Class differences on the Hajj
Thanks to some poor planning on my part, I wound up walking about 5-6km in the heat of the desert sun this afternoon. Though I can’t say it was anything close to relaxing – it did give me a chance to see the Hajj – and this massive gathering of people – in a unique way.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Found myself in Mecca this morning, thinking the Great Mosque wouldn’t be busy. Bad idea. There’s no such thing as “not busy” this time of year. Truthfully, I’ve never seen it so crowded before – not even in pictures like this. Think of it like lining up outside a gate just before a game starts at the Air Canada Centre. Now close all the other gates, and leave only one open. That crush of people – everyone pushing and shoving their way through a tiny bottleneck, anxious to get in – is kinda what it’s like. Except it’s circular, so there’s no real beginning or end (or relief, for that matter) to look forward to until all seven circuits are done.
At the end, after finishing off some last minute errands, I flagged down a bus to take me back to Mina. Thought I’d accomplished something, until the driver dropped me off in Muzdalifah instead (you might recall Muzdalifah is the place where pilgrims collect pebbles the night before arriving in Mina).
It was a good, hour-long walk to get back to the journalists compound, most of it uphill. Turned out to be something of an enlightening experience.
In a way, the entire world is here. People from nearly every country and walk of life.
Part of the problem is that the way the Hajj is set up, it’s difficult to interact with complete strangers in any kind of meaningful way.
All the tents are grouped according to nationality. So the Canadians generally stay in areas with other Canadians, Brits with other Brits, and so on. The Saudis apportion services based on nationality, so the westerners may get bigger tents in more strategic locations, while the Indians will typically be crammed into zones in far off places. There are many who would say this violates the spirit of the Hajj – how can you emphasize universal equality when not everyone shares the same living conditions?
The contrast can be striking. Some tent compounds have entry points – you have to show some kind of ID to get in. Once inside, they have coolers, fridges, cold running water, and showers. Others have nothing, just bare bones tents with air conditioners, and maybe a rug on the floor.
Then you’ve got the squatters. The people who have nowhere to stay, so they just sleep wherever. And I mean WHEREVER. On the sidewalks, on the streets, in the pathways, under the bridges, you name it. They just plunk down their things and “claim” that area as they own.
I must’ve passed by several thousand squatters today. It really puts things into perspective. In Canada, there are travel agencies that advertise “5-star Hajj packages.” They usually start around $6,000 and go upwards from there. Compare that with the poor Bangladeshi couple with three young children in tow who drove here, because they can’t afford to fly.
Now, I've got nothing against exotic vacations. But here, in Mecca, the difference can be striking.
And given the rapid pace of development here and the many, many skyscrapers now in the works, the disparity will only grow. It leaves organizers here with a major challenge. With state of the art technology and strong urban planning, they've proven able to make the Hajj a safer and easier experience than ever before.
But can they make it a more equal experience, too?
Hajj mabrook, indeed.