Haj: a less dangerous road for the faithful

Two pilgrimages 28 years apart showed a world of difference.

A bus packed with pilgrims takes them perform the stoning ritual of Haj in March 2000.
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For centuries, pilgrims have met at the holy Kaaba in the heart of Mecca.

The journey to one of the holiest sites for a Muslim was riddled with hardship and uncertainty.

Those who embarked on it would usually spend their life's saving, with the knowledge that they might never see home again.

The first pilgrims arrived on foot, crossing the merciless desert in camel caravans and on donkeys.

With the onset of modern transport they began arriving on buses, and on ships from far-flung parts of the Muslim world.

Finally with the expansion and paving of roads, and the opening of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah with a special Haj terminal in 1981, pilgrims had an easier way to reach their destination.

That same year, a 21-year-old Emirati and his 60-year-old mother decided to use the new airport to reach Mecca for the Haj.

Booking their flight on a Middle East airline, they were prepared for the worse.

"It was understood that there was a very high chance that you might get crushed to death in a stampede or get killed on the road in a bus or car accident," said Rashid Ahmed, an Emirati from Sharjah.

"Even though I felt I should perform Haj when I was older, I did it for my mother. It was her dream."

It had cost him Dh4,000 for the total trip, Dh2,000 each, for the top-notch package at the time.

Mr Ahmed, who performed another Haj that cost him Dh25,000 a person in 2009, said the two experiences were "incomparable."

Narrow roads, delays at the airport, lost luggage and lack of organisation took a toll on the pilgrims. Mr Ahmed and his mother stayed in an apartment building.

His mother roomed in a three-bedroom apartment with 10 other women, and he stayed with 10 men in a two-bedroom apartment.

There were cooks in the basement of the building who would cook the same meals daily, "rice and meat", for the month the pilgrims were there.

"It was so uncomfortable," Mr Ahmed said. "I couldn't sleep from the snoring of the older men, and since I was young they made me carry everything and I was like the errand boy."

He recalls two traumatic experiences during his first Haj: a body he had stepped on while at the Jamarat, where the ritual of stoning pillars representing the devil often resulted in stampedes; and what he saw on Eid Al Adha.

"I am still haunted by those legs of someone I stepped on laying there," Mr Ahmed said.

"There was no way to stop as the crowds pushed you on. You don't risk bending down as you will be crushed to death.

"And the other haunting scene, was the pools of blood at the site of sacrifice of sheep, goats and even cows. Some of the animals were fainting from fright. I was so shaken by it, I became a vegetarian that day."

He was grateful that he had persuaded his mother to stay away on both occasions.

"It was a far more dangerous Haj in the past," Mr Ahmed said.

"Women avoided going to certain sites, like the Jamarat and the slaughter site.

"Thankfully it is far more organised now and safer for everyone."