x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Millions begin journey of devotion

Three million pilgrims from around the world preparing to trace the footsteps the Prophet Mohammed made more than 1,400 years ago.

Tens of thousands of haj pilgrims attend the Friday prayers inside, and outside the Grande Mosque in Mecca on Dec 5 2008.
Tens of thousands of haj pilgrims attend the Friday prayers inside, and outside the Grande Mosque in Mecca on Dec 5 2008.

MECCA // As the call for fajir prayer signalled a new dawn yesterday, it also brought with it the hopes of three million pilgrims from around the world preparing to trace the footsteps the Prophet Mohammed made on his journey more than 1,400 years ago. "Haj is more than a ritual of gathering, it is a dress rehearsal before the ultimate day of judgement," says Wiam Khalifa, a young Saudi woman travelling with her entire family. Dressed in a white chador from head to ankle, she is one of hundreds of thousands of white-cloaked pilgrims in cars and buses making the journey to Mina, either from Mecca or from Jeddah, marking the beginning of the annual pilgrimage. In the Grand Mosque, the murmurs of prayer and Islamic lectures compete with the sound of machines used to keep the holy mosque clean as pilgrims conduct their last umrah before heading to the tent city. There are 3,000 mosque staff on hand, riding around on small vehicles as they replenish the zamzam water supply, clean and fill about 18,000 vacuum flasks and unpack cases of sterilised white plastic cups. As one cleaner picks up dirty cups another replaces them with clean ones, while a third follows close behind mopping away any spilt water. With assembly line efficiency, they keep up hygiene standards in the face of the relentless flow of people. Security officers, most wearing face masks to protect them from infectious diseases, prevent pilgrims from ripping off pieces of the kiswa, the gold-embroidered black cover of the structure housing the Ka'aba, the focal point of the entire ritual. Saudi Arabia has also mobilised 100,000 members of its armed forces, supported for the first time by Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, made in the US, with night vision. In the midst of all the bustle, the roads leading to Mina, the first stop in haj, resound to a familiar prayer. The talbiyyah fills the mosque and can be heard along the roads to Mecca and Mina. Pilgrims with different accents and dialects repeat it almost obsessively, more for themselves than for anyone else. "Labbayka-Allahummma labbayk, labbayka laa shareeka laka labbayk. Innal-hamda wanni'mata laka wal-mulk, laa shareeka lak," or "here I am o Allah! Here I am! Here I am, there is no partner with you, here I am! Surely, all praise, blessings, and dominion are for You. There is no partner with You." White tents of all sizes cover the main village at Mina, which is several kilometres from Mecca, transforming it into a huge camping ground. The allocation of the fire-resistant and mostly air-conditioned tents is done by the haj ministry for a fee that starts at Dh1,500 (US$409). Ms Khalifa opted for one of the more expensive tents, costing about Dh10,000 per person, because she is accompanied by her two children, five and seven. "I wanted to be comfortable in my accommodation, as I want my full energy to be focused on the actual rituals," she says. Pilgrims will stay in Mina from the dawn prayer today until the dawn prayer tomorrow, after which they head to Arafat. Even if many of the pilgrims may not fully understand the daily rituals of the haj, which begin and end with seven circlings of the holy Ka'aba, the re-enactment of the search for water by Ishmael's mother Hagar, and the strenuous climb and vigil on Al Rahma Mountain in Arafat, it does not seem to matter. "It is about completely trusting your creator, and complete devotion to your faith, without all the confusion and doubts brought upon by our temporary time on Earth," says Ms Khalifa. Despite the apparent chaos, the pilgrims strive to remain courteous to each other, remembering part of making haj count involves adopting purity in heart and manners. rghazal@thenational.ae