An estimated 2.5 million people have in recent years gathered in the Holy City of Makkah, in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. But this year, amid the coronavirus pandemic, just 1000 pilgrims are to perform the Hajj.
Makkah, during Hajj, is a city that does not sleep. The streets of the Holy City are usually filled with the hustle and bustle of people from all over the world. Every spoken language known to man can be heard in the city, during Hajj time. The honking of buses and taxis can be heard night and day. Soundproof windows found in hotel rooms bear testimony to the sheer volume of sound at all hours. Style and prints of the dress of every nationality the world boasts, can be seen, provided it is modest. Aromas of different cuisines mingle in the air, as the people of Makkah, always hospitable, try to accommodate the palates of people from all over the world.
This year, however, the streets around the Holy Mosque are quiet (is that even imaginable?). Residents of Makkah say the Holy City say is at the emptiest they have ever seen it. Those who live in Makkah have historically eagerly awaited the arrival of pilgrims from across the world for the Hajj. But the city is silent this year: in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the number of pilgrims attending this year’s pilgrimage has been colossally restricted.
Only those who already were residing in the Kingdom, were allowed to apply to perform the Hajj this year, as Saudi Arabia’s borders remained closed, due to the pandemic. Those who are able to participate in the annual pilgrimage will have the Grand Mosque almost completely to themselves.
Makkah resident Yusra Bundagji says, “My eyes fill with tears when I see the almost empty streets and malls … I miss the noise of the crowds.” She adds, “It feels almost like a deserted place.”
The National reports that, sadly, the mutawfeen (guides for foreign pilgrims, who also arrange accommodation and transportation) have been affected most. This is the first Hajj they will not spend at the holy sites. 64-year-old, Abdulwahid Safialdeen, spent every Hajj with pilgrims since his childhood. He said, “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.” Holding back tears he said, “This is the first time I have ever been deprived of participating in the Hajj, deprived of the honour of serving the guests of Allah.” He said, “This year Makkah is empty, the Grand Mosque is empty, the tawaf (circumambulation) area is empty. Everything is ready, but where are the pilgrims? Where are the guests of Allah?”
Nevertheless, Abdulwahid and his colleagues hope for reward from Allah the Almighty for their patience, saying “We know this situation is the Will of Allah, and Islam teaches us that the health of people is of greater importance than any holy ritual.”
Over the period of the Hajj, hundreds of thousands gather in the areas of the holy sites over a five or six-day period during the Hajj, and so pilgrims are in close physical contact. This year, Hajjis from outside the kingdom have been barred. Only those 1 000 Hajj pilgrims (70 percent of whom are resident foreigners, and 30 percent Saudi nationals) who have been given special permits will be able to access the Hajj sites at Mina, Muzdalifah and Arafat.
All who reside in Makkah are bound to feel the impact of the restricted Hajj 2020. The economy of the city has for centuries been centered around the Hajj season. There is a host of formal and informal roles with regards to being at the service of the Hajjis during the Hajj season, from guides, volunteers, medics, and drivers, to those who rent out buildings, rooms and cars, to pilgrims.
The National reports that restaurants and catering services are among the hardest hit sectors. The Hajj Catering Agency, the official authority that oversees all catering services during the season, last year worked with more than 240 catering services in Makkah. 60 million meals were prepared. This year, just eight kitchens, along with with Saudia Airline’s catering, will prepare pre-cooked meals for the pilgrims. Further, not a single permit, in the weeks leading up to the Hajj, was granted to food companies and humanitarians wishing to distribute free food to the pilgrims. The National reports that a source said, “Unfortunately, this year, for health measures and to reduce the number of people in the holy sites, we didn’t give a single permit.”
Accommodation for Hajj is usually booked months in advance. A few weeks before the Hajj begins, the flag of the nationality of the Hajjis who have rented a private property is hung from the building. This year, according to The National, most of the buildings still have the ‘For Rent’ signs over their doors. One proprietor, Taha Faqeeh, who owns two buildings in Makkah, able to accommodate 900 pilgrims, says he had retired early and had spent his inheritance on purchasing the buildings. He said that for the last five years the rent from these properties had been his main source of income. Taha said, “When the authorities officially announced that Hajj was only for residents of Saudi Arabia, I directed myself to the Qibla and prayed to Allah to compensate us.”
For the younger generations, the change this year has also been perceived as major. 26-year-old Dr Ruqaya Kamal is part of the Saudi Medical Academy for Volunteers, which focuses on medical assistance to pilgrims. The Academy sends 275 personnel to all the holy sites in Makkah, Mina, Arafat and Muzdalefah. Ruqaya has been a volunteer since she was in medical school. She said, “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.” Ruqaya added, “This year I’m missing these valuable lessons.” While she had planned her annual leave to coincide with the Hajj, she has now found herself working with the Ministry of Health’s Covid-19 team. She said “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.”
Umm Muhammed Umar