I don't know where I stand on this year's Hajj. Am I happy or sad, grateful that it took place, or nostalgic about past crowds that often numbered up to three million people?
Growing up in Makkah, I was accustomed to the noise as the Hajj season approached. It would typically take me 15 minutes to go to school, which was located 10 minutes away from the Grand Mosque; in the run-up to Hajj, it could take me as long as 45 minutes. We would limit our outings, as pilgrims would be everywhere during this period. Today, though, most of Makkah is all but deserted. If you missed buying an Eid gift in normal times, it was a tough choice to decide whether to go to the mall because it would be filled with pilgrims buying souvenirs. Now, many of these shops surrounding the Grand Mosque are closed.
What I remember from my childhood is the crowds. When we preformed Hajj, I remember my father would hold my hand tightly so that I wouldn't get lost. He would place a card with his name and phone number in my pocket and tell me: "Balquees, if we lose you, just find any officer and give him this card to call us."
I also remember being fascinated by the varied backgrounds of those who attended, including Indonesian women wearing mukenas and Indian women draped in saris. I used to be awestruck by the fact that pilgrims came from all around the world to make it to Makkah. I didn't understand why they would cry while praying; it was only when I was older that I understood that Hajj had been a lifelong dream for many. And that, many of them had been saving up all their lives to be able to come here. It was natural for them to feel lucky that they had made it.
Of course, I don't need to go all the way back to my childhood to recall many of these experiences. Just two years ago, the scenes were similar.
In 2019, it was my first time being in Hajj as a journalist – and not just as a pilgrim. I was at a camp belonging to the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, where they had guests from all over the world. I shared a room with six women from Algeria, Egypt, India and Morocco; this year, we were just two in the room.
Meals were a blessing that year, not just because it gave me a break from reporting, but because on any given day, I could choose a different group to sit down and talk to. It was a big hall, and we ate buffet style, so I aimed to know as many people as possible. This year, I almost didn't feel like eating, except that I had to. Meals were sent to us in boxes, and everyone had to eat on their own in their rooms or tents to minimise interaction.
In 2019, camps had a big living room where people could gather, sit and talk; none of that in 2021. Instead, each camp had an isolation room. Two years ago, I bonded with three other journalists. We kept each other company and looked out for one another for fear of getting lost in the crowd, or growing faint from the heat.
On Arafat Day, the scene was just majestic, with thousands of people walking together towards Mount Arafat. I couldn't get near the mount, let alone get on top of it for filming. This year, I went live from right in front of it; it was a bit crowded, but nothing like in 2019. I could almost count how many people were standing there. This time, there were no long queues to wait in before getting on top of the mount.
The familiar sounds were missing, too. You would hear a small group of people saying the prayer: "Labyk, allahulm labyk." But in 2019, I could hear hundreds of people saying it together; there was non-stop chanting. One group would walk, while another would follow while chanting. This year, only a few pilgrims said it together. With my camp farther away from Mount Arafat, I passed many an empty camp on my way back. In 2019, I don't recall seeing an empty square foot in Arafat.
It was the same I when reached Mina on the second day of Hajj. The streets there used to be busy, with crowds of people walking together, visiting others camps, and snacking together. In meantime, you could hear all kinds of sounds – from police cars, buses, helicopters – you name it. You would hear the loudspeakers with group guides urging pilgrims to hurry.
This year, most of the pilgrims were centred at one place in Mina, while the rest of the city of tents was empty. At night, I sat by the entrance of my camp to rest in isolation and drink a cup of coffee. I had to remind myself that I was actually in Mina. “Where are the hundreds of people? Where are the volunteers?” I asked myself.
The next morning, as I walked to the other camps, I found myself unable to hold my tears and started to cry. I can't explain why; maybe there was a little nostalgia; perhaps it was about the impact of Covid-19; it could have been how I felt about my city. I am, after all, the daughter of this city, where our mission and passion are to serve and be surrounded by the millions of guests of Allah. But where are they?
When I was standing to report in front of the stoning place, called Al Jamarat, the only sound that was repeated from the group leader and the police was: "Keep your distance, keep social distance, please.” In 2019, all you would hear was the guides saying: “Throw your stones and keep moving quickly."
I strive to strike a balance when I reflect about anything.
I understand that in Islam, the foremost priority is a person’s safety and well-being, so I know that this year, the decision to limit the Hajj attendance to 60,000 was made, essentially, to save lives. And yet, it was hard to see a place accustomed to millions of pilgrims welcoming just a few thousand this time.