October 28, 2012
Posted: 1223 GMT
'Tis the Hajj season again – once a year the world views the iconic images of a sea of pilgrims dressed in white at Islam's holiest site, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, as more than 3 million people from around the world embark on this ancient pilgrimage. It is one of the pillars of Islam that all Muslims who are financially and physically able must perform this journey at least once in their lifetime.
I've personally been to the Hajj three times - in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – not as a pilgrim, but as a producer covering the event for CNN. It was one of the most logistically challenging assignments I've ever faced and one that left me with some of the more colorful and poignant memories of any story I have covered.
The memories came flooding back as I watched the crowds at Mecca's Grand Mosque circling the Kaaba, the black cube shaped building. It is believed the Kaaba stands on the spot where Abraham built his first temple to God and, while the building itself is not sacred, it is a spiritual symbol. It is towards this direction that Muslims around the world orient themselves to pray five times a day. Hotel rooms around the region have a sticker somewhere with an arrow pointing towards the Kaaba so the visiting faithful can know which way to pray. It is the proverbial North in a Muslim's compass.
These are not the accounts of a pilgrim, but one of the relatively few people who get to be AT the Hajj without being IN the Hajj.
The World Passing By
It seems logical to begin with the obvious. Sitting there on the white marble floor of the Grand Mosque, it was difficult not be blown away by the diversity of the people passing by. Groups of Indonesians in crisp white wearing colored headbands for identification and moving in tight phalanx formations quietly chanting the mantra of the Hajj (which translates approximately to "Oh God, I have obeyed your call"). Groups of West Africans in colorful garb almost singing verses of Islam's Holy Book the Quran. Old Chinese couples, groups of blonde Europeans and Americans; it felt as if we were literally watching the entire world walk past. The effect was nothing short of hypnotic.
Every time I received a call telling me I would be covering Hajj again, my first instinct was to immediately dread the vaccinations I would need. Although Viral Meningitis is the only vaccination legally required by Saudi Arabia, my doctor recommended getting an additional SIX : pneumonia, Tetatus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Diphtheria, Yellow Fever, and the run of the mill flu shot. Yet despite meticulously getting vaccinated AND constantly wearing a surgical mask around the crowds, there was not a year that the crew did not return home with the infamous "Hajj Flu." No, most doctors wouldn't call it that, but I'm convinced that gathering that many people from that many parts of the world at such close quarters for five days in the desert creates some hybrid super-virus that has knocked me down every time. During one particularly rough year, I lost my voice – which, for a field producer, is the equivalent of a cameraman losing his camera. The solution? Twice a day, the hotel doctor came to give me cortizone shots to unclench my vocal chords so I could speak.
The Devil's Makeover
One of the key rituals of the Hajj is called the "stoning of the devil." Part of the cathardic process of the pilgrimage is to throw stones at three pillars known as the Jamarat symbolizing a rejection of the devil's temptation. This was also the most dangerous part of the ritual when it came to crowd control as 3 million people tried to throw stones at the same time at the same location. There have been many instances where people closer to the Jamarat have been killed or badly wounded by stones being lobbed by pilgrims further back. The Saudi Arabian authorities spent millions of dollars renovating the area, making it multi-layered like a garage instead of one flat plain, and renovating the pillars themselves that represent Satan. When I first visited Mecca, the "Devil" was an obelisque-like pillar but the renovations included replacing the structure (after much religious scholarly debate) with a wide oval wall-like structure with a much bigger surface area that was easier to hit. I recall one late night as we were shooting a story on the preparations, being driven out to the Jamarat area with a security escort as an engineer explained to us how the "Devil" had been remodeled. I couldn't resist taking a photo.
For anyone wondering where pilgrims get the stones, it's at the nearby desert location of Muzdalifa. (The math: 3 million pilgrims, throwing seven stones at each of three pillars – that's 63 million stones.) After every Hajj, the authorities collect all the stones that have landed at the foot of the Jamarat in Mina and take them back to the plain of Muzdalifa in anticipation of next year's pilgrimage, making sure to sift out any that are too sharp or too large.
The Segregation Problem
Saudi Arabia is a religiously conservative country that practices a very strict interpretation of Islam, which includes that unrelated men and women should not mingle in private spaces. When you're a CNN crew, it means that the female reporter and producer technically can't be in the same room (or tent, once we're out in the desert) as the male cameraman. This is one of my very distinct memories – every year negotiating all manner of compromises to convince the authorities that the team all needed to share a work space. Various compromises included leaving the hotel room door wedged open at all times, leaving the tent flap open, sometimes having a token chaperone in the room in the form of a government minder or just occasionally being dropped in on to make sure we were actually working and not misbehaving in any way.
I must note here that one thing I appreciate about the Hajj is that women and men all pray together and perform all the rites together (whereas mosques are segregated.) At Hajj, men and women are only segregated in their sleeping arrangements.
The Wardrobe Malfunction
Women in Saudi Arabia, and female visitors, have to wear a long-flowing black robe (called an abaya) and a headscarf covering their hair. In many malls, hotels and restaurants in big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, women can get away with removing their headscarves. But in Mecca, during Hajj, these rules are particularly strictly abided by. As a CNN crew, we often worked late hours or had requests to be available live during U.S. prime time hours which were very late at night local time – so sleep deprivation was a common companion. On one late night as we were frantically trying to make an edit deadline, I received a call from an interviewee bringing a video diary he had filmed of himself so we agreed to meet in the hotel lobby. I rushed down and walked out of the elevator and within a few seconds realized that every single person in that lobby was staring at me in horror. It took me a moment to soak in the terrifying realization that I had forgotten to throw on my abaya and headscarf and was donning only jeans, T-shirt and a pony tail... which is comparable to walking around the Vatican in a bikini. Needless to say, waiting for the elevator to come back down and take me up to the room was the longest 30 seconds of my life.
The Day the Apocalypse Arrived
It was the last day of the Hajj in 2005. We were in our hotel room overlooking the Grand Mosque as the pilgrims performed the final rites as they circled the Kaaba. The sky began to darken, the windows shook with the force of roaring thunder as torrential rains started pouring down. We went out among the crowds and the scene was almost movie-like. Exhausted pilgrims who had just reached the peak of their spiritual journey, caught up in the moment, started saying that Judgment Day had arrived and that we were witnessing the apocalypse. The grounds of the mosque were flooded, the tent city at Mina suffered landslides and several groups of pilgrims had to be rescued by chopper. On the roads, cars and buses were turned on their side in the middle of the road and it was utter chaos. It turned out not to be the apocalypse, but a sobering reminder of what can happen when a desert city without drainage infrastructure gets hit with torrential rains while 3 million people happen to be in town.
In 2006, as the crew was headed to the airport thinking our assignment was over, we received word that a stampede had taken place. In people's rush to try to beat the crowds on the last day, the crowds got crushing that more than 350 people were trampled to death. We came back to the sounds of ambulance sirens wailing in warning and family members wailing in mourning. Just a few hours earlier the sense was one of collective euphoria as pilgrims completed their rites and were spiritually "cleansed" and ready to go home. Now the scene was chaos, blood, bodies shrouded in the same white cloths that they had performed their pilgrimage in. It was the deadliest day at Hajj in years. Subsequent pilgrimages have avoided similar disaster by spreading out the times that people can conduct the stoning ritual, carefully controlling the number of people at the Jamarat at any one time to avoid bottlenecks and overcrowding.
Tears on the Plain of Arafat
Despite the tragedies... Despite the crowds (it could take half an hour to find a hotel elevator with enough room to fit a 3-person crew with equipment)... Despite the traffic (it could take 4 hours to travel a couple of miles and if it happened to be prayer time, everyone abandoned their vehicles and started praying on the streets)... Despite it all, the most powerful memory that stayed with me is standing on the plain of Arafat. The Day of Arafat is the spiritual culmination of the Hajj, the peak of spiritual cleansing as millions of people shed tears as they prayed for God's forgiveness for their sins.
As media, we had access to the Saudi Television facility that had a high tower overlooking the entire plain. There is no sight more overwhelming than seeing waves and waves of people in white praying and crying in the most effusive expression of religious emotion I have ever witnessed. It is a day that people smile to each other through their tears, as if in disbelief that they're finally there, finally completing the journey of a lifetime, finally so close to God. It is a moving and powerful moment that this spectator will never forget.
Welcome to the Inside the Middle East blog where CNN's journalists post news, views and video from across the region. This is also a place where you can start the discussion so please keep your comments coming. We highlight not only current news stories but also anecdotes and issues that don't always make the top of the headlines.
Read more about CNN's special reports policy
Watch the show
Inside the Middle East airs the first week of every month on the following days and times: