Hajj: Ebola, selfies and two million stories

This year’s pilgrimage was marked by health scares and a self-portrait craze, but everyone will have their own memories.

This year’s hajj will go down in history as the year thousands of pilgrims from West Africa were stopped from entering Saudi Arabia due to Ebola. Saudi authorities declined visas to Muslims from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. A total of 70,000 Nigerians were allowed to perform Hajj, but not before going through stringent health checks.

There was a fever among those on hajj, however – “selfie” fever.

The ban on camera-phones has been lifted at Mecca’s grand mosque, meaning a free-for-all for those who wished to indulge.

Some scolars scoffed at the taking of self-portraits. Sheikh Assim al-Hakeem, a Jeddah-based scolar, put it this way: “O God, I ask of you a pilgrimage that contains no boasting or showing off. Taking such selfies and videos defy the wish of our Prophet.”

Those against the craze described taking selfies and posting them on social media as vain a behavior that goes right against the spirit of what is a supposed to be a journey of humility.

For many of the pilgrims it was too hard to resist documenting what is to most the journey of a lifetime. 

Feeding the masses

More than two million pilgrims from 170 countries performed hajj this year. Feeding and hydrating such a huge number of people is a tremendous undertaking.

Five million loaves of bread and 100 million bottles of water were required daily for the pilgrims. Water desalination plants provided an additional 400,000 cubic meters of water to the cities of Mecca and Jeddah during the time of the pilgrimage, according the Saudi Hajj Ministry.

Transporting the pilgrims is is huge biggest logistical challenge for Saudi authorities. All pilgrims must perform haj rites in certain places at the same time.

Moving the pilgrims from place to place requires more than 20,000 buses and thousands of taxis. Once in Mecca pilgrims have to walk to and from sites as driving becomes impossible due to congestion.

Saudi authorities have embarked upon a controversial expansion project to accommodate the growing numbers. Billions of dollars have been spent on increasing the capacity of the grand mosque in Mecca, and the Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, which marks where Muhammad is buried.

Once a dusty desert town, Mecca glitters with skyscrapers, huge shopping centres and luxury hotels. To the Saudi monarchy, Mecca is their vision of the future – a national pride.

While there is little disagreement over the need to expand, critics accuse the Saudi authorities of disregarding the historical and cultural heritage of Islam and destroying some of its earliest sites. 

But the authorities have turned a deaf ear. Hundreds of Mecca’s millennium-old buildings have been demolished in the past decade alone.

Expanding the grand mosque in Mecca and surrounding it with hotels and apartments most pilgrims cannot afford means fewer people can afford to stay nearby.

Things to remember

It’s hard to imagine how things would be five years from now, so I choose to hang on to the good memories of this year: 

* Saudi soldiers spraying pilgrims with water to keep them cool in temperatures hovering at more than 40C

* The elderly Nigerian woman brought on hajj by eight of hers sons, who took turns to care for her. They had been saving for the journey for 10 years.

* The beggar from my hometown in northern Kenya who made it to Hajj with savings from the alms he was given? He was the last person I expected to see. Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is compulsory on only those who can afford.

For me there is just one word to describe hajj: humbling.

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