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On The Scene

Gorani: Masks and business at Hajj

By CNN's Hala Gorani

CNN begins coverage Sunday of the Hajj. CNN will follow pilgrims on a journey millions of Muslims say will be one of the defining moments of their lives. CNN's Hala Gorani has compiled this diary for CNN.com.

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CNN team: Producer Schams Elwazer (left), cameraman Adil Bradlow and Hala Gorani (right).

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Islam

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Less than 100 meters from the holiest site in Islam, opposite the Grand Mosque in Mecca, is a surprising culinary offering: a Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food restaurant.

At first glance, it looks like any other KFC on Earth, until I notice there are two lines to buy your "Chicken variety bucket:" one for men and one for "ladies."

All around the haram, the area surrounding the Grand Mosque where millions of pilgrims perform Hajj, is a wide array of retail outlets I didn't expect to see in the birthplace of Islam.

Nestled between the KFC and the Mecca Hilton, there are luxury watch stores selling Rolexes and IWC's. Surrounding the Mosque, there are five-star hotels for the wealthier pilgrims and new high rises being built to accommodate even more visitors in the future.

The Hajj may be a spiritual journey, but it's also big business for tour operators...

Saturday was our crew's first outing to Mecca. The pilgrimage doesn't officially start until Sunday but already there are millions of people gathered in and around the holy sites, in anticipation of the Hajj's climax several miles away on the plains of Arafat.

Mecca itself seems as though it already is cracking at the seams, as this already populous city tries to accommodate roughly six times its non-Hajj population.

With the masses of people crowding every square inch of Mecca, simply getting around becomes a challenge.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims, among the poorer to travel to the city, set up mini-living areas directly on the marble slabs outside the Grand Mosque. Some catch a nap, their heads and bodies covered in white blankets. Others eat and drink, barefoot, on wafer-thin plastic mats.

Just before prayer time, when the crowd levels are at their peak, human traffic is so dense it can take half an hour to walk only few hundred meters.

My producer and I have decided to wear surgical masks in the busiest areas to shield ourselves from dust and germs. Pharmacies here sell them in boxes of 25 or 50, as they've become very popular with tourists.

As I squeeze my way past a group of singing Chinese Muslims, a woman in full black hijab, her face completely shrouded by a black face cloth, taps me harshly on the shoulder.

"It's un-Islamic. Un-Islamic!", she screams at me.

"What?" I ask, irritated at having been physically prodded.

The woman points accusingly at my forehead. "Un-Islamic" was what she was calling the strand of hair that had escaped from under my headscarf.

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