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Hajj diary: Spiritual dress rehearsal on Arafat

By CNN crew member Umm Zainab
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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- And so we were off ... boxes packed, edible goodies in ample supply, camera batteries charged, ourselves recharged with energy drinks -- the crew left Mecca and headed for the Arafat plain, where today the pilgrims would perform the most important rite, standing from sunrise to sunset in supplication.

The importance of the event may be summed up by the fact that unless this is done, one is not considered as having performed the Hajj at all.

Though the journey would ordinarily take about 45 minutes from Mecca: Just imagine the time difference when there are about two-and-a-half million other folks trying to get to the same destination!

The highways were clogged with traffic, in some cases lanes were completely stalled. There were pilgrims everywhere. Pilgrims dangling off the sides of buses, out of car windows, and yet others perched astride mopeds, and others striding out at the side of the road.

Luckily for us, and better late than never, we had our minder and a special sticker festooned on our windscreen, noting our status as journalists with special dispensation from the ministry of Information.

And so, in no time at all, the cordons on an empty lane were removed for us by the police manning the traffic, and our driver roared off at an impressive speed. The comments in our car at our sudden change in fortunes were varied, but one can safely assume the most common sentiment roughly resembled something like: "Yehaah!"

We reached the Ministry of Information compound in Arafat just before dawn. This is the operations center for journalists covering the Hajj. There are facilities for editing, good vantage points for shooting, and various other facilities, like ablution blocks, and the ubiquitously named "tents" for VIP guests, decorated with plush carpeting and serviced by waiters bearing gleaming trays with steaming food and Arabic coffee at regular intervals.

After much lugging of boxes, amidst groans, (particularly from those of us of the fairer sex on the team,) it was decided that cameraman Adil Bradlow and freelance reporter Mohammed Jamjoom would do the dirty work of setting up the live-shot, while anchor Zain Verjee, producer Schams Elwazer and Umm Zainab would catch up on beauty sleep in the car.

At dawn, Adil, Zain, and Mohammed were off to the Mount of Mercy, where pilgrims stand in prayer in remembrance of the farewell sermon given there by the Prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, just before his death.

An ambitious trio indeed! Adil hadn't slept the night before (and had aching legs from the umrah), nor had Zain and Mohammed. But up at dawn they were, Zain writing her lines with one hand, and applying her make-up with another. And who says women aren't good at multi-tasking!

After this mid-morning shoot, we were all up to the live-shot position, where something resembling an auctioneer's block went on for most of the day.

On one side, the team, with a long list of proposed live-shots, as well as packages in the can. On the other, CNN's Atlanta headquarters, who had just been told the execution of Saddam Hussein had been scheduled to happen in the next 24 hours.

As everyone who's worked in the news business knows, there's nothing worse than feeling you've got the hottest story on the block, and finding it perilously close to being dropped down the news agenda because of a bigger story.

In front of us spread a sea of millions of people, all clad in white in their ihram -- steadily filling the vast plains of Arafat in the arid Saudi Arabian desert: All chanting in unison, and the eyes of many awash with tears.

The scene on the Mount of Mercy that Adil, Zain and Mohammed prepared into a package was getting compliments from all who had seen it on air, before we even did! As it goes with the news business, someone had just met someone who had just seen it, and had heard it was great!

And yet it looked like our story would be overshadowed. This was a live event, and CNN had unique access, superb shooting locations, a minder who had made things happen for us (like an exclusive chopper ride) -- and (dare we count our laurels, ahem!) a professional and hard-working team on the scene.

And so, in between live-shots we had, and others that were planned, we stared grimly at Schams every time her mobile phone shrilled. "It's Atlanta..we're being bumped off for Saddam," said our crestfallen expressions.

Luckily it wasn't as bad as we expected. Throughout the day, we pulled off several live crossings during the day, and one of our packages on the Hajj journey of Palestinian photographer, Muhammad Abid, aired, and -- we had enough cupcakes and bottled water to keep us smiling.

We de-rigged and made our way to the waiting cars just before midnight, hoping to arrive in Mecca by early dawn.

The pilgrims would also be on the roads on their way back to Mina, and we knew we had to get a head start. The early bird may catch the worm, but for this crew of fatigued journalists -- the early bird would be the first to land in the soft beds of the Mecca Hilton...!

Pilgrims climbing Mount Arafat.

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