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Covering the Hajj: A CNN reporter's view

By Isha Sesay, CNN
  • Isha Sesay covers the pilgrimage in 2007, 2009
  • She watches masses make journey to Mina
  • Sesay: Pilgrims seek spirituality amid crowds
  • She says Hajj challenges modern reality, teaches lesson in letting go
  • Islam
  • Saudi Arabia

Mecca, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Hajj is hard. I covered the pilgrimage 2 years ago, but back then, my mind was overwhelmed by the sheer spectacle of it all. In 2007, the sights and sounds had a dizzying effect. It was like being on a roller coaster, rushing along at break-neck speed.

This time around, my view of things is completely different. I have a real appreciation of how every single one of the ancient rites and rituals is a test of the human spirit. One pilgrim I spoke to before the formal commencement of the Hajj admitted to being scared, and I understand why.

The journey on the first day, from Mecca to Mina, in the nearby desert, is 1.5 miles. But a significant number of people performing the Hajj are elderly and frail, so much so that some have to be pushed along in wheel chairs. For this group, that is an interminable distance. From our live shot position on the main road out of Mecca, I could see the weariness etched clearly on their faces, as they slowly passed by.

This year, the first day brought brutal rains that lashed down on the pilgrims. The downpour caused disarray in the tent cities: leaking tents, flooding and power outages in some areas.

" ... it struck me that to successfully perform the Hajj you must give yourself over entirely to it."
--Isha Sesay, CNN

But spare a thought for the thousands who every year, strapped for cash, cannot afford the relative luxury of the organized tent camps. For these less fortunate pilgrims, Hajj is about sleeping out in the open, in near complete darkness with overflowing toilets nearby.

But ultimately, the first night in Mina is a test for all the pilgrims, a basic test of resilience. It is sort of a mandatory disconnection from modern life's creature comforts, forcing the pilgrims to reconnect to a simpler time, centuries ago.

The next day, the pilgrims set off after dawn to spend the day on the plain of Arafat. People pitch their mats down on every available patch of ground. This year, I even saw some set themselves up on the rooftop of the men's toilets.

Arafat is the spiritual climax and here, amid the crowds of millions, pilgrims face the test of trying to extract a personal spiritual experience. In other words, their challenge is to find peace amid the chaos.

With the setting of the sun, the pilgrims are on the move again. This time they are heading to Muzdalifa. Due to car trouble, the CNN crew got caught up in the mass mayhem. All around us, people chanted their devotion to God, while striding on purposefully, the whole time horns blaring angrily and vehicles jostling dangerously for space on the road.

Muzdalifa itself is a barren patch of ground. Here, there are no tent cities -- there is basically nothing but gravel and darkness. All those I have spoken to tell me this is one of the most difficult stages of the Hajj. It is a harsh test of one's commitment to God and this entire spiritual journey.

The thing you have to remember is that the Hajj never eases up. The pilgrims are constantly on the move, from Muzdalifa to Jamaratt, to cast pebbles in a symbolic rejection of worldly temptations. They then head back to Mecca to circle the Ka'ba in the Grand Mosque. Next it is back to Jamaratt for another 2 days of stoning.

And before you go thinking that is it, there is one last circling of the Ka'ba to be completed before leaving Mecca.

One morning, just before dawn, I watched thousands circle the Ka'ba. Sitting there on the cool marble tiles of the Grand Mosque, it struck me that to successfully perform the Hajj you must give yourself over entirely to it. You cannot speed up or slow down the rhythm of the sea of people engulfing you. Here, you are never in complete control, and it seems to me, the entire sacred journey strives to drive home this very point.

In a world where so many of us are constantly striving for control and dominance, the Hajj is fundamentally about challenging that reality and simultaneously providing the ultimate lesson in "just letting go."