In less than a month, the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, begins. But because of the new Saudi government lottery system, thousands of Muslims still don’t know if they can go. I would be surprised if they thought of Dutch speaking guides.
Ali has never looked forward to the start of summer vacation more than this. After years of savings and delays due to the coronavirus, he was finally able to participate in the Hajj between July 7-12, the sacred journey Muslims must take once in their lives. But last week, the Saudi government released the news that pilgrims from Europe, America and Australia can only book their flight through a platform of the Saudi government.
Those who have booked Hajj through a specialized travel agency must arrange everything again just before the Hajj begins. “This is completely unexpected,” says Ali. “I quickly registered via the platform, although the prices are higher than if I were to book through a travel agency. In addition, flights were not included. Because we have to charge a lot, my son is no longer able to come.”
While 2.5 million travelers walked around the Kaaba in 2019, the Saudi government will allow 1 million Muslims this summer. They must also be under the age of 65 and be fully immune to the coronavirus. Concretely, this means that there are about 1,400 places for Belgian Muslims, about half the normal number. A lottery will determine among the lucky ones.
“I am constantly updating my mailbox and calling friends and family,” Ali says. “We used to go with a whole group, but now it’s not certain if we can go and if we will be in the same group there. We have a lot of questions.”
For Muslims, Hajj is not just a journey. The journey to Mecca – the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad – is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, along with faith, prayer, almsgiving for the poor, and fasting during Ramadan. Every Muslim who is financially and physically able must make the journey once in his life – as the final culmination of faith.
“Because the cost of the trip is at least 5,000 euros, you see that many participants in the pilgrimage are over 50 who have been saving for years,” says Fati Anaz, director of travel agency De Trekvogel. They have been offering group tours to Mecca for years. Unfortunately, many of these elderly people cannot read well and do not always speak English or Arabic. How are they supposed to live on their own now? I would be surprised if the Saudi government also thought of Dutch-speaking guides.”
Not that the organization was always running smoothly before that. The Travel Dispute Committee receives numerous complaints each year from Muslims who have been defrauded by their travel company. But there are of course reasons why pilgrims prefer to take the trek in groups and accompanied by a trusted guide. The Hajj takes five days (at least two weeks for the entire journey) and consists of numerous rituals. Pilgrims wear white robes upon arrival, walk around the giant black cube (Kaaba), walk seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, pray on Mount Arafat, throw rocks at the port on pillars depicting Satan and celebrate Eid al-Adha. Together – where men shave their hair.
“During all these activities, pilgrims want to know their meaning or they want to ask if they are doing it right,” says Noureddin Tawel, an imam in Antwerp who has been a religious advisor to Muslims performing Hajj for years. “So it is also important to have evidence that takes into account people’s personal background, because Islam has many branches.”
Moreover, many of the older participants often require guidance because the tour requires a lot of physical effort. For example, port participants spend several nights in large camps. “As a guide, you should always be on the alert to ensure that people are always in the right place at the right time and that no one is lost. No one knows how things will go now.”
Not a pleasant trip
It is not this ambiguity that raises the questions. The obligatory choice of different packages, which range from 4,000 to 7,000 euros, is not up to Muslims either. “If you go for the gold package, you get on the VIP bus and get a sleeping bag and mattress, whereas with the basic package you only have a roll of carpet to sleep in. And while it should all be about equality, just think of the white robes that everyone else is wearing. It’s not a fun trip to Turkey, is it?”
It’s really stressful for professional travel agencies. Many have already booked hotels, arranged bus transfers, and ordered plane tickets. Now they have to scrap everything, part of that money they’ll never see again.
“It will depend on its success whether the Saudi government adheres to this new system or whether it will organize the Hajj again by travel agencies in the future,” said Noureddine Tawil. He himself is not too hopeful that he will be able to join this year, because the Saudi government is giving priority to those who have never made the trip. For Ali, having his trusted imam is very important. “If he has to stay home, I honestly don’t know if I want to go this year. It will be an exciting few days.”
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