Sunday, December 31, 2006
The view from Mount Arafat
Crew member Umm Zainab filed this "on the scene" piece about the most important event at the Hajj.
Thirsty work
Aaah, relief. Even though the weather is brilliant today (around 20 degrees,) the team has managed to work up an impossible thirst -- which isn't all that surprising considering we've been walking around, lugging gear, for the past hour and a half. While Adil was shooting pictures at one of the on-site clinics, a kindly doctor offered us all water. I chugged two bottles in rapid succession. No special treatment here, though, as all manner of security personnel and health care professionals are distributing bottles of water and/or juice to anyone who wants or needs it.
Stoning the devil
I'm here with Adil and Khadija at the Jamarat Bridge -- currently watching the pilgrims stone the devil. Approximately 200,000 people pass through here every hour. It's completely overwhelming -- the constant stream of pebbles being thrown and making contact sounds like a severe hail storm. It's amazing to watch the security forces attempt to control the flow of this crowd. So far, and by all accounts here, they're doing an exemplary job.

The team is constantly getting stopped -- if not by security personnel requesting to see our press badges and filming permits, then by enthusiastic pilgrims asking to get their pictures taken. I just had a delightful discussion (something that's pretty hard to do when you're being pushed along with the crowd) with a 26-year-old Yemeni named Ahmed, who was extremely happy to encounter CNN here covering the Hajj.

In addition to the security forces that have been dispatched all throughout the area (approximately 15,000,) we are surrounded on all sides by ambulances ready to treat any pilgrim who falls ill. Even up here, on the first level of Jamarat Bridge, there are on-site clinics.
Saturday, December 30, 2006
A pilgrim's account
Abdul Matin, from Bangalore, India, is keeping a blog as he takes part in the Hajj pilgrimage. He says:
"It was heartening to see both Sunni and Shia, Kurd & Turkmen and other people standing shoulder to shoulder without any problem. A feeling of universal brotherhood was in the air and people who were intractable enemies were now bosom friends."
Friday, December 29, 2006
Experiencing the Hajj

Zain Verjeee spoke to CNN Pipeline about her experiences at The Hajj so far. You can watch the video here.
Standing on Mount Arafat
Today's been amazing in ways I cannot yet describe (as I'm too busy helping Schams coordinate a live interview, I'll write more on that later.) The climax of the Hajj is the standing on Arafat -- something I witnessed up close earlier this morning. After arriving at the Ministry of Culture and Information's campsite, Adil, Zain and I set out by foot to the Mountain of Mercy. Making our way there was a chore to be sure -- frankly speaking, I don't usually choose to go on long walks hauling a tripod, a ladder, a still camera, and a handy cam -- but once we arrived, I was overwhlemed to witness the reactions of so many pilgrims.

Well, it seems I'll have to continue this later -- the Ministry's press room is about to close and I won't have internet access again til later tonight. Stay tuned ...
The Hajj Flu
It's just after 11:30pm local time, and despite taking mega doses of seemingly every variety of vitamin and guzzling massive quantities of an irredeemably unpalatable cough syrup, I'm still just as sick (if not sicker) as I was when I arrived in Jeddah a little over a week ago.

Some back story: Before I left Riyadh to meet the Hajj coverage team, Schams told me that I needed to get my shots. As silly as that last sentence may sound, it's really no laughing matter. The Saudi Ministry of Health goes to great lengths to inform pilgrims of the need to get vaccinated. It's required that everyone performing the Hajj take, at the very least, the Meningococcal Meningitis vaccine and carry a certificate to prove it. Schams suggested I get a flu shot as well - to guard against contracting the dreaded "Hajj flu" (which is, essentially, a really, really bad cold that everybody I know who's covered the Hajj picks up at some point before the end of the assignment).

So, Tuesday, December 19th, in the midst of every other bit of chaos I was dealing with, and armed with a sense of foreboding that seems to only rear its ugly head whenever I'm in a hospital and realize that I'll have to once again face my innate (and rather immature) fear of needles, I went ahead and got both shots. I'm still not sure what exactly happened, but nary seven hours later, I was curled up in the fetal position, covered in blankets, and shivering. I'm lucky I wasn't too sick to make my 7:00am flight. Once I landed in Jeddah, though, the cough started. And I'm not talking about one of those weak, dry, hacking coughs. I'm talking about a constant, booming, full bodied, ribcage rattling cough that makes everyone around me recoil in horror. Whatever I do, I can't shake it. And therein lies my dilemma - every member of the CNN team is doing their utmost to not get sick, and here I am (the new guy), trying to ingratiate myself with the crew while spreading my germs. More than a little frustrating. What's worse: Now Zain, Schams and Adil are all coughing too. Gee, I wonder where they picked it up.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
Sleep? An impossible dream
This is our sixth day in Mecca -- and each one has been busier than the last. The team's third package, this one focusing on young American Muslim students, started airing on CNN this morning and has been running all day. I have no idea why, but I've found myself with a few minutes to think, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to write how one of the things that's surprised me most about this project is the fact that, as busy as we've been, Schams, Zain, Adil, Khadija and I make, or perhaps I should say find, the time to watch the pieces we've worked on at least once as it airs on CNN. We gather around the television in our workspace, and with great anticipation, we then view a story we've all worked on an inordinate amount of hours these past few days. It's important to see it with fresh eyes, on a television screen instead of a laptop screen. It makes it all the more real, as if we could feel the impact of the story in a way we hadn't before. It gives us a needed morale boost and keeps the adrenaline pumping -- something we all desperately need at a time when finding even a few hours to sleep seems an impossible dream. I can't even begin to explain how nice it is to work with a team of seasoned professionals so enthused about what they produce. Despite all the setbacks - slow elevators, slower internet connection, etc., etc. -- this is one of the coolest collaborations I've ever been a part of. As for sleep? Plenty of time for that later.
Young Muslims in America

The path can be tough, growing up Muslim in the U.S., as CNN's Zain Verjee reports
Elevators and live shots

This is me on the right, with our "minder" Khaled Al Nimeri.

It's 2.11 a.m., I'm crusty of eye, scratchy of voice, and far too tired to actually sleep -- which is good, since I wouldn't be able to slip into a restful slumber even if I wanted to. It's been a particularly long day covering the Hajj for CNN here in Mecca. Zain, Schams, Adil, Khadija and I have been dealing with all manner of logistical nightmares. Case in point: Elevators. That's right, elevators. This afternoon, we had to do live shots from the rooftop of a tower adjacent to the hotel we're staying in. At one point, the audio cable that Adil was using wasn't working. The task I was charged with seemed a relatively simple one: Return to our hotel workspace, retrieve a replacement cable, find my way back to the rooftop, and, effectively, save the day. The live shot was to begin at 2 p.m. local time, and it was 1.26 p.m. as I began my errand, a journey that should have taken, at most, five minutes. But Mecca and every hotel, boarding house, and shopping center, within it, is as packed with pilgrims as it can be. So I ended up waiting approximately four minutes everytime I would first press an elevator button until said elevator would arrive. Four elevator rides and a short walk through an underground parking garage ended up taking me 23 minutes -- a frantic 23 minutes filled with the kind of dread that can only come from thinking that your slowness will cost CNN a live shot. In the end, I shouldn't have worried, as the audio problems were solved somewhere between me almost having a heart attack and almost having a nervous breakdown. But hey, at least I made it back to the rooftop, with the right cable in hand, and 11 minutes to spare!
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