THE pilgrimage to Makkah, a much-desired goal in life for most Muslims, had always seemed a distant probability. It was surprising then that when a sudden decision was made to perform Haj this year, I agreed without any trepidation.
The first six days in Makkah were peaceful. The next few days spent in Madina, mostly at the Masjid-i-Nabavi, the initial structure of which was laid by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), are a treasured memory and showed Islam in all its diversity. People from literally every country in the world stood up for each of the five daily prayers, but several had different ways of performing these.
The Quran was available in several languages, including in Braille. Particularly visible were both young and old hajis from Central Asian countries. It was both touching and a lesson in humility to watch a young woman from Dagestan and an older one from Indonesia communicate using sign language.
People visit the holy places to find solace, seek absolution, peace and strength. Everyone finds something or the other, and returns with a passion for another trip.
We had our first exposure to the single-minded ferocity of crowds during the first tawaf. Televised pictures show a sea of humankind moving in almost rhythmic and circular waves. As you move towards the Maqam-i-Ibrahim or try to get a closer look at or touch the Hajr-i-Aswad, you will be pushed and pulled in all directions unless you can maintain your feet on the ground.
With bruised arms and an almost ruptured kidney, I was able to recognise groups from certain countries and steered away from them during later tawafs.
Perhaps the most painful experience was the failed trip to the Riaz-ul-Jannah in the Masjid-i-Nabavi, located next to the resting place of the Prophet. The graves of Hazrat Abu Bakr and Hazrat Umar are located next to that of the Prophet, while the Riaz-ul-Jannah, as its name suggests, is said to be one of the gardens in heaven.
I expected a quiet place of dignity, silence and contemplation, where people would stand in reverence, with bowed heads, recite the salaam and slowly walk away. What one found instead was mayhem, physical fights between overzealous pilgrims who wanted to get ahead and poorly equipped volunteers who beseeched the unruly crowd to remember where they were.
Women chanted loudly and pushed with all their might. Was this the behaviour of people who revered and loved their benefactor? Could the authorities not have helped by posting signs requesting silence, putting barriers for some sort of queues, or by posting more and better trained women instead of just two to manage hundreds of people?
Also, one had not realised how the sanitation system and lack of facilities would put pressure on our frail human physique. The Saudi government needs to be lauded for its monumental efforts each year to facilitate the increasing number of pilgrims. But it may be even more important to pay attention to the quality of facilities.
The camps at Mina were crowded, badly planned with inadequate sanitation services, made worse by extremely poor civic sense and lack of communal spirit among the pilgrims. For the three nights, we survived on sips of water and a few biscuits. People ate and threw garbage everywhere, and not even once were the toilets, the bins or the pathways cleaned.
We spent the compulsory few hours each day in Mina standing or sitting outside, or walking along the streets away from the camps. Outside, people sat, slept and ate alongside piles of rubbish.
South Asians in general and Pakistanis in particular demonstrated their worst attributes in two aspects. One was their almost total disregard for cleanliness of any sort. The other was complete lack of discipline in making lines and queuing up for food, tokens or getting on or down from a bus.
Haj, it seemed, has also become an accomplishment, to be attached to names, displayed in homes and bragged about in public. Many, if not all, were busy taking videos and photographs of each other in various poses, including in extending their hands for dua. It was a social and religious symbol of piety, and pictures had to be taken to prove this.
The books we were provided with before departure contained strictures for women not to mingle with groups of men and to keep to themselves. However, nowhere did we find any instructions telling men how to behave towards women. All training sessions were conducted by men, and issues related specifically to women were addressed in detail by them.
Despite the number of women exceeding that of men, the facilities for women were less adequate, poorer in quality, particularly in the way of toilets, washing and ablution places, prayer areas and arrangements to hear and participate in duas.
Makkah, Madina, but most of all the Kaaba are magical places. Haj itself is a magical experience. To gain from it as much as possible, one needs to be considerate, quiet, clean and have an environment that facilitates dignity.
Haj organisers and would-be hajis would do well to undertake training in communal living, proper behaviour in mosques and sacred places, cleanliness and waiting for their turns, and above all, consideration for others. Perhaps we can then hope for the spirit of Haj and Islam to be revived.
The writer is a freelance contributor.