Faizel Patel, Radio Islam News | 2015-10-14
Reporting on this year’s Hajj has been my most difficult assignment, writes Radio Islam's Faizel Patel. "I have been on the Hajj and Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) before, but I wasn't prepared for what this task would entail, partly because I took for granted that everything will go according to plan." Read Faizel's recount below.
I was thrilled when I found out I was going on Hajj. I was prepared to go from last year but as any Muslim will tell you, the invitation for Hajj only comes from God.
Checking in at O.R Tambo International airport was a mean taste of things to come. As part of a TV crew of 4, checking-in masses of equipment was tedious. We would soon be offloading and packing heavy equipment on to vans in ihram in 50-degree temperatures.
After an eight-hour flight, the inconvenience of my luggage not arriving was unsettling. I was to be a lead presenter, with no clothes, nor the sponsored kit. This mishap sparked a mini clothes-shopping spree.
When we checked in with the Ministry in Jeddah, I didn’t realise that a tragedy had unfolded while midair. While we waited for our media accreditation I sat in the lounge of our hotel glued to the TV screen – horrific images of a crane crash in which hundreds were killed and hundreds more injured. The crash had a profound effect on me, as I didn't expect the journey of Hajj to start off with a disaster.
Like many other pilgrims I tried to come to terms with the tragedy and control my emotions: those who died were ironically most fortunate because they died while praying at one of the holiest sites in Islam, on the blessed day of Friday, and also just a few minutes before the early evening prayer. Muslims regard those who passed-away as martyrs. Millions of Muslims have the desire to pass away and be buried in Mecca and Medina.
The heat of Saudi Arabia is the hottest I have experienced. It saps the energy from you, leaving you dehydrated and forced to drinking copious amounts of water. While water does rehydrate, it doesn't provide the required energy needed. Energy drinks thus became my staple diet.
Being guests of the Hajj ministry did heave many advantages. I visited the factory where the cloth of the Kaaba is made; access to which the ordinary pilgrim is denied. I also got to meet some key organisers of the Hajj which included Prince Khaled al Faisal al-Saud, the Minister of Hajj, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Asheikh, the Minister of Health Khaled Al Faleh and the Minister of Information and Culture, Adel el Toraifi.
The days were long, spent gathering footage - evenings spent presenting on air until 11:30pm and have supper thereafter. I would retire to bed at about 2am and try to be up again at 4am for the early morning prayer and a series of updates for various radio stations which began from 6am.
As the days of Hajj drew closer the team prepared for the journey of a lifetime. I donned the ihraam and assisted the crew to get the massive amounts of equipment to the awaiting GMC's provided by the Ministry to escort us during our trip.
I must admit at times I felt like royalty as a convoy of police escorted us to various conferences, meetings, and Hajj ritual sites. The special treatment the media received was perceived as boastful by some, however this was hardly the case.
Preparing for a live TV broadcast requires a lot of equipment. It wasn't easy carrying all that gear and I took strain. I was tired mentally and physically, and the Hajj hadn't even started!
Many viewers and listeners may not be aware that while we had a job to bring news and aspects of the Hajj via airwaves and television screens, the team and I were also performing Hajj. The rituals of Hajj applied to us as well like any other pilgrim in the blessed lands.
We had to be in ihram with all its restrictions and we had to work in ihram, which at times proved to be challenging as you constantly adjust to the two pieces of cloth that covered your body from falling off.
There is an extremely fine line in balancing the worship of Hajj and reporting on the Hajj. While performing hajj is relatively easy, performing hajj and working at the same time is strenuous. There were times where I just could not handle the strain and packing it in crossed my mind on many occasions. However, little did I realise that it is God that decides and He assists you in your will to carry on.
I used to escape after an evening’s broadcast to spend some time with my family via Skype. This provided the emotional energy that I needed to go on. My family found some solace by watching me on television every night which according to my wife delighted my 18 month old son and 8-year old daughter.
We arrived at Arafah only after 8pm on the 22nd September. We set up our studio on the roof of the media building which gave us a good vantage point, but we knew the heat would affect us. Local weather reports indicated that temperatures in Arafah the next day were going to be the highest ever.
None of us slept that night as we setup studio and began our broadcast from 4am. As the mercury rose, the desert sun began beating down on us. I became lethargic with no energy, clad in ihraam while trying to report on the most significant day of Hajj. The Prophet (PBUH) said Hajj is Arafah.
The temperatures reached 58 degrees and even mini spray bottles with fans failed to cool me down as the heat and fatigue began to take its toll. An air-conditioned room provided some relief during breaks.
We got the call to begin wrapping up at 2pm, ready to move to Muzadalifah. It was exhausting getting the gear together ready to depart.
As Arafah Day is the most significant for the Hajj I needed to spend time praying during the optimum period known as Wuqoof. I tried honouring the requests for prayers - so many people had asked me to pray for them. It was impossible to remember all the names but the 2 hours I spent speaking to God, in my heart I tried not to leave a single soul on the face of this earth out in my prayers.
As I left the air conditioned room I felt light, floating on the wings of angels with the sense of satisfaction that my time speaking to God revived my will and etched in tenacity to prepare myself for the last day of Hajj, the day of Eid or the day when the symbolic ritual of the stoning of the devil takes place in Mina.
The bus ride to Muzadalifah was a moment in time where I got to rest my head on my arms and get an hour’s sleep. Once we arrived in Muzadalifah I had no appetite for food and wanted to continue with my slumber for an hour or two before our departure to the tent city of Mina.
The pressure of the last three days took its toll and just when the fatigue began to ease, little did I realize that this was just the calm before the storm.
What I awoke to the next morning was unbelievable. It was nothing that any journalist that shared a room with me was prepared for. It shattered my heart.
How could this be? How could this happen? The focus of the Hajj itself was going to be snatched by the tragedy with the world media cashing in and deciding how to use the myriad of angles.
I grabbed my backpack and hurried to the exit of the media center, which was always guarded by soldiers with guns to make my way to the scene. I still in ihram and not yet performed the symbolic pelting of the devil.
However, logistics and imposed restrictions played a critical role in not reporting as much I wanted to. I wanted to be there at the scene; I wanted to see for myself and absorb what had unfolded on this last day of Hajj, which besides the crane accident was incident free.
Internet and network accessibility was atrocious and filing stories became a mission on its own. Thankfully solutions always present themselves.
Although in my heart I knew I didn't fulfill the expectations as a journalist due to factors beyond my control, I rest assured that I had done all that I could under the circumstances.
Speculation of the tragedy became rife. Cool heads were required to make sense of the catastrophe. I sat with a few experienced journo’s from major networks and we thrashed out various angles and the extent and impact of the incident. It was difficult to deal with such emotions while trying to present on live television.
Here were millions of pilgrims on a journey of a lifetime that was marred by tragedy. While I leave the ultimate reason of the disaster in the knowledge of God and those that were killed are in a better place, the scars will remain etched in my heart.
When Hajj ended, all I wanted to do was go home to be with my family, to be in a space of normality. However, I could not leave these blessed lands without conveying my salutations and the salutations of so many people on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) which weighed down heavily on my shoulders.
I departed for the city of Medina saddened by the fact that I only had 1 day to spend in the mosque of my beloved master.
The strain of 3 weeks began to take a physical form on my body in the form of back pain and blisters.
I showered, put on my best, and with heart racing I walked towards the legendary green dome where he lay resting.
Surprisingly the mosque was unusually full at 4am and as I waited in line after the morning prayer, my heart reached a crescendo as I approached the golden gate. I audibly conveyed peace and blessings upon the greatest human ever to have set foot on this earth.
We left for the airport the next morning. It was a sad and happy occasion. While we were ecstatic to go home, we were equally sad that we were leaving the blessed lands.
As the team left for South Africa, I had a whole extra day to wait. The time alone provided a space to reflect and ponder.
The wait at the Jeddah airport seemed like a lifetime. As I sat waiting for the sands to flow through the hourglass until departure I looked at young couples spending time in the waiting area. My mind drifted and the urge to be home grew intense. The comfort of my wife and children is the glue that kept me intact.
The sudden jolt of my daughter grabbing me from behind as I exited the arrivals area in SA revived me immediately. The warm embrace of my wife and my son echoed that I was home.
It's been more than a week that I have been back, and I have sweated out the fatigue of the past three weeks and the pain of the tragedy. The scar I will carry for a lifetime.
The team had accomplished a successful broadcast. Messages of support and well wishes filled pages of social media sites and the physical interaction was even more satisfying. People were happy with the coverage that surprised me to an extent.
As normality begins to reign, I live with a trace of regret that I could've done much, much, more. I know that this has been a huge learning curve and if the opportunity arises again I will have the guidance of experience to lead the way, Insha Allah (If God wills).