Haj diary: As pilgrims head to Mecca to perform the Haj, The National outlines some lessons to be learned from those who have been on the journey before.
Been there, done that: lessons learnt on the journey to Mecca
Pilgrims agree that over the years planning for Haj has improved, but whether you are 'an expert' or a first-timer, like our reporter Haneen Dajani, it is important to take advice on everything, from avoiding the rush hour during rajem and tawaf to wearing a face mask if you have a cough.
Away from the throngs of people, Mohammed Salem waited patiently in a corner of Abu Dhabi International Airport, preparing to perform the Haj for the seventh time by himself.
"I'm an expert now," the 60-year-old man said. "I go on my own."
He was among crowds of organisers, medical and security personnel making their way to Mecca and Medina. The UAE official mission for Haj included nearly 200 members, including scouts who will guide and help pilgrims, Takatof volunteers, religious scholars, financial experts and members of the press.
Just 10 days prior to the main Haj rituals, airport traffic was relatively smooth. Groups of pilgrims wearing white were scattered throughout the terminals, many waiting for connecting flights.
Mohammed Salem was among a group of pilgrims on transit from Kazakhstan to Jeddah, some revising Haj rituals while others relaxed over coffee.
He said the main lessons he learned since he began performing Haj and Umra in 1980 were to avoid rush hour during "rajem" (throwing the stones) and "tawaf" (circulating the kaaba).
"Go during early morning hours right after Fajer on the first day of Eid," he advised.
While traffic has increased greatly since his first Haj, Mr Salem says planning seems to have improved.
"There are way more people, but more organising," said the retired accountant. "Now for rajem there are five floors, and the entrance is different than the exit. In muzdalefa [where rajem stones are collected] people should go to the very end and then take their spots, otherwise it gets congested in the beginning and there is no room for newcomers."
Two Palestinians were boarding a plane to Beirut to join a Haj committee there.
"It costs 2,000 dollars from Lebanon, and 10,000 dollars from here," said Silvana Abdul Ghanni, 35, who is visiting the holy land for the first time.
A few minutes before flying over the Al Miqat area about 9 kilometres from Madinah and 450 kilometres from Mecca, and where pilgrims are to begin their Ihram, passengers were reminded how lucky they were to be on the trip.
"This trip is an honour as Allah blessed you with it to be the guests of the merciful," said Mohammed Al Mazrouei, head of the mission.
"I call for you all to purify your neya [intention] to obey Allah.
"As we are about to start our Ihram, we remind ourselves of our neya that we have left life matters behind us, dressed in what reminds us of our kafan [death robe]," said Farouk Hamada, religious adviser for Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
He called on pilgrims to spread compassion among each other and deal with each other in harmony and flexibility.
A doctor on the UAE medical committee, on his sixth Haj mission, advised pilgrims to avoid congested areas where illnesses can easily spread. He said most cases that he treats during the trip include flu, fatigue, diarrhoea and chronic diseases such as diabetes, blood pressure and asthma.
"Don't drink or eat from unknown places. This is what causes most cases of diarrhoea and abdominal pain," he said. "If you are coughing wear a face mask so you don't spread it, and if you hear someone coughing go away from that group."