Postcards From the Hajj
Our correspondent Diaa Hadid is one of millions of Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca
A mountain of water bottles
The pilgrims’ chants of “Here I am, O Lord” were barely audible over the crunch-crunch of plastic water bottles squashed underfoot as we jostled toward Mount Arafat on Sunday, the greatest day of the annual hajj. Muslims believe it is when God will answer all sincere prayers offered there.
As the sun blazed, men and boys splashed the crowds gleefully with the last ounces from their bottles. Some ducked their heads under gushes from a supply tower, and a few kind souls offered to turn their spray bottles onto strangers’ faces.
At first I was disappointed to see the mess of bottles and mud, a cleaning man in bright yellow and green looking on helplessly: I had thought Arafat would be austere and clean. But the pilgrims’ cheery mood brightened my own.
Of course it was dirty. Two million people were walking together on a hot day to a rocky hill and sucking down bottles of water. Of course the cleaner couldn’t sweep it up — yet; he could cause a deadly crush if he got in the way of that river of pilgrims. So I, too, crunched the bottles, tried not to slip, let people spray me with water. I even prayed.
Hairway to heaven
At the end of the hajj, men are required to shave their heads, and women to cut a lock of hair. At the busy barber complex near the Grand Mosque, they’ll buzz you with a razor (disposable) or scissors for $4; a machine cut is $2.70. Signs around the mosque warn pilgrims not to cut hair inside the complex — it turns out some people like to D.I.Y. at Islam’s holiest site.
A little something to take home
I mean no disrespect when I say Mecca is, well, a mecca for shopping. People have come here to pray, but even five times daily leaves time for the glittering gold shops that line Ajyad Street.
This year’s big sellers: lightweight rings and white, rose and yellow bracelets so finely spun that they feel like cotton candy on the wrist. Traders, as they do, lament that last year was better — instability throughout the Middle East has left fewer buyers for the higher-priced bling.
For those with lighter wallets, children hawk velvet prayer rugs decorated with images of the Kaaba for $2.60. People sell flip-flops for the inevitable pilgrim who has lost her shoes somewhere around the Grand Mosque, calling out the prices in Urdu: “Panj! Panj! Panj!” Five! Five! Five! The pharmacy on Ajyad Street is constantly packed, doing a roaring trade in antibiotics — hajj flu again — and anti-diarrhea pills.
Fitbit for the soul
Sitting next to a group of Saudi women who resembled large black crows in their billowing robes, double face veils and gloves, I noticed they all wore little rings that looked like miniature pedometers. When I asked how many miles one woman had walked that day, she laughed.
It turned out the rings were electronic prayer counters. Muslims often keep track of individual prayers like “I seek God’s forgiveness,” believing that they earn credit for a good deed, or hasana, with each supplication. Prayers uttered at the Grand Mosque are said to be worth 100,000 times those said elsewhere.