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Inside the Middle East
October 28, 2012
Posted: 1223 GMT

At entrance to Mecca, Saudi Arabia

 

'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.

Overlooking the Kaaba from our live position.

 

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.

The Jabs

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.

The new "Devil" after renovation of Jamarat in 2006

 

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.

The Stampede

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

Overlooking 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.

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Filed under: Hajj •Islam •Religion •Saudi Arabia


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July 19, 2012
Posted: 1636 GMT

Ramadan decorations are hung outside a shop in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 18, 2012, to welcome the upcoming Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan. (HAZEM BADER/AFP/GettyImages)

Muslims around the world begin fasting on Friday in observation of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam when the faithful abstain from eating food or drinking water from sunrise to sunset.

If, that is, Ramadan actually begins on Friday.

Every year, identifying the start of Ramadan is like a waiting game; Islamic scholars must see the new crescent moon in the night skies before the holy month officially begins.

Unlike the Gregorian (or Western) calendar, the Islamic calendar is based on lunar patterns.  And the lunar month begins with the sighting of a new moon.

This annual – and greatly anticipated – announcement is typically made by Islamic authorities in each country (although many countries in the Middle East follow the moon sightings of scholars in Saudi Arabia).

But with all the technological advancements of the 21st century, why can’t scholars predict the exact date the moon will appear?

They can – astronomers have the technology to actually see the shape of the moon in broad daylight, even with high humidity, pollution, and even sand in the air.

But some Islamic jurists and clerics refuse to announce the arrival of Ramadan until they have seen the new moon with their own eyes.

Additionally, the validity of these high-tech methods is creating a debate among Muslim scholars and jurists, according to astrophysicist and astronomy professor Nidhal Geussoum, of the American University in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates.

Adding to the confusion: in some countries, like Sweden or Norway, the sun does not set at all in the summer.

Muslims in countries like those have two options, according to Geussoum.  The first, he says, is to go with whatever date is announced in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, considered to be the holiest city in Islam. The second is to begin Ramadan with the moon sighting nearest to them, Geussoum adds.

Here in the UAE, many Muslims are still waiting for an official announcement from the local religious authorities, who will most likely also coordinate with religious authorities in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Many here still don't know when exactly Ramadan will start.  And most conversations around this time of the year all begin and end the same way:

‘So, when does Ramadan start?’

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Filed under: Culture •Egypt •Islam •Religion •Saudi Arabia


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August 1, 2011
Posted: 1446 GMT
This file image, taken October 13, 2007, shows Egyptians praying in Cairo's streets during the holy month of Ramadan.
This file image, taken October 13, 2007, shows Egyptians praying in Cairo's streets during the holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims around the world on Monday ushered in Ramadan, a month of dawn-to-dusk abstinence from food and drinks.
But this year, the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa has cast a pall over what is traditionally a period of comity and goodwill toward men.

Several countries in the region have been swept up in protests against longtime rulers since the January revolt that ousted Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In many cases, these demonstrations and movements have been met with brute force that has escalated into seemingly unending violence.

Most anti-government demonstrations have taken place after prayers, with the masses taking to the streets after meeting at mosques.

The month, which brings more Muslims to mosques, has some governments worrying that the gatherings will provide more opportunities for such protests - and demonstrators fearing that security forces will crack down forcefully to prevent them. Read more...

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Filed under: Islam


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November 30, 2010
Posted: 942 GMT
Passengers wait at ticket counter at Baghdad International Airport (Getty Images )
Passengers wait at ticket counter at Baghdad International Airport (Getty Images )

It’s really impressive to look up at the flight board at Baghdad International Airport these days – Abu Dhabi, Amman, Beirut, Istanbul, Cairo, Tehran are a few of the available daily trips.

I remember the days when commercial flights were limited to the one or two Royal Jordanian ones that were usually overbooked and getting out on one of those was always an “inshalla” – “God willing” scenario.

I also remember the days when you would glance around the airport and your average passenger would be the tattooed private security guy , the journalist, or the Iraqi member of parliament who would spend more time in Amman than in Baghdad.

Today, it was a handful of the usual suspects and a different crowd -  mostly Iraqi refugees, families who have packed their lives into one suitcase per person and set off on their journey to new homes.

As I queued up to get a coffee, a young Iraqi man approached me – I had met him a few years ago through work, he is now a refugee.

He asked me if I was going to the US – he was, along with his family.

Where are you going I asked – “Indiana” he said with a bit of a confused look, like he was not sure if I had heard of it. I told him I had visited Indiana a few years ago; “is it nice?” he asked.. I said yes, but very cold in the winter, we both laughed– Iraqis are more immune to the scorching heat of their country, not the harsh winters of the Midwest.

Why are you leaving I asked – he smiled and said “why would I stay? ...What should I stay for?” a familiar answer I have been hearing a lot lately from Iraqi colleagues, friends and people we meet—it’s also an answer that says it all and there was no reason to follow-up on that... I wished him luck as he walked away.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Filed under: Christianity •Iraq •Islam


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November 4, 2010
Posted: 1956 GMT

Following up on our previous post about Israel's anger over the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) designation of  a West Bank religious shrine as a mosque,  the Israeli Foreign Ministry has decided to stop working with the UN agency.

In a statement Israel's Deputy foreign  minister, Danny Ayalon,  announced  "the suspension of Israel’s cooperation with the organization (UNESCO) in the implementation of the five resolutions until these outrageous pronouncements are rescinded"

Ayalon went on to say that the UNESCO recommendations were based on the "automatic Arab majority" in the agency and that it had become a "rubber stamp" of the Palestinian Authority.

An Israeli government official said the move was meant to "send a message" to the UN agency about Israel's "extreme displeasure" with the mosque designation which the official called a "negation" of not only Jewish and Christian tradition but of Islamic history as well.

The press office at UNESCO had no immediate comment about the latest criticism.

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Filed under: Christianity •Islam •Israel •Judaism •Religion


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October 29, 2010
Posted: 1726 GMT



Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at Rachel's tomb (Getty Images).
Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying at Rachel's tomb (Getty Images).

A UN agency's decision to identify a Jewish holy site in the West Bank as a mosque  and define it and another shrine as Palestinian has prompted cries of bias and distortion from Israel.

"The attempt to separate the nation of Israel from its cultural heritage is absurd," said Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a statement released Friday.

"It is unfortunate that an organization that was established with the goal of promoting the cultural preservation of historical sites around the world, is attempting due to political reasons to uproot the connection between the nation of Israel and its cultural heritage."

The harsh words stem from a decision earlier in the week by the executive board of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which read:

"The Palestinian sites of al-Haram, al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron and the Bilal bin Rabah Mosque/Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem: the Board voted 44 to one (12 abstentions) to reaffirm that the two sites are an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories and that any unilateral action by the Israeli authorities is to be considered a violation of international law..."

It was, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Susan Williams, the first time the U.N. agency's executive board had referred to the religious site in Bethlehem as a mosque . The one vote against came from the United States.

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Filed under: General •Islam •Israel •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion •United Nations •West Bank


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October 25, 2010
Posted: 901 GMT
Pope Benedict XVI presides over the last day of the synod of bishops from the Middle East at the Vatican(OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images).
Pope Benedict XVI presides over the last day of the synod of bishops from the Middle East at the Vatican(OSSERVATORE ROMANO/AFP/Getty Images).

  

 A two-week conference of Catholic bishops to discuss the situation of Christians in the Middle East has stirred some controversy.

At the conclusion of the Vatican gathering, called a synod in church terminology,  bishops released a communique Saturday that among other things called for the international community "to put an end to the occupation"  and an exhortation that the bible should not be used by Israel as a pretext to justify injustices.

The communique and remarks in a closing press conference by Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros brought charges of "libel" from Israel's deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalaon on Sunday and a spokesman for the Israeli foreign ministry, Yigal Palmor, said the bishops were "committing a sin towards the truth"  by ignoring the fact  that "Israel is the one  country in the region that is welcoming to Christians"

Palmor cited statistics showing the Christian population in Israel had been growing steadily throughout the years due to natural growth and immigration. He said that Christians face pressure in many countries in the Middle East because of Islamic law and  Muslim extremism, but that Israel was not one of them.

Rabbi David Rosen who serves as the director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish committee and spoke before the synod as special guest earlier in the month called the omissions of  the conference's  final statement "appalling".

"...the bishops did not have the courage to address challenges of intolerance and extremism in the Muslim countries in which they reside, and rather chose to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict their first focus" Rosen said in a statement.

For its part the Palestinian Authority welcomed the conclusions from the Vatican gathering.

"Israel cannot use the biblical concept of a promised land or chosen people to justify new settlements in Jerusalem or Israeli territorial claims," Saeb Erakat, a spokesman for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a chief Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement Sunday.

Erakat said the synod sent "a clear a message to the government of Israel that it may not claim that Jerusalem is an exclusively Israeli city."

"(In) coming weeks we will engage in discussions with the Vatican on ways to further consolidate our fantastic relations," Erakat said. "

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Filed under: Christianity •Islam •Israel •Judaism •Palestinians •Religion


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September 15, 2010
Posted: 2158 GMT

Here a report from our Abu Dhabi based reporter Mohammed Jamjoom who reports from Tarim in Yemen's spiritual heartland. Steeped in history, the town is believed to have more descendants of the Prophet Mohammed than anywhere else in the world. Its also the ancestral home of Osama Bin Laden's father. Tucked away in self-isolation from the watchful eye of the world, people come from all over the world to study an extremely conservative approach to the Islamic faith, but caution their conservatism should not be mistaken for extremism. Students say on the contrary, the draw of Tarim, is its purity of study, and the peaceful simplicity of life.

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Filed under: Culture •General •Islam •Religion •Video •Yemen


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September 7, 2010
Posted: 1649 GMT

From Errol Barnett, CNN

It may surprise some to find out that the Quran says absolutely nothing about stoning. However, the case of an Iranian woman being sentenced to death by stoning for adultery has lead many to criticize the Muslim faith for its practices. But reasons for the act are much more complicated and vary among Muslim countries – like Egypt and the UAE. As it turns out, the punishment stems from generations of interpretation of Hadith; narrations concerning the Prophet Mohammad. Many Islamic countries have implemented their own versions of implementing Hadith which has subsequently created volumes of legal precedent for certain punishments. Diana Hamade, a legal expert with International Advocate Legal Services, explained this to me from Dubai. It also raises the question; Outside the Vatican, can any one country represent an entire faith? And how much does interpretation of religious texts in other faiths lead to deep divisions among the faithful?

Watch the interview and post your thoughts.

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Filed under: Iran •Islam •Video


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Posted: 938 GMT

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Filed under: Archaeology •Culture •Egypt •General •Islam


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