Residents of ‘quiet’ Makkah prepare for a scaled-down Hajj

More than two million people usually gather in the Holy City for the annual pilgrimage, but amid a pandemic this year just 1,000 will attend Hajj

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The streets of Makkah usually throng with people and hum with the chatter of dialects as pilgrims from all over the world gather in Saudi Arabia’s holiest city for Hajj.

All day and night, the aromas of different cuisines mingle in the air, and people wearing African and Asian dress crowd into the main thoroughfares.

Makkah, during Hajj, is a city that doesn't sleep.

This year, the streets around the Holy Mosque are quiet. Residents say it is the emptiest they have yet seen the Holy City, which usually draws more than two million people during Hajj.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Saudi authorities limited the number of pilgrims attending this year’s pilgrimage to the low thousands. Only those already in the country were allowed to apply to attend as borders remained closed due by the pandemic.

Those who are able to participate in the annual pilgrimage will have the Holy Mosque almost to themselves. But for residents who eagerly anticipate the arrival of Muslims from across the world to share in the devotions each year, the city seems strangely silent.

“It feels almost like a deserted place," said resident Yusra Bundagji as she drove through the streets on the first day of Dhul Hijjah, the pilgrimage month.

"My eyes fill with tears when I see the almost empty streets and malls … I miss the noise of crowds," she tells The National.

Among those who have most noticed the changes this year are the mutawfeen who act as guides for foreign pilgrims and arrange accommodation and transportation. For manythis is the first Hajj they will not spend at the holy sites.

Abudwahid Safialdeen, a 64-year-old Mutawef, has spent every Hajj with pilgrims since his childhood. “My father and my grandfather worked serving pilgrims from West Africa; we used to host them in our house and find accommodation for them in our neighbours’ houses,” he says.

Mr Safialdeen joined the industry when he was 18 and has held senior roles in numerous agencies that cater to the needs of pilgrims throughout his career. “This is the first time I have ever been deprived of participating in the Hajj, deprived of the honour of serving God’s guests,” he says, his voice cracking.

“This year Makkah is empty … the Holy Mosque is empty … the tawaf – the area circling the Kaaba – is empty.

“Everything is ready, but where are the pilgrims? Where are God's guests?”

epa08566565 A handout photo made available by the Saudi Ministry of Media on 26 July 2020 shows a pilgrim arriving in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 25 July 2020, the holiest place in Islam, where he will undergo four days of quarantine at designated hotels before attending the Muslim pilgrimage Hajj.  EPA/Yasser Bakhsh HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES

While many say they are saddened by the effect of the pandemic on the annual event, Mr Safialdeen and his colleagues say they hope for Allah’s reward for their patience.

“We know this situation is God’s will and our religion teaches us that the health of people is of greater importance than any holy ritual.”

Ordinarily, hundreds of thousands crowd into the holy sites over a five or six-day period during the Hajj, which brings people from all over the world into close contact.

This year, the ban on overseas pilgrims is supplemented by social distancing during the rituals and a restriction on touching the Kaaba.

Only those few thousand given special permits will be able to access the Hajj sites at Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat and masks will be mandatory throughout.

The new regulations have drawn praise from the World Health Organisation. “This [decision] is another example of the hard choices that all countries must make to put health first,” WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said this month.

“We understand that it was not an easy decision to make. And we also understand it is a major disappointment for many Muslims who are looking forward to making their pilgrimage this year.”

A handout picture provided by the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umra on July 25, 2020, shows travellers among the first group of arrivals for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, mask-clad and seated distantly from one another due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, riding on a bus transporting them from the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah's King Abdulaziz International Airport. The 2020 hajj season, which has been scaled back dramatically to include only around 1,000 Muslim pilgrims as Saudi Arabia battles a coronavirus surge, is set to begin on July 29. Some 2.5 million people from all over the world usually participate in the ritual that takes place over several days, centred on the holy city of Mecca. This year's hajj will be held under strict hygiene protocols, with access limited to pilgrims under 65 years old and without any chronic illnesses. - === RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / MINISTRY OF HAJJ AND UMRA" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ===

The impact is far-reaching in Makkah, where much of the economy is geared towards Hajj season. “Literally everyone in Makkah, in one way or another, works in Hajj,” Mr Safialdeen says, listing the array of formal and informal roles from guides, volunteers and doctors to those who rent buildings, rooms and cars to pilgrims.

Restaurants and catering services are particularly affected. Last year, Hajj Catering Agency, the official authority that oversees all catering services during the season, worked with more than 240 catering services in Makkah to prepare 60 million meals.

This year, only eight kitchens are expected to prepare pre-cooked meals in partnership with Saudia airline catering services, a source told The National.

In the weeks leading up to Hajj, food companies and philanthropists rush to get approval to distribute food free to the pilgrims.

“Unfortunately, this year, for health measures and to reduce the number of people in the holy sites, we didn’t give a single permit, the source said.

Hajj accommodation usually books up months in advance. A few weeks before the start, signs advertising “Hajj renting” are usually replaced with the flag of the nationality of the people who have rented the property. This year, most of these buildings still hand the rental signs over their doors.

Taha Faqeeh, who owns two buildings in Makkah with capacity for 900 pilgrims, is among those to have not rented space this year.

"I retired prematurely and spent my inheritance buying these buildings. They have been my main source of income for the past five years," he says. "When the authorities officially announced that Hajj was only for residents of Saudi Arabia I directed myself to the Qibla [in the direction of the Kaaba] and prayed for God to compensate us," he tells The National.

Younger generations also say the change has been significant. Ruqaya Kamal has been volunteering as a front-line health worker in the Hajj since she was in medical school.

“Since I first volunteered in 2014, I became addicted to it. It is the most rewarding feeling ever,” the 26-year-old doctor says.

Ms Kamal is part of the Saudi Medical Academy for Volunteers, which specialises in medical assistance for pilgrims, sending a 275-person team to all the holy sites in Makkah, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalefah.

“Hajj is the greatest school of life – you learn to give your best despite the heat exhaustion, the long hours of walking and even despite the language barrier,” she says. “This year I’m missing these valuable lessons.”

Ms Kamal adds that she planned her annual leave in January to be available for the Hajj.

Instead, she is spending the time working with the Ministry of Health Covid-19 team.

"Everyone who volunteers in Hajj feels unhappy once the season is over, it is a drop in productivity from intense days to normal days. However, this year the Hajj season didn't even start and I’m already feeling down."

Many hope things will return to normal for next year and more pilgrims will flock to the holy city after such a quiet year.

Ordinarily, 60-year-old Mutawef Khattab Ejaimi employees 25 people to accommodate pilgrims from Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia.

“I worry financially about those who used to work in Hajj. Some people have other jobs as well, but many rely on this season for the majority of their income for the year,” he says.

“I know this time will pass, and we will make it up next year, hopefully, once Corona is over, we expect even bigger numbers than ever.”