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On the Scene

Covering The Hajj

By CNN crew member Umm Zainab
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JEDDA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Christmas came today: but not for everyone on the team. The unlucky, grounded crew members were left in a pique as Adil, grinning like a Cheshire cat, left the hotel with our driver in the early hours this morning.

The destination: an airfield in the Mina Valley, some twenty minutes drive out of Makkah. The story: an exclusive ride over the holy sites in one of the Saudi Air Force's choppers.

Though there are hundreds of journalists in the kingdom to cover The Hajj, the aerial view of the pilgrims on the move was a complete CNN exclusive.

With an expected two and a half million faithful expected at this year's Hajj, the Air Force, together with several other arms of the Saudi armed forces have been roped in for the massive logistics and security operation that it entails.

As the chopper took off in a swirl of dust, and made for the Mina valley, the extent of planning on the part of Saudi security officials for the pilgrimage became clear. Making it's way to Makkah, the chopper flew over the Jamarat Bridge.

Workers were still hammering and drilling away at the structure, which has been the site of tragedy when overcrowding results in stampedes.

The crew were also taken to the site of the Jamarat Bridge. Zain, Adil and Schams stood dwarfed by the massive pillars pointing their long fingers into the sky.

It became even more surreal when the crew were taken to the underground level, which, Schams noted was "very Dante-esque." "We're underneath the devil!" she enthused, to much laughter.

Meanwhile, back in the chopper, Adil and the crew had circled the holy city at least three times to get good pictures.

To see the pilgrims on the move from such an altitude is a spectacle that defies description. The millions of faithful praying in unison towards their Maker is liable to sway even the most cynical, if for no other reason than for the sheer spectacle of it all.

After returning to the base, it was time for more special treatment for CNN - a steaming lunch of rice and chicken with the pilots at the base.

After much hand shaking and promises of making a special DVD for the crew it was back on the road to Makkah.

Two days before, the CNN crew were also granted special treatment when they visited the security forces' operations center in Mina - and were given an exclusive tour of the facility by Major-General Mansour Al-Turki.

We were in awe of the hi-tech nature of the command center; straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster like "Mission Impossible."

Our enthusiasm was fueled by the fact that yet again, CNN was ahead of the pack. The special attention of the general, and the tour of the operations center, was another CNN exclusive.

Needless to say there was a lot of self-congratulatory back patting back at the hotel later that evening when the piece was first aired on CNN International!

There was also a great deal of gnashing of teeth despite the Christmas cheer.

During the 'walk-about' at the security center, Zain's scarf kept slipping off her head. Her repeated attempts to hold fast to the recalcitrant fabric rendered much of the interview material useless.

A point Adil would not let the entire crew forget that evening -- elucidating on (and on) about how we needed to get proper scarves.

The crew, hardly imbibed with Christmas cheer, ordered some mezze from the room service menu, except for Adil who had to start ingesting huge amounts of video from the helicopter.

It's not that we weren't festive, there was just too much work left to do, with the Hajj beginning in earnest in three days time. Nobody even tried to hum the tune of "Jingle Bells."

As Schams busied herself with getting the Internet hooked up and dealing with various logistics in our office, Zain tried her hand at being a Domestic Goddess.

A new 'slip-free' scarf had been procured, but it was crumpled and needing ironing. A board and an iron was hauled out. Came Ms Verjee's voice a few minutes later: "Are there meant to be holes in this scarf?"

So, it was with some skimpy Mediterranean fare, CNN blaring in the background, the strains of the adhaan (Muslim call to prayer) and the smell of singed scarf that we saw out this Christmas Day in Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday, December 27: Misfortune strikes Mecca

The day began inauspiciously enough. With today being the last day before the pilgrims leave Mecca and start making their way to the Mina valley for the second step of the Hajj, the Grand Mosque was filled to capacity for all of the five daily prayers.

As the adhaan sounded, one could see thousands of people, many clad in their ihram (garments worn during the pilgrimage) pouring into the streets from alleyways, roads and walkways, all making their way towards the mosque.

Yesterday we had set up our live-shot position from tower four of the Makkah Hilton and from our vantage point had a bird's-eye-view of the pilgrims on the move down below.

But whereas yesterday the weather was warm and the skies clear, today we woke to overcast and gray skies over Mecca. According to weather reports over the last few days, rain is predicted for the days of Hajj - Thursday and Friday.

Not that the skies deterred the faithful. From our live-shot position we could see a sea of white shining across the marble surrounding the Grand Mosque, the white peppered with the brightly colored burqas of women worshippers, or the abayas (black top to toe covering worn traditionally in Gulf States) of other female pilgrims.

Unfortunately, the clouds of gloom descended fairly early in the day on our producer, Schams, for whom too few square meals a day, not enough sleep, too much Arabic coffee, and perhaps a whiff of the infamous "Hajj Flu" finally caught up with her.

Felled by a stomach bug, a doctor was hastily dispatched and ministered to our producer, who was ordered to get a bit of bed rest (as if!) and issued with a bagful of medicines.

And so, down into the mosque area sauntered Zain, Adil, Mohammed Jamjoom, and our minder. The unfortunate Schams was left bundled under the covers at the hotel.

The plan for the day was to do a series of interviews with pilgrims from different walks of life to get their take on what the pilgrimage means to them. Zain also determined today that she wanted to go into the mosque compound, the haram, to get a feel for the ebb and flow of human bodies as they circled the Ka'aba.

Zain and Mohammed went inside the mosque, while Adil and the minder walked around the outside of the compound with one of our interviewees, a Palestinian photographer, aiming to get pictures of him about his job.

Then, suddenly, mayhem! The dreaded "P-word" reared its ugly head. Despite the presence and protestations of the minder - Adil and his camera were hauled off to a dingy prefabricated office near the Grand Mosque by a team of swarthy security officials.

Calls were hastily dispatched to the office at the hotel, where our ailing producer Schams was rudely awoken from her sickbed and told to make a plan. In the meanwhile, Zain and Mohammed returned to the hotel and were notified our cameraman had been detained.

We sat around the room drinking strong cups of Arabic coffee as Schams made calls to the powers that be to get our man and his machine returned. The minder and the cameraman, his camera unscathed, walked into the hotel room an hour later: and related details of his abduction to a bemused crew.


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An aerial view of thousands of worshippers in and around the Grand Mosque in Mecca taken from a SAF helicopter.

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