Classes teach how to follow rituals and avoid getting crushed amid the throngs of the faithful.
Haj pilgrims practise not putting a foot wrong
PONDOK GEDE, Indonesia // Even before arriving in Mecca for this year's Haj, 30-year-old Irawati, from Indonesia, has felt the emotion of beholding the Kaaba, the cubic structure in Islam's holiest city towards which all Muslims face to pray.
Just days before leaving for Mecca she finished a mock Haj, part of a three-month training that tens of thousands of Indonesians complete every year in readiness for an annual pilgrimage that draws some two million Muslims from across the globe.
Every year as the Haj draws near, hundreds of Little Meccas sprout across Indonesia, from lifelike setups complete with a replica of the Kaaba, to simple arrangements of chairs and tables at hotels or mosques outside the larger cities or towns.
"I feel like I'm in Mecca already," Ms Irawati said as she beheld the large Kaaba replica at her training site in east Jakarta, her voice breaking and eyes welling with tears.
"When I see the real thing I may just collapse and weep with joy," she added.
Pilgrims have been arriving in Mecca for weeks in anticipation of the rituals, which reached a climax yesterday on Mount Arafat, outside Mecca.
Dalmi, a 55-year-old schoolteacher, said she and her fellow villagers also broke down in tears when they first saw a Kaaba replica while training in West Java.
"We gasped in awe and then we all cried. Many of us have spent years saving up. We sold our jewellery, land, goats and cows, everything," said Ms Dalmi, who spent four years saving up US$3,500 (Dh12,855) for the trip and the cost of the course.
"When we saw the Kaaba, we saw our big dream being realised," she added.
At a compound half the size of a football field, Ms Irawati circled the mock Kaaba together with a dozen other would-be pilgrims, cries of "Subhanallah" (Glory to God) echoing in the air.
Other practice rites included the run between two hills, re-enacting the search for water in the desert by Hagar, wife of the Prophet Ibrahim, for her son Ishmael, and the stoning of the devil.
Like other would-be pilgrims on the government-mandated course, they also watched videos on the Haj rituals, learnt Saudi laws and culture and executed simple exercises to stay fit.
"When you're in Mecca, remember not to push and shove or you may get crushed by big-sized Arabs," warned the group leader, Sharifah Alawiyah, 59, evoking laughter.
"I'm serious. Many have died in stampedes there, so don't rush," she added.
The Haj has in the past been fraught with perils such as deadly stampedes and fires. Hundreds died in a stampede in 2006.
For pilgrims who are often illiterate or who have never gone beyond their own villages, getting separated from their groups in the crushing crowds is another common hazard.
For the world's largest Muslim-majority country and top sender of more than 200,000 pilgrims a year, the training is crucial in preventing chaos and casualties in the holy land, officials say.
At the pilgrimage itself, Indonesian Muslims have earned a reputation for being among the most organised and orderly.
They wear stainless steel bracelets engraved with their identity details as well as identical batik uniforms, and all carry the same travel bags with a large photograph of the owner.
"Because we are handling so many pilgrims, it's important to keep them organised and orderly," said Muhaimin Luthfie, an official at the Religious Ministry.
"Ninety per cent of them are farmers and fishermen who have never travelled overseas or been on a plane."
Pilgrims say the training has made them more confident about performing the Haj correctly and safely.
"I made a few mistakes at first. When people climbed the hill, I walked down. But after doing this several times, I am an expert. I'm actually a Haji already - a fake one," joked Yusuf, a 60-year-old farmer who like many Indonesians goes by a single name.
But trainers warned that despite their best efforts, nobody could guarantee a trouble-free Haj.
"When our pilgrims see people touching the Kaaba walls, they want to do the same," said Alawiyah, a trainer who has led more than 30 groups.
"The mood there makes everyone very excited. They forget everything we teach them here and then it all breaks loose."
* Agence-France Presse