The pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia is one of the five pillars of Islam and required of all able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, but it is not an easy task.
An association in France, the ‘SOS Pilgrims,’ has created the ‘Hajj Academy’ in Paris which offers classes to hopeful pilgrims wishing to prepare for the trip.
Started in 2007, the Hajj Academy offers counsel and instructions about the difficulties of the pilgrimage and helps worshipers gather funds for the trip.
“The Hajj Academy is a training center whose objective is to prepare pilgrims to understand the environment of the Hajj pilgrimage or of the Umrah pilgrimage. There are certain teaching units, some very technical on health and security aspects and other aspects of rituals and steps and particularly one element which we think is important for the Hajj Academy: it’s to prepare French and European pilgrims for the diverse and multicultural context of meeting, that one experiences when one is in Mecca,” said Zacaria Nana, President of ‘SOS Pilgrims’.
Doctors, academics and religious leaders are invited to speak about their experiences and offer advice.
For Ghaleb Bencheickh, Islam specialist and guest speaker at a Hajj Academy class, the pilgrimage is a trip of a lifetime for those of the Muslim faith.
“It is very important for a Muslim to accomplish this pilgrimage which is one of five pillars of Islam. It's an intense, spiritual and religious moment for men and women of the Muslim faith. It's the trip of a lifetime; it’s the place where one meets God. It’s also a place of brotherly gathering where Muslims express sentiments of fraternity, of liking. They exploit the gentleness and clemency of God. It's really a very strong moment in the life of a Muslim,” he said.
The Hajj Academy offers information on travel agencies authorized by French and Saudi Arabian authorities to organize the trip. The travel agencies usually offer a “package” deal which includes a return air ticket, hotel reservations and transport to the holy sites.
The course also offers pilgrims practical advice on matters such as getting the necessary medical tests and vaccinations before entering Saudi Arabia.
“I came today to the Hajj Academy to meet other pilgrims and the members of ‘SOS Pilgrims’. I got information off the internet about the trip to Mecca before coming here. The Hajj Academy helped me to choose an authorized travel agency and to get information on Saudi Arabia. In any case, for a trip like this, one doesn’t leave stress-free. I don’t know what is going to happen over there. Once we're there, there will no doubt be surprises. Even after preparing well for one’s trip, one is always surprised. But thankfully the Hajj Academy exists, one is a little more at peace,” said one pilgrim Rafik Saouli who is going to make the trip along with his parents.
His father Amar said everything on his checklist had been ticked off, and that all that was left now was to leave.
“We have sorted all the details for our trip, we haven’t forgotten anything. The tickets are ready, the reservation also, everything is paid. We can leave,” he said.
“Obviously we are happy to go, we’re looking forward to it.”
Every year some 35,000 Muslims from France make the Hajj pilgrimage.
The numbers taking part world-wide have risen sharply over the last 80 years from around 20,000 in 1932 to around three million in 2010.
This year, Hajj is expected to fall between October 24-29.