x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Helping perform Haj: dreams of the greatest journey

A wheelchair-bound man, an elderly taxi driver, three sisters without means - just some of those hoping for help to perform the Haj pilgrimage, writes Rym Ghazal.

Applicants submit paperwork at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Ajman to go to Haj for free through the Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation. Razan Alzayani / The National
Applicants submit paperwork at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Ajman to go to Haj for free through the Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation. Razan Alzayani / The National

AJMAN // Each one came into the room with a story.

There was Mohammed Hassan Ali Roush, who for 65 years has been driving people around, first about his neighbourhood and then in an official taxi.

This year the 80-year-old Emirati is retiring, saving his strength for what he calls, "his last stop".

"If I don't get the free Haj trip, I will drive over to Mecca with my last breath," he insists.

Then there were three sisters, Shamma, Fatima and Jamila Hassan, all in their 50s, and all without men in their lives who could take them to Mecca.

"Every time I thought I had saved enough money for Haj, the prices went up and I didn't have enough again," said Mrs Shamma, 59, who is divorced with a son and lives on a monthly government stipend of Dh10,000."I want to cleanse my soul, I want to walk and smell and touch the House of Allah," says Fatima, 56, who has never married.

Then Ali Ahmed wheels himself in on his wheelchair, the result of a car accident in his youth. He has postponed going for Haj until "better days".

"I kept believing I would heal and be able to walk in the footsteps of our blessed Prophet Mohammed," said Mr Ahmed.

"But that day never came, and now I don't have enough money to do it on my own."

Mr Roush, the Hassan sisters and Mr Ahmed were among dozens of Emiratis who showed up at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Ajman as applications for a government sponsored all expenses paid Haj trip were being collected by a team from the Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation.

Since 2005, the foundation has been sending 600 Emiratis - who must meet certain conditions - to Mecca to perform the annual pilgrimage of Haj.

Before that, the late president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, would sponsor and send 600 Emirati pilgrims annually.

This year, the foundation will be making stops across the UAE until September 13, with each stop dedicated to nationals from specified emirates.

Those who get picked will be notified via text message the following week. The early notice will allow them to prepare.

The applications are entered into a database that will sort them out according to the conditions, and those who do not make it this year will have their files placed in the system for next year.

Haj is expected to fall between October 24 and 29, according to the Saudi Ministry of Haj.

On this particular day, the side room at the mosque where the officials were was already full at 8am.

Each applicant must remove shoes before entering and is given a queue number and an application at the door.

The women sit on chairs at a table on one side of the room while the men stand or sit on the other side.

When their number is called out, they approach the table where three officials from the foundation sit and organise the applications.

They first check if the applicants meet the main conditions, which include having a low monthly income (maximum Dh20,000), being an Emirati with proper identity documents, not having performed Haj before, and being above a minimum age.

Applicants must bring documents to back up their claims, such as a salary slip and their ID, along with photocopies.

"There is no way to check if someone has done Haj before, but we make them swear by Allah that they haven't and remind them that it is a sin to lie about this," says Ateeq Al Mehairi, the director of the Haj programme at the foundation.

There was an instance in which one woman, when asked to swear that she had never performed Haj and that this was her "faredha" Haj - the once in a lifetime duty of Muslims if able to go - backed down and admitted it would be her second.

"We have to be fair and give chances to those who have never been and it's difficult on them to go there without help," says Mr Al Mehairi.

But there was one sentence he found himself repeating: "No I am sorry, you are too young." Some of those who showed up were unaware of a change in the age limit.

This year, the age limit has been increased to a minimum 40 years old and over, compared with 30 in previous years.

"We were getting way too many applications, especially with population boost and the increasing prices of Haj, so we decided to give priority to older Emiratis," said Mr Al Mehairi.

Last year more than 2,000 people applied, and so there were many rejections. So far this year, an average of 70 people have applied daily.

By 9am in Ajman, they had more than 30 applications, with some turned down from the start for not meeting the conditions.

The other big issue that kept coming up was the issue of "mahram"— a male family member who accompanies a woman as her guardian.

"I want my application back unless you allow my son to come with me as my mahram for free," insisted an Emirati woman, echoing similar sentiments expressed by almost every female applicant that came.

The son, being 27, does not meet the age limit and cannot therefore be considered.

"If we paid for every mahram then the whole group would just be women and their mahram, it is not fair to the other applicants," Mr Al Mehairi, adding that the mahram can accompany someone but on their own expenses which can cost about Dh24,000.

The mother took back her application and left with her son.

"There is the option of Refqa Amna, safe companionship, where women go together and protect each other in groups," said Mohammed Taha, an organising member of the programme.

"A mahram is not the only option and shouldn't stop them from applying," he added.

At the same time, 400 non-Emiratis will be sponsored from outside the country, where the interested people must apply via UAE embassies in their respective countries. Similar conditions apply, and applicants must prove their difficulty in performing Haj on their own.

"The programme is here for those who really need help to do Haj, not for those who can afford it but don't want to spend the money," said Mr Taha.

This year, the budget set aside for Haj is Dh17 million for Emiratis and another five million for non-Emirati pilgrims outside the UAE.

The budget was about Dh6 million in 2005, and was around that until 2008, when it jumped to Dh13.5 million and then steadily increased each year as a result of inflation.

The standard of the Haj package is "medium", which usually means basic shared accommodation, buses and walking.

Average prices for medium Haj packages run to Dh16,000 and more per person. Officials are clear that the organisation does not pay for "VIP packages", which can include short walking distances, TVs, massages, and often luxury accommodation costing from Dh75,000 to Dh150,000 or more per person.

"We try to make it as comfortable as possible, but feeling some hardship is part of the Haj experience," said Mr Taha.

For now, the applicants must wait.

"I didn't know this programme existed until a friend told me about it this year," said Mr Roush.

The father of four explains how he never had enough money to perform Haj, with an average monthly income at about Dh8,000.

"I pray I get my chance to complete the fifth pillar of Islam so that at least a window in heaven opens for me."

When his turn finally came and he walked over to hand in his application to one of the organisers, he says: "Please son, this could be my only and last chance.

"Let me die as a pilgrim."