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On the Scene

Preparing to cover The Hajj

By CNN crew member Umm Zainab
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JEDDA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- Arriving in the evening of December 20 in this hot, desert kingdom, laden with a train of boxes bearing some 280 kg of camera equipment, and some vague notions of a "schedule" to be adhered to, your ideals are dispelled as soon as you set foot in the arrivals lounge at King Abdul-Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Be sure to expect one thing: A long wait.

Firstly, as box upon box is laboriously checked, double checked and then triple checked -- then onto immigration to ascertain that your papers and visas are in order.

The CNN crew was arriving piecemeal in three separate flights: Cameraman Adil Bradlow on a flight from Amman, Jordan; Producer Schams Elwazer on a flight from Beirut, Lebanon; and anchor Zain Verjee off the plane from Washington D.C. via Zurich.

The plan was for Adil to get a head start on the story: To get some "b-roll" of the pilgrims arriving, until the rest of the crew flew in.

Freelance reporter Mohammed Jamjoom was there to meet Adil at the airport, together with Khalid al-Nimary: Our "minder." Every foreign journalist working in the kingdom is traditionally assigned a "minder" from the Ministry of Information, who generally acts as translator, go-between with the bureaucracy and the rest of officialdom, and by and large as an aide when it comes to getting things done.

Piling the boxes into the back of the spanking new Chevrolet (the plastic covers still on the seats,) the team sped off in a cloud of dust towards the Hajj terminal, adjacent to the airport, where the pilgrims' planes arrive and where they are processed, are given identity cards (invaluable in a time where over two million crowds are expected.)

Snaking his way through queues of pilgrims, Adil moved from group to group. In the Hajj terminal, the pilgrims are zoned according to their country. A series of flags on the buses parked outside, across the walls inside the terminals, and even in some cases sewn on the back of the womens' headscarves -- tells you who is from where.

Most pilgrims are organized in their home countries by special Hajj tour groups which facilitate their transport, accommodation, food and other logistical requirements, to and from the holy cities in which the Hajj rituals take place.

After deciding we had had enough "color" for the day, it was to the hotel to check in, and get some relaxation whilst we still could! That is, before the Hajj gets into full swing, where as seasoned crew members would know: There is little chance of anything even remotely resembling a full night's rest.

As we sat in air-conditioned bliss on plush leather sofas, and sipping aromatic Arabic coffee in our hotel, little did we know of the potential disaster that awaited. A frantic call later that night from Mohammed, at the airport warned that we may have misplaced our anchor!

Producer Schams Elwazer had arrived an hour before -- and Zain Verjee's flight had just landed. Verjee, however, was not with the team waiting at the airport, but had been spirited off to the other end of the airport!

Mistaking her for a regular pilgrim, the immigration authorities had decided that she couldn't alight at the regular terminal.

Knowing no Arabic, and without a "minder" to plead on her behalf -- we groaned inwardly. We anticipated a long night searching for our anchor among the throngs of humanity, plastic plates, suitcases at the Hajj terminal. But luckily, all's well that ends well. With a little help of technology at our disposal in the form of an army of mobile phones, Zain was eventually tracked down and bustled into the shiny Chevrolet.

It was a jet-lagged, exhausted and bleary-eyed team that eventually staggered into the hotel in the early hours of the next morning.

Thursday, December 21

As Zain and Schams got some well-deserved shut-eye after the previous night's antics, it was an early start for Adil, Mohammed and our minder.

It was off to the Hajj terminal again: The idea being that Adil would get some "b-roll" and gather other various elements for longer news packages.

The early morning sun was just melting into the sky when the crew arrived at the terminal, which was a hub of activity, despite the ungodly hour (5.30 a.m.)

Scores of jumbo jets criss-crossed the runways and were directed into their bays. No bay was empty: Just as soon as one plane landed, another was taking off.

Adil's camera settled on a planeload of pilgrims from Chad alighting their flight -- the men in their ihram cutting a dashing sight in the morning light as they filed out along the walkway.

Downstairs on the tarmac, dozens of buses bearing newly-arrived pilgrims waited at the doors of the immigration hall.

As one bus' doors swung open, and out, into Adil's viewfinder stepped dozens of Iranian pilgrims, the men in somber navy and gray suits, the women clasping their chadors to themselves as they passed the camera.

If there is one thing that television crews know well when it comes to working in Saudi Arabia, it's that there is little, if anything you can point your camera at, without the great "P" word -- permissions.

This is especially trying when it comes to taking pictures of women. As the crew moved off the tarmac into the terminal, many a woman pilgrim was sent scurrying at the sight of the camera perched on the tripod -- especially those wearing face-veils.

Most of the male pilgrims, however, seemed happy to pose for a picture, grinning proudly and showing off their newly-received visas denoting their official status as pilgrims for Hajj 2007.

All and sundry, from airport cleaners in their green uniforms, to the numerous officials strutting around clutching walkie-talkies -- sauntered into the frame of Adil's camera.

Not that this stopped the countless self-appointed policemen, none of them official -- rushing at the crew several times to ask proof of their "permission" to film in the Hajj terminal.

Nation spotting can be quite entertaining! During the Hajj itself, when all male pilgrims wear the same, white unsewn two pieces of cloth known as the ihram, it is difficult to tell where they come from. But until they don their ihram, the pilgrims are trussed up in colorful traditional dress.

From the stiff Java-print frocks of the Nigerian pilgrims, to the cream linen hooded cloaks of the Moroccans, to the "salwar kameez" of the Pakistanis -- every pilgrim walked around proudly in their national costume.

We visited the Hajj terminal twice today: The second time later in the afternoon to await the arrival of an American 'imam' or preacher who was to be featured in one of our packages.

Again, disaster nearly thwarted our plans! This time, we nearly didn't get beyond the Hajj terminal entrance! Despite being there the day before, and with our minder in tow, we were this time stopped at the entrance and told we didn't have the necessary "permissions."

"Park there!" gestured the security official. The crew sighed -- knowing this could take a while. As we piled out of the car for a bit of a breather (the stifling heat is tempered by a breeze from the sea at late afternoon in Jeddah) -- Schams got on the phone with our second minder who had accompanied us the day before, to see if he could, as they say, "make a plan."

With one minder speeding along the highway to our imminent (so we hoped) rescue, and the other gesticulating with the security officials inside the guard-house, we again saw a long wait in sight.

And time was not something, as we know, the news business has in ample supply. The imam's flight was landing any minute, and unless we found him before he exited the immigration hall, it would be a nightmare to track him down.

Each time there was a movement from the guard house, we glanced eagerly across -- hoping to get that wave of the hand go-ahead we were hoping for. Nothing. As the minutes on the clock ticked loudly away, with producer Schams all the while staring anxiously at her wristwatch: We grew hotter and more impatient.

The imam's plane had now landed -- we had tried his mobile phone but it was turned off. Our second minder arrived in a screech of tires, and strode off into the guard-house. There was more gesticulating, voices were raised, and lowered. And raised again. Papers were produced. Numbers were dialed. We resembled a team of statues in a garden, standing, each separately, by the side of the road, mobile phone clutched to ear.

Eventually, we were shooed off with a wave of the hand -- some 45 minutes later. A race to the terminal ensued, and we caught our imam just has he was coming out of the immigration hall. Yet again, all's well that ends well.

After our interview, the crew went on another walkabout in the terminal, filming pilgrims at their ablutions, sitting around on prayer mats, shopping at one of the dozens of stalls scattered around the terminal, praying, and eating steaming piles of rice and chicken from flimsy white plastic plates.

Outside the terminal, rows of buses chugged in their parking bays, waiting to ferry the faithful to their numerous hotels and hostels in the city of Mecca -- where they will begin the first of the pilgrimage rites, the umrah.

Perched precariously on his silver ladder, our cameraman swayed from side to side as pilgrim upon pilgrim filed past him into their buses. A group of Indonesian pilgrims were being marshaled along by their tour leaders into neat rows: Like schoolchildren out on a field trip.

A few meters away, the bright red Moroccan flag fluttered in the wind, as the Moroccan pilgrims lined up to get on the buses. Behind them, the Algerian flag. And the South African flag. Reflecting diversity of place, character and language in covering stories certainly isn't a problem on the Hajj story: Name the country, and in all likelihood it is represented there. From tribesmen from Mali, to housewives from Ankara: the camera on this story is seldom wont of images opening a window onto a diverse and multi-cultural world. And all this on the dusty plains of Saudi Arabia!

Friday, December 22

If you're planning to get anything done in the Middle East on Fridays -- just forget it! This day is what Sunday is to the Sabbath-observant across the world.

Shops are closed, all government offices, ditto -- and if you're trying to track down some or another official for "permissions," you may as well be in dreamland.

It's the day when the communal prayer at the mosque is compulsory for Muslims, so you can only really expect activity of this sort during the day.

From the time the adhaan or call to prayer is sounded, you see the faithful in their finery walking to the mosque. Or in this country, where the price of fuel would likely drive anyone living elsewhere green with envy -- driving to the mosque.

After that, it's usually a big lunch -- and from the looks of the deserted streets, sleep for the rest of the day until the heat mellows.

So as a foreign television news crew looking to get some action or arrange some meetings for one of the biggest and most elaborately-managed stories of the year, we did what any self-respecting journalists would do: We went to lunch. Jeddah has a range of restaurants -- from Iranian cuisine, to Italian, to traditional Arab fare, to sushi bars. Just don't expect a glass of Sauvignon Blanc with your meal!

And in some restaurants, having a woman in the group means you are immediately marshaled to the families section. And in this strictly sexually-segregated society, even the take-outs are separated by gender. In the many Starbucks cafes that dot the city, there is a take-out window for men, and another for women.

Here, you find men and their womenfolk (usually with children in tow) seated in the dining area where they may take off their face veils. Saudi Arabia remains a deeply traditional society when it comes to the dress codes for women. Most Saudi women veil their faces, while other women, including the millions of immigrant workers in the kingdom, generally cover their heads.

One does, however, see women with uncovered heads on the streets of Jeddah, generally a more liberal city than the rest of the country. The female members of our crew, unaccustomed to the cover-up strictures, are a sight to behold. If they are not clutching a mobile phone to their ear with one hand, balancing Adil's ladder or tripod on their shoulders, together with their handbags, and scribbling onto a notepad with the other -- then they are endlessly grasping at the unfamiliar feel of silky scarves on their heads: and trying to manage them.

For foreign woman journalists working in Saudi Arabia -- "bad hair day" translates into "bad scarf day:" And be sure of one thing: It's nearly every day!

All work to be done the next day, given just how little can actually be secured from anyone on this day of rest.

And spending a most pleasant evening as guests in the home of Dr. Sami Angawi -- an architect and scholar of Islamic philosophy -- who gave us a tour of his home on the outskirts of Jeddah.

The house, a masterpiece outside and within, held us enthralled: Thick Persian rugs, a sunken blue-tiled indoor pool, and a virtual treasure-trove of artworks, antique furniture and superb calligraphy in the styles of the various Islamic dynasties, from the Abbasids to the Ottoman and Fatimid ages.

In a "prep" for a longer interview to be held at a later stage, our host sat us around his paneled study, all the while being served up bottomless cups of sweetened traditional tea and dates. Not bad for a bunch of journos at work!

Scarf frustrations notwithstanding, the rest of what we had left of the day was spent organizing the logistics of our upcoming transfer of operations to Makkah: The "nerve-center" of the story. And of course, securing "permissions."

Sunday, December 24

When you're in the heart of Saudi Arabia running around managing logistics to cover an estimated influx of two million pilgrims from around the world, it's easy to forget life back home.

Whereas in other parts, children are draping the tinsel around the tree (it's Christmas Eve, remember?) presents are being wrapped, and the stockings are being hung up -- we were, to use the cliche -- "a million miles away."

It was time for our team to split up again: Zain and Schams would stay in Jeddah to log yesterday's tapes and get the final word on the dreaded "permissions."

Adil and his wife, Umm Zainab (who is along for the trip as Adil's temper pacifier and ad-hoc sound girl) -- would head for Makkah, as they were doing the Hajj themselves as pilgrims and wanted to perform their "umrah" in the city before the crowds got in.

Local reporter Mohammed and one of our minders were heading for Makkah too. And so, the heavy boxes were dragged into the Chevrolet once more, to their new residence, the Makkah Hilton, a grand location with a spectacular view of the Grand Mosque in Makkah. It's grandeur aided in no small part by the fantastic cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee it serves up willingly to our sleep-deprived crew at all hours!

The crew arrived at 1 a.m. in the city -- home to the Ka-aba, the holiest site in the Islamic faith.

The streets leading up to and around the Grand Mosque -- known as the Haram -- are overflowing with pilgrims in their ihram -- and our car has a hard time navigating the streets without sideswiping one or another pilgrim. This in a city and at a time where all forms of violence or injury or hot-headedness are strictly forbidden. Needless to say, on this Christmas Eve it was less a case of "Jingle Bells" than it was of "Blow the Hooter!"

Adil is well-known in this hotel: Not least of all because of how many porters he needs every time he checks in! After a flurry of handshakes, promises to sit down for some tea later, etc. we headed for our rooms. Several of the staff at the reception looked crestfallen that Zain was not with us. Nothing like a television star (and the promise of autographs to show to mum back home) to get hotel staff into a frenzy!

After promising them that they would indeed see her later in the day when she arrived with Schams from Jeddah, their faces brightened. Adil and Khadija, in their "ihram," headed for the Grand Mosque to perform their pilgrimage rites, Mohammed and the minder settled themselves into our rooms at the Hilton.

They returned some three hours later, by which time the adhaan was being sounded for the early morning prayer, or fajr. As the two pilgrims tiptoed back into the room designated as our office space, Mohammed's mobile phone alarm started off a shrill tune. Apparently going unnoticed, Adil deliberated whether he should wake our colleague. After all, nobody had slept since the previous night. Nor were they likely to in the near future, given the task ahead, and the sight from our window of the thousands of pilgrims milling around the white marble of the Grand Mosque.

Adil knocked softly at Mohammed's door, then staggered off to bed to catch a few hours' sleep before the day's shoot, in just three hours time. We, CNN's Hajj crew, know all about confused body clocks. After Zain and Schams' arrival at midday, it was immediately off to survey the security arrangements at the city of Mina, where more often than not, tragedy has struck the Hajj in the form of stampedes at the traditional stoning of the devil ritual of the Hajj, known as the jamarat.

It is generally a bad idea to try shooting anywhere in the precincts of the Grand Mosque without "permissions" -- an action likely to get you arrested, if not attacked by the over-zealous amongst the pilgrims who regard the taking of images as "haraam" or religiously forbidden.

Many a dirty look was thrown our way as we made our way through the throngs, in some cases pausing to set up the camera and film some color. Around late afternoon, we made our way out of the hotel lobby to film some pilgrims at prayer in the shopping area around the Grand Mosque.

Adil's camera was nearly snatched out of his hands by another zealous and eagle-eyed security official who had spotted us filming from his third floor watch-station. He wagged his finger menacingly and barked orders for us to come with him. We stood our ground.

Luckily Schams, our producer, is Arabic-speaking, or we would have been whisked away to goodness knows where. Our minder had joined the prayers in the lobby, and could not come to our rescue as the official had decided to pounce in the middle of the prayers. The crew huddled defiantly in the corner until the last ritual of the prayer was performed, and our minder came rushing over to explain our status to the security guard.

As usual, a crowd was gathering around us, with the usual questions. "Are you from TV? CNN? Aah ..." Many pilgrims then usually swing rapidly from curious to superstar-in-training mode: Leaping in front of the camera and grinning, or jabbing at Mohammed's arm to get him to tell Adil to take pictures of their babies/children/Hajj IDs.

Others try to pretend to have accidentally strayed into the shot -- in carefully co-ordinated movements no doubt designed to get maximum coverage of their faces for whoever they may assume will be watching. Others just ignore us and go on with their shopping. The Hajj isn't all about prayer: it's also about commerce.

CNN viewers might be surprised to find that the malls surrounding the Grand Mosque are crammed with stores one wouldn't assume would have a presence in this holiest site of Islam in Saudi Arabia. In the newly-opened Marwa Tower mall, a gleaming structure of glass and steel skyscraper next to the Grand Mosque, you may find Puma trainers, Chanel fragrances, gold jewelry, mobile phones and dozens of other gadgets -- alongside religious books and traditional calligraphic art. Or sit down for a latte in the Starbucks cafe on the second floor of the mall.

This old meets new world in Makkah no doubt is a whole new world for many of the pilgrims, some of them from far-flung villages where many haven't even been on a plane before, let alone had a McDonald's Big Mac. Last night, we noticed a group of nervous-looking pilgrims in ihram standing defensively together as they waited for the lift to bear them to the upper reaches of the mall.

They told us they were from Yemen, and judging from the awe with which they look around the contraption as the doors close: they have never been in a lift before. Or at least, not a glass-bottomed one.. It can safely be assumed then, that unless the pilgrims are praying in the Grand Mosque, you can find them in the shopping malls. Which is where we found the day's interview, a young and articulate young woman from northern Nigeria, who told Zain of her difficulties as a young bride in her home town, all the while trying to tightly hem Zain into her headscarf, tugging and pulling until all our anchor's lustrous locks were safely stowed away! From there it was back to our hotel room for more logging, more cups of Arabic coffee and the final editing of the packages we have done so far.

Muslim pilgrims pray in the courtyard of the Grand Mosque.

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