The Pakistani and the Saudi
It’s 1am and we’re on our bus drive from the tent city of Mina to Arafat , where pilgrims spend the daylight hours at the plains surrounding Mount Arafat, before moving on.
It was a sight that had a post-apocalyptic aura about it and made me swallow the moisture in my mouth.
For 4km, lining the street like jagged stitches on an otherwise neat garment, were tens of thousands of pilgrims, clad in ihram, most of them deep in sleep ahead of the momentous day ahead.
A day so significant the Prophet Muhammad stated, “Hajj IS Arafat”. Muslims believe that any prayer a pilgrim makes with utmost sincerity at Arafat will be accepted.
And forgiveness, that desperately sought-after grant from Allah, Al-Ghafoor – “The most forgiving”, awaits a pilgrim at Arafat.
While most of the other pilgrims were safely in their tents, some entitled to “special services” tents with high quality air-conditioning, free soft drinks and meals and the relative comfort of fewer pilgrims per tent – those on the streets clearly had nowhere to stay.
Were they illegal squatters or unregistered? Were they duped by Hajj operators? Southern-Pakistani Sayid Mahboob gave me some insight.
He sought us out, seeing us walking around in the bone-crushing crowd with our camera, microphone and media accreditation dangling from our necks. Unlike Isa the Nigerian, he was angry.
“We slept on the street last night. No toilets. My mother is a sugar [diabetes] patient. The Pakistani and Saudi governments have done nothing for me,” he said.
I asked him if he was an unregistered pilgrim.
Sayid Mahboob shot back, holding out his card that hung from his neck: “These are my documents, I paid to the government of Pakistan 226,000 rupees (around $3,000).
“This covers all the expenses … when we went to our maktab, our tent section 49, they gave us tents that were incomplete – under construction.
“All the electricity is open, what if somebody catches shock [electrocution]? No water in the bathroom…”
I asked, “Were conditions that bad that you had to sleep on the street?”
“Very very bad. So we were sleeping on the street,” he replied.
I wondered whether it was the same for him during the Mecca leg of the Hajj.
“In Mecca we had a hotel, but no water for half the day. Anytime I explained our situation to maktab officials, the government of Pakistan, the complaint centre of the Saudi government, even hotel managers – they only say one thing, because we are pilgrims, ‘Sabr, Sabr, Sabr (patience, patience, patience)!!!!’… when I go back to Pakistan I’m petitioning the supreme court.”
Looking over my shoulder from our elevated media-centre at Arafat, an ivory tower of its own, standing firm amid the sea of bodies, I spotted Nimrah Mosque, the spot where the prophet is reported to have delivered his last sermon more than 1,400 years ago.
It came as Muslims were in complete political control of Mecca and its surroundings, after having been driven out of the area as a persecuted minority just years before for challenging the status quo with what were seen as ridiculous ideas.
Ideas such as slaves being equal to free men in the sight of the one true God. Part of what Muhammad told his followers that day was:
“All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab also a white has no superiority over black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.
“Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”
While Saudi Arabia has a bad reputation for it’s brand of Islam, the Wahhabi-flavoured interpretation, it’s the juxtaposition of that strictness with two things that invites far more global attention than it probably would care to have.
The first being – despite Washington’s lectures to the region on democracy, Saudi is an absolute monarchy, yet a firm ally. The two countries recently signed a record arms deal which could eventually go up to $60bn.
To help look after those arms from the US, during the Hajj it was announced that Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah had appointed none other than his son, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, as the country’s new national guard chief.
This went largely unnoticed in the press – no comment from US officials.
The second (interconnected issue) being – with the world’s largest oil reserves bubbling beneath Islam’s holiest sands – Saudi Arabia is immensely rich.
With that wealth, comes tales, sometimes apocryphal, often true, of the lavish lifestyles of members of the royal family, blowing cash on the excesses of life.
Osama bin Laden draws much of his hatred for his country of birth because of these two things.
A Saudi prince, Saud bin Abdulaziz bin Nasir al Saud, was recently jailed for life for murdering his manservant (and presumed homosexual lover) Bandar Abdulaziz, who was found beaten to death at an elite London hotel.
But Abdul Azeez, the wheelchair pusher, lives in a world far away from these images of Saudi Arabia.
Operating in the alleyways and mini-souqs behind the hotels and shopping malls, a few hundred metres away from the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the 17-year-old who bought his wheelchair second-hand from a contact at a hospital, gets to work.
Old, weak or disabled pilgrims can be taken to the Grand Mosque to perform the circumambulation of the Kaaba at a negotiable price.
“Arabiya arabiya ya hajj…” – “Wheelchair, wheelchair, oh pilgrim…”
Abdul Azeez beckons the crowd. Looking for those struggling to walk.
Buzzing along the streets, it’s a quiet day for the boy. He wears an Inter Milan football shirt. He greets a fellow wheelchair pusher, who is interestingly in an AC Milan shirt, as the hunt for a customer continues.
Now that my eyes are looking out for the phenomenon, I notice another teenager, relaxing in his wheelchair after a probably lengthy spell with a customer – he has the Italian national team’s football shirt from the 2006 World Cup.
Abdul Azeez explains to me the unwritten rules of the trade: “My colleagues and I are friends. We have three shifts. When one of us reaches his target for the day, he says ‘I’m done’ and calls someone else who hasn’t made any money that day to take his place.”
So the Inter-AC rivalry obviously doesn’t apply here. He is also honest about the fluctuation in prices when demand is high: “I charge over 400 riyals during Hajj, and half that amount at other times. I use enough for myself, and leave the rest to my family – we are ok – but the help, is beautiful.”
He says he went to school, but doesn’t say which, or where. He is tiny, despite being a teenager. Some of the wheelchair pushers are homeless street kids, who sleep under a bridge, but Abdul Azeez says he has a home. He won’t say where.
Where does he want to be in a decade?
“I am 17 years old now, in 10 years time, I’m optimistic, and my wish is that I can become a computer engineer.”
Wiry, standing at about 1 metre 60 cm, with curly hair combed into a middle-path, extreme self-confidence and a twinkle in his eye, he is a Saudi that you don’t read about in the newspapers.
Someone unique among the 25 million strong population – or perhaps he isn’t, perhaps there are far more Saudis like Abdul Azeez than we imagine.
I wonder about the oil wealth and the billion dollar contracts. I ponder over the real people and their very real lives here. I had hoped I could scratch deeper and truly understand this place.
“I would love to tell the whole world…”, Abdul Azeez had a message and I could tell he was waiting to say this, “the youth of Saudi have a lot of energy – there’s a stereotype that Saudis are lazy, but the youth of Saudi love to work hard. When you come for Hajj you will find us working in all jobs.”
From Saudi wheelchair pushers to Nigerian schoolteachers ripped-off Pakistanis to philosophical South Africans – all interconnected in this majestic annual pilgrimage, fraught with inconsistencies and inequality, but so full of life, and filled with the infinite faith of the faithful – Hajj, is like nothing else.