Saudi Arabia concluded probably its best and most safe hajj ever this week with nearly four million pilgrims performing their obligation with so few problems. Even at least two babies were born during the most significant time of any Muslim.
The success of this year's hajj is due in no small part to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s vision to implement strict security and safety measures and the Ministry of Health, which saw to it that there was no spread of contagious viruses or diseases. With around four million pilgrims gathering in such a small space, it’s truly remarkable that Saudi Arabia pulled off a relatively trouble-free hajj. Imagine how the hajj of 2012 compared to hajj of centuries past, even decades past.
Yet with any large event, even one as sacred as hajj, there are people whose sole purpose is to exploit the poor and unsuspecting. And if we are honest with ourselves, we can sometimes see the worst come out of people. Yes, even Muslims. And we must recognize that there are opportunists among the faithful. Men and women who see not an opportunity to get closer to Allah, but closer to your pocketbook.
Two mini bus drivers bragged this week to a Saudi Arabic language newspaper of the money they made during hajj. Their job was to transfer pilgrims from Mina to the Grand Mosque, a relatively short trip by bus. These fellas said they charged SR 200 for each passenger who rode inside the bus and SR 70 to SR 100 each to allow passengers to ride on the roof.
Pilgrims, especially the elderly from Third World countries, spend 30 or 40 years saving their meager income to perform their once-in-a-lifetime hajj. They have no choice — especially if they are not accompanied by a son or daughter — but to bow to the mercy of people who see them as bundles of cash and not human beings. These two guys were perfectly happy to put people in danger by asking them to climb on the roof of mini bus for the trip to the mosque.
Yet pilgrims can be thoughtless as well. The streets surrounding the Grand Mosque were littered with garbage as pilgrims simply tossed their waste to the ground instead of taking the time to find a rubbish bin. Others relieved themselves in alleys and side streets when finding a public toilet was too inconvenient. Saudi Arabia opened its borders to pilgrims only to find that many of its guests couldn’t be bothered to show respect.
At the Mashair Railway train station, thousands of illegal pilgrims rushed the trains, pushing aside people holding tickets to board the train without paying for it. In effect, they stole passage to perform their duty before God. It seems no one paused to consider the irony that they endangered the lives of their brothers and sisters, and then got to their destination illegally.
But my anger is really directed at the exploiters who saw an opportunity to make an easy buck at the expense of the poor. While many pilgrims demonstrated un-Islamic behavior by trashing the country that welcomed them, there is no mistaking the thieves masquerading as benevolent helpers while picking the pockets of those same guests.
Still, for every predator there are examples of good deeds performed. There was one Saudi woman who distributed expensive perfumes to pilgrims as they were leaving Makkah. Volunteers distributed free juice, water and even umbrellas to passing pilgrims from more than 160 countries.
There were more than 20,000 women volunteering their time to ensure the guests of God were safe and relatively comfortable. There were the youngsters proudly wearing their Boy Scout uniforms volunteering their time and demonstrating their civic duties, and awareness and love for their country.
There were two Turkish women who swept down the streets surrounding the Grand Mosque to rid the area of garbage because they believed that all roads leading to the mosque should be kept clean.
Perhaps one of the best examples of selfless duty to the pilgrims was the Saudi merchant who established in Makkah the largest kitchen in the world to serve the faithful. Every day during hajj his crew slaughtered thousands of lambs, brought in thousands of tons of fresh fruits and served millions of gallons of hot and cold drinks to pilgrims.
His kitchen, Mabrat Alkhair — or Place of Charity — cost an estimated SR 80 million and covered 18,000 square meters. It was equipped with the most up-to-date cooking technology to provide healthy and delicious food. Each cooking pan was capable of accommodate 10 lambs at one time. The kitchen operated around the clock.
The spirit and purpose of hajj was lost on some people — people who call themselves Muslims. But those who abused the privilege of performing hajj were far outnumbered by the kindness and charity of individuals and the Saudi government that saw it a duty to serve humanity.
(Published in the Saudi-based Arab News on Nov. 1, 2012)