The Miracle of Crowd Management in Hajj
By Farook Aman, Ottawa, Canada
I am usually motivated to write about one subject or another by the pressing inspiration urge of what I experience or what I feel. This time, it is my Hajj experience to the Muslim Holy land of Mecca and the Bright City of Medina, both in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
A lot has been written about the performance of Hajj which is one of the pillars of Islam. For those who are capable physically, mentally and financially, it becomes a duty to perform Hajj.
However, I am going to tackle this subject matter from a different angle and that is from the point of view of how Hajj season is carefully and efficiently managed by the Saudi authorities; very little if any was written.
When the success of the Agricultural and or the Industrial Revolutions are examined, history would highlight the by-products of such revolutions, i.e. the transport network of land, air and sea which form the strong back bone necessary to ensure the safe delivery of the products to the required destinations. Other necessary factors would also follow. We refer to the incentives to attract the proper and trained staffing to carry out the heavy load of work at hand, health and Insurance, hygiene, etc.
Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. For those who are capable to physically, mentally and financially perform Hajj, it becomes a duty.
From my personal experience, I encourage all Muslims, to consider the performance of Hajj at a younger age rather than at an older one. A recommended age would be between 30 and 50 years, if possible. I believe that the healthier the Haaj, male or female, the more manageable the physical performance of Hajj rituals become.
Managing the Hajj season is a mammoth task and an evolving challenge with invariable stubborn hurdles that would have to be overcome to ensure safety and comfort to all those who come to perform from all over the globe.
Departure to Jeddah, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Saturday, February 24th 2001 was filled with special feelings. Proceeding to Hajj is one of the greatest honours for any Muslim to experience. Words cannot express the extraordinary feelings of anticipation and pride. Although, I traveled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia several times in the past, this one was by far different and a lot holier. I felt that my life was suddenly closer to the hands of my Creator, Almighty Allah. The feeling was certainly one of a sense of excitement, expectation and of adventure; a kind of divine feelings that whispered every second in my ear, “You will soon be honoured with the completion of your fifth pillar of Islam; total submission to Allah, Subhanahu wa tala (SWT)” ( Glory to God)
The destination was Jeddah International Airport. All passengers heading for Hajj were dressed in “Ihram” (men dressed with two non-sewed white pieces of clothing with nothing underneath); one to cover the top part of the body, while the other piece is usually wrapped around the waste and down, covering the legs. Women wear one piece; long white dress and a head cover. All passengers were calling in one loud tone.“ Labaek Allah huma labaek” (God … I obey you). The sound pierced my ears. Tears rolled down my face as I was repeating with the rest of the passengers the same,“Labaek Allahhuma labaek”
Halfway through the flight to Jeddah International Airport, the pilot announced that we were crossing the line of what is known as the “Meeqat” This was an indication to permit each passenger to get fully ready, and declare their intention and to have clean and proper Ihram for the purpose of performing Omrah and Hajj. Each passenger on board the plane would therefore declare that his / her mission was solely to perform Hajj and Omrah, and to follow all Hajj proceedings, seeking “Rahmah” (mercy) and acceptance from Allah, Subhanahu Wa tala. (Glory to god).
With eyes filled with tears, asking for “Rahmah” (mercy) from Allah (SWT), I glanced at my sister, Hajjah Faiza, who was sitting next to me. With closed eyes and raised hands, she too was praying, while the plane was taking its position in the air tunnel preparing for landing at Jeddah International Airport. Evidently, there were incoming flights from all over the world, filled with Muslims (Hajeej) destined to perform Hajj. Suddenly, and with graceful tone, the passengers exploded again with repeated prayers of “Labaek Allah Huma Labaek”. My sister and I joined them enthusiastically! ( God , we obey you )
Jeddah International Airport (Hajj City), Saudi Arabia
Our plane landed at exactly 2:30 a.m. Jeddah Airport looked like a congested parking lot with planes packed with “Hajeej” (plural for Haj). I saw the Algerian, Malaysian, Egyptian, Turkish, South African, Sudanese, Indian, Philippines and Pakistani Airlines amongst many other international airlines. Each plane was awaiting proper instructions from the tower to proceed to the appropriate exit in order for passengers to disembark at “Haaj City” within the boundaries of Jeddah International Airport. It was an amazing number of flights which would require qualified and experienced Tower personnel to meet the load intelligently and rapidly. Haaj City is comprised of a very vast space. The ground is made of clean cement floor. High pillars held the roof that was seemingly made of durable material to protect against weather conditions. The space can easily hold hundreds of thousands of passengers at any given time. It is a magnificent site to witness and recognize the Saudi government investment on this project in order to provide easy, efficient and comfortable exit of millions of visitors for the purpose of performing Hajj.
Our plane was no exception as it was lining up to take position for its passengers to disembark when our turn came. Masses of Hajeej lined up to clear Immigration and Customs. The Saudi Authorities ensured discipline and efficiency in order to accommodate the arrival of approximately 2.7 Million people. They were conscious to make the arrival at Jeddah International Airport as easy and relaxed as possible. This takes seriousness and brains to fulfil the mission at hand.
Immediately after clearing Immigration and Customs, we were asked to place our respective baggage inside a huge mobile bin which was appropriately marked for luggage identification. We were then directed to proceed to a section in Haaj City in order to await the bus which would take us to Makkah (Mecca), which was approximately 150 km northeast. While waiting for the bus, we performed Fajr (dawn) prayer, and thereafter claimed our seats inside the bus with other passengers. We remained for about two and one half hours inside the bus at the bus terminal before it eventually started to move. We were advised that the delay was due to finalization of documented travel procedures to Makkah. Exhausted due to lack of sleep and night travel hardship, I was looking through the bus window, as it was pulling out of Haaj City bus Terminal.
Haaj City was still packed with thousands of passengers; most of them were either a sleep on the terminal cement floor, or sitting aimlessly waiting for their respective turn to take their designated buses. Still, the management of receiving, directing and shipping people were carefully handled ensuring safety and proficiency. Time was of the essence.
Many other passengers were boarding buses as directed by their respective guides. Although a negative matter to point out, it is a fact that Hajj City’s in-door bus terminal was shockingly polluted with diesel fumes from buses; their motors were left running to accommodate for the air-conditioning system. Hand luggage scattered across the floor. However, Saudi officials were visibly and busily directing passengers to their labelled buses. There was a sense of confusion in spite of the obvious thankful effort displayed by the Saudi authorities to maintain discipline and order. In spite of it all, everything was running smooth and timely in order to receive other passengers and get them departed to Makkah smoothly.
At about 5:20 a.m., our bus left Haaj City terminal, heading in the direction of Makkah. The air was suddenly fresh; the reflection from the early morning sunrays on the Red Sea created a sense of calmness and relief. Suddenly, it was not dark anymore. The sun was piercing and making its presence felt. Day light uncovered the darkness to the region.
Some passengers were visibly exhausted and fell asleep. While many were sound asleep already, the passengers in the back of the bus had some apparent reserved vitality and were unmistakably wide-awake. They would point out and name familiar locations as the bus was passing through. Suddenly, I drifted into sleep too. Few minutes later, the bus’s loud speakers woke me up with a recorded tape explaining Hajj procedure. Listening attentively, I learned few important tips. I thought to myself that providing detailed information was thoughtfully considerate and appreciative.
Arrival in Makkah
Halfway through to Makkah, we stopped at a security checkpoint in order to authenticate the presence of the passengers headed to Makkah. We remained on the seats as passeners were counted and verified with a degree competence and swiftness. Enthusiastically, my sister pointed out to me to look outside the bus. She pulled the window blind a side. I could see a beautiful huge monument. A magnificent structure of about three story high “Qura’an” Book Monument Bridge. It was a stunning sight. Tears of happiness were once again rolling down the side of my eyes. I realized that Hajj is now a reality for me. I raised my hands up, and quietly thanked Allah for his gift of mercy that He had bestowed upon us.
The bus continued travelling toward the final few kilometers to Makkah. We were then approaching the outskirts of Makkah city. Heavy traffic caused some delays although traffic was moving signaling that there were no accidents on the road. It was relatively smooth sailing due to the proper road construction and gateways to enter the City of Makkah! Passengers inside the bus were suddenly awakening with intensive and excited eyes on the road. The bus was certainly moving slowly to negotiate carefully and safely the heavy road traffic. Three hours since departing Jeddah, we stopped at the main office of “Al motawef” (the designated official Guide), who would be the sponsor / responsible for those passengers in the bus. All Hajeej must be registered with the office of a designated Motawef, who in effect will become the official sponsor. A head count was performed and each passenger was given a numbered wristband to wear for security and identification purposes, in the event of accident or death, etc. I was impressed with such security measure. Again this was yet another impressive matter to observe and live through. Imagine the load of 2.7 million visitors within a short period of few days. All visitors must be registered in the system, to show the point of entry, the name of the sponsoring Motawef as well as the intended address of residence during the period of Hajj..
At 10:30 a.m. we finally arrived at the apartment building where we would stay in for few days in Makkah during the Haj season. It was a modern marbled-faced ten-story high building, with air conditioning units protruding out of each window. With swollen feet, stiff back and wobbly knees, we slowly disembarked out of the bus. I realized that it took us a little over 5 hours from Jeddah to our apartment building in Makkah. It was about 30 degrees Celsius and slightly humid. The sun was bright, and the sky was wall to wall blue without a speck of cloud. Luggage was lowered from the roof top of the bus, and we were directed to the Reception Hall for registration.
To be continued…