wars has destroyed that nation. “Again, it is the lack of unity and petty issues that have been responsible for the tragedy in Iraq,” he said.

Al-Sudais thanked the Saudi leadership, led by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, for landmark projects to provide ease and comfort to the pilgrims during the various rituals of Haj. “The train services for pilgrims that go into operation this year are a remarkable achievement. May Allah protect this leadership, and may He grant them long life,” he said.

The Makkah Metro is ready to service pilgrims during this Haj. Saudi Arabia has poured billions of riyals into various infrastructure projects in Makkah, Mina and Arafat. The cost of such projects has never been passed onto the pilgrims.

Al-Sudais also paid rich tribute to all those Saudis who have dedicated themselves into the service of pilgrims. “You deserve congratulations for helping the guests of God. Allah has bestowed this rare honor on you to help the pilgrims, and you have not let the pilgrims down. May Allah keep you safe.”

“I've never experienced such calmness,” retired Nigerian military officer Salisu Ali said of Al-Sudais’ sermon. “I don’t speak Arabic nor do I understand it, but the verses that he was quoting from the Qur’an are all too familiar to us. And I could understand in what context he was quoting them. I couldn’t control my tears because everyone was crying. The sheikh moved us all.”

An aged Pakistani woman, Begum Jahanara Sarwat, said she never felt such peace. “We keep hearing all these bad stories and depressing events," she said. "However, today I did not feel weak at all. Why should I? We are this many people,” she added as she gestured to the throng of faithful. “Is it possible for our enemies to destroy us? These are momentary setbacks, my son. Don’t lose hope. Allah se acche ki ummeed rakho (Expect good from Allah)."

Every corner of the Grand Mosque was filled by pilgrims as early as 10 a.m. even though the time for Friday prayer was scheduled for 12:05 p.m. The relatively hot weather did not deter the pilgrims from performing the prayer on roads and in alleyways surrounding the mosque. The congregation thinned an hour after the prayer, and outside the mosque pigeons fluttered past the minarets and swooped down on any vacant space available in the mosque’s massive courtyard.

Spirituality combined with anxiety was evident on many pilgrims’ faces. With just 24 hours remaining before pilgrims begin the trek to the valley of Mina in the first leg of the five-day journey, the pilgrims’ minds are clearly focused on the rituals that they will perform in fulfillment of their obligations. “We are a little anxious. Being in Makkah is an overwhelming experience," said Syed Abbas, an elderly Indian man making his first pilgrimage. "There are so many people here. We come from a small town. Even performing circumambulation or tawaf is a big task."