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CNN's Zain Verjee: My Hajj experience


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Zain Verjee
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Zain Verjee explains symbolic stonings and safety precautions for the Hajj.
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The Hajj

(CNN) -- Zain Verjee is anchoring CNN's coverage of the Hajj pilgrimage. She is also keeping a Web log of her experiences:

Reflections at the end of Hajj:

There's a saying that a pilgrim that goes to Mecca for the Hajj should leave the holy city quickly, so as no to get used to it. Mecca emptied out quickly once the Hajj peaked and the rituals drew to a close. Here are some of the things that struck me while I was there.

The traffic

It was dreadful. The wild hooting is incessant. Day or night. In fact it's believed that one of the biggest traffic jams in the world is on the first day of Hajj -- the day more than 2 million pilgrims leave Mecca and head to the Mina valley. Getting around took hours because of the jam. It was easier and faster to walk -- but only if you knew your way around.

We were OK most days, but one particular day we were there, we got lost and wasted precious hours. When we finally navigated ourselves out of the mess, we unluckily got caught in prayer time. We tried to hop over and sidestep pilgrims but it was too rude, and too tough to do that. So we waited as long as we could. Certain roads into Mecca are also closed because of pedestrian traffic. Pilgrims pray on the streets because the mosque is too full.

The atmosphere

I always wondered how it was possible for pilgrims to concentrate on spirituality when there is so much noise around them, and a lot of dust. In fact many pilgrims wear masks over their noses because of the pollution, and it was a strange sight to see. Pilgrims told me that they don't care about the noise or the dust. This experience was the peak of their lives and many of them had saved up for years, decades even, just to be here.

One of the most amazing things was to see how prayer time changed the pace of the city. It was serene and utterly silent. Every single street was filled with people and prayer mats for as far as the eye can see. It was very beautiful and awing. Two million people, praying and prostrating at the same time is one of the most moving images I've been left with. No hooting ... no shopping. All the shopkeepers would leave their shops and wares, open and pray outside.

The stories

Being there forces one to understand and appreciate why this is such a big deal for Muslims. Muslims pray toward the Kaba every day, five times a day. The Kaba is not an object of worship. In and of itself, it's nothing more than a bunch of bricks and mortar. Islamic scholars say the Prophet Abraham built the Kaba as the first house of prayer to God. So it's much more a symbol to Muslims. They circle the Kaba to show God is at the center of their lives.

Every ritual has a story behind it and each is extremely symbolic for Muslims. For example after circling the Kaba, pilgrims run between two hills that are in the vicinity of the mosque. They do so to re-enact the desperate search for water by Abraham's wife in the desert. A well suddenly appeared after she ran seven times between the hills. The well is known as the zam zam well and the city of Mecca was built around it. It's still there. It's seen as holy water by pilgrims. Pilgrims will take bottles of the water back home with them.

As I was walking through the mosque one afternoon I saw people who had dipped long white cloth into zam zam water. They were drying it out and folding it up -- apparently to use as burial shrouds when they die. Rituals at Arafat and the Jamarat are also connected to stories of Abraham and prophet Mohammed.

The diversity

It was astonishing to see all the various faces, cultures ... hear all the different languages spoken. There are also different sects, and even slightly different ways of praying. But one thing unites all the Muslims here. It's called the Shahada -- the concept of the oneness of God in Islam. No one will disagree with that. Pilgrims talked to me often about what Islam had in common with Christianity and Judaism. I remember studying both at school back in Kenya and realized that the stories being re-enacted at the Hajj are also present and historically significant in the Bible and the Torah.

Behind the scenes

I was very lucky because I had a great producer and cameramen/editors. It made things smoother and the quality of work much higher. We all worked very hard and were exhausted most of the time. I don't think we slept more than 1-3 hours a night! But we kept our humor and the importance of what we were doing in perspective and managed to get things accomplished.

From Mecca to Mina and back, Thursday:

We ate far too many terrible club sandwiches (I don't think I can ever eat one again!), and drank far too many cups of tea. The fresh juices were fabulous -- especially the kiwi and sweet melon juices that I became accustomed to. The Saudis are hospitable people, and I enjoyed my stay.

The Hajj is in its final stages. Pilgrims are streaming back to Mecca for rituals at the Grand Mosque. They are circling the Kaba seven times. More than 2 million pilgrims spent the morning in a long, narrow desert stretch surrounded by granite mountains in the Mina valley. They are fulfilling an important ritual known as the stoning of the devil.

Today they throw stones at the biggest of three pillars in a symbolic rejection of the devil and his temptation. Over the next few days they will stone the other two pillars as well.

Two Turkish sisters we met told us what is was like to do the stoning ritual. They said it went smoothly and was easier than expected. Both of them praised the Saudi authorities for organizing it well.

They also said one of the problems was with the pilgrims themselves. Many just didn't know what to do during various stages of the Hajj, and would be confused or hold things up. They said they felt fulfilled and wanted to lead better lives and be different people.

The biggest fear on this day was stampedes. Last year more than 240 pilgrims were killed in a crush during that ritual. Saudi authorities have focused on pilgrim safety this year. Here's what they've done:

Deployed about 50,000 security forces, put helicopters in the sky to monitor the movement of pilgrims, and placed cameras and sensors around the stoning area to monitor crowds inside.

The concrete enclosures of the Jamarat have been coated with rubber so the stones thrown don't deflect and injure pilgrims. The Red Crescent is everywhere -- as are makeshift hospitals in anticipation of any accidents

Crowd control techniques appear to have been successful. Pilgrims were instructed not to lug their baggage to the ritual area and that was heeded. It's created major problems in the past creating congestion and pilgrims have collapsed with exhaustion.

Officials say cool weather played a part in pilgrim safety too -- tempers didn't flare and pilgrims didn't collapse with heat exhaustion.

The Saudi authorities have spent more than $28 million to modernize the Jamarat area. There are plans to expand the stoning area to nine levels. Currently there are only two.

More than 22,000 buses ferried pilgrims from Mecca to Mina and back.

Back in Mecca, a leading Saudi cleric warned Muslims against heeding the calls of Militants to wage attack in the name of Islam. He said militants calling for violence were "misguided".

Muslims celebrate the festival of Eid al-Adha today. A sheep is slaughtered and the meat distributed to the poor.

In Arafat Tuesday/Wednesday:

After doing Hajj, men shave their heads and women cut off a lock of hair, to symbolize rebirth.

We arrived from the Mina valley to Arafat on Tuesday evening, ahead of the arrival of more than 2 million pilgrims, so we wouldn't get stuck in traffic.

When we got there, we needed a place to set up our workspace, but there was a major problem: Men and women are segregated in Saudi society, so they found our request for a mixed workspace unusual. Six hours later, after many cups of tea and dates, we finally managed to organize one. It was fairly comfortable, carpet was strewn on the floor and mattresses and blankets ringed the room.

For dinner, rice and sheep head was served in large trays. We had too much work to do, so we settled for bananas, oranges and biscuits we bought from the supermarket. Tea and Arabic coffee kept us going. We all worked most of the night and got an average of about three hours' sleep.

We had set up our videophone on a location overlooking the plain of Arafat and did a live shot for CNN International. At 5.30 a.m. local we were awoken by deafening sound of hooting cars and an extraordinarily loud call to prayer broadcast into the tent city. The pilgrims had started arriving for the most important ritual of the Hajj.

By the time we got out, the desert was packed with more than 2 million people. All around us a sea of white robes. We had some shooting to do, so we pushed ourselves into the thick of the crowd. We were pushed and jostled. It was tough to move around. We were hit in the head several times by flying boxes of biscuits that were being distributed to the pilgrims.

Everyone chanted "Labbayka Allahumma Labbayk", "God I'm here at your service." As we weaved our way back to our tent, I saw pilgrims sitting on the ground, reading the Koran, eating oranges and bananas. Some where holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the glare of the sun; other pilgrims were creating even more congestion by hauling around their luggage.

This day was the most important day of the Hajj, from noon to sunset pilgrims stand in prayer and reflection and ask for God forgiveness. There are many emotional and tearful moment. Pilgrims regard this day as a practice for the day of judgment, when they stand in humility and equality before God.

We filed reports from Arafat all afternoon. We tried to leave before sunset, before the pilgrims moved on en masse to the next stage of the Hajj. We didn't want to get caught in traffic, but we were. We had to wait before we moved, we waited two-and-a-half hours in the car before we could even leave our compound.

In Mina, Tuesday:

We couldn't waste any time, because we had a deadline for a story, so we started writing, producing and editing it in the car. We tagged along with a VIP convoy and we were able to navigate through the traffic. We got back to Mecca two hours later and first ordered food. We edited and filed a story. We'll prepare for our Hajj special in the coming days.

More than 2 million pilgrims left the holy city of Mecca and headed east toward the Mina Valley. They traveled by bus, car and foot. The Mina Valley is a long narrow valley surrounded by granite mountains and desert dunes.

For 360 days of the year, no one is there. But for the five days of Hajj, it is packed with pilgrims. As far as the eye can see, hundreds of thousands of tents speck the desert region.

The logistics are awesome. Transport, food and water for this mass of people is a monumental mandate. Here are some numbers I got today: 10 million loaves of bread are baked every day; there are 12,000 food outlets; 14, 000 buses to transport pilgrims.

Organized transportation is key because the time and place a pilgrim is in during Hajj are vital. If they are not where they need to be, their Hajj can collapse.

We headed into a section of a camp. People were sleeping on the sidewalk, praying on the ground, eating fruits. There was a string of restaurants to our left, including a Pizza Hut!

We went inside a tent. Men and women are separated. The tents are air-conditioned and spacious, though the alleys between them are narrow. We kept running into people with trays and cups of tea.

In Mecca:

We headed out of Mina after a couple of hours for Arafat. This is a key desert location of the Hajj pilgrimage, where the pilgrims will head at dawn for the most important day of the Hajj.

The window of the hotel we are staying at overlooks the grand mosque and the Kaba. I have the most amazing view from my window. We had a little down time from our intense schedule and the crew and I decided to go down to the Kaba and walk around.

It was about 11 p.m. We took our shoes off when we entered the Kaba area and it took us about 15 minutes to walk down into a sea of people. We noted where the single minaret was located. It is a point people use to mark when they start and finish a round.

The atmosphere was emotionally charged. I heard many different chants as we made our way around. People were silently praying in groups or just alone. It was serene in the mosque.

Many people traveled in groups and held onto each other so that they would not get lost or separated. I saw some men link hands and create a circle around their women so they would be protected. There was an old blind woman who was tapping a stick, making her way around.

I was on the edge of the crowd. The closer inside you go toward the Kaba, the more pushing there is. It's just because there are so many people and this is such a significant moment for them. They just want to get close to the Kaba, and if they are lucky, touch it. I saw one man rubbing a blue velvet cloth on it when he reached the Kaba.

Muslims have spent their whole lives turning in its direction to pray, and now they are there. The Kaba is not an object of worship, but rather a symbol that Muslims turn toward, and around, to show God is at the center of their lives.

It is believed the prophet Abraham built it as the first house of prayer to God. It took me about 12 to 15 minutes to make one round. Muslims go around seven times. It was a really wonderful experience. Then I headed back up to the top floor of my hotel to watch it from another angle.


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