On covering the Hajj
As story assignments go, this one's a doozy.
Four million people, all crammed into an area smaller than downtown Toronto, from all continents and regions of the world. The colours, the sights, the electric atmosphere... throw in the potential for bad things to happen (stampedes, fires, flu outbreaks, etc.) and it has all the ingredients for a journalist's dream come true.
Unless, of course, you're here to cover it all.
Let me explain.
I got a tweet a few weeks ago, from someone suggesting that I not tweet about the Hajj, and that I instead enjoy the experience and use whatever time I had to visit Mecca's sacred spaces. After all, it's not like you're here everyday. It's important to make the most out of it.
She had a point, and it's something I grappled with for weeks before committing to this trip.
I didn't want to be the guy (read: jackass) who was typing away on his blackberry smack dab in the middle of Islam's holiest of holies. That would be rude at best, and profane at worst. Besides, Mecca is primarily a place of worship. All that Web 2.0 and twitterati stuff can wait, right?
Thing is, I'm here as a journalist. Here to ask hard questions, dig deep for stories, develop contacts, and shine a light on aspects of the Hajj that would have a broad appeal to a Canadian audience. For example, I bet you didn't know Canadian engineers are at the heart of Mecca's transformation. Yup. They are. Saudi officials hand-picked the Canadians because they're the best in the world at what they do. I'll be interviewing some of them, and sharing their remarkable stories - and competing visions - for what Mecca's future should look like.
Bet you also didn't know there are some Canadians who've been going to Hajj every year for the past 20+ years. Uh huh. I'll be interviewing some of them too.
There are other stories: Canadians who volunteer at medical clinics here, the lack of Hajj visas, and the treatment of minorities. I'm glad the Star (and the CBC) is letting me tell them.
There's a story, quite literally, around every corner. In the city's history, its rapid move towards modernization, its hotels, its alleyways, its hospitals, its sacred sites, its migrant workers. You name it. It's all here.
And so am I. As a journalist. So, I apologize in advance if you see me typing away on my Blackberry in a public place. It's not behaviour I would generally condone. I promise to be as discreet as possible.
But I also promise to not back away from digging for stories that deserve to be told. And if that means bringing my laptop to the plains of Arafat, or taking my camera to the stoning ritual in Mina, that's what I'll do. It is, after all, a big part of why I'm here.
Besides, who knows... maybe some of the stories will resonate. And maybe people will begin to see the Hajj in entirely new ways.
You can play a part, too. Add @MuhammadLila on Twitter and follow the journey.