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Hajj diary: Stoning the devil, and sleep at last

By CNN crew member Adil Bradlow
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MECCA, Saudi Arabia (CNN) -- December 30

"Zzz." This pretty much sums up what some of the CNN crew could muster today. Exhausted from all our hard work at Arafat the day before, it was time to hang the do not disturb signs on our hotel doors, leave the equipment in the black boxes, and get some well-earned rest.

Some of us rose late afternoon and ventured out onto the streets of Mecca, where pilgrims, now out of their ihram were out and about in all their festive finery.

The day after Arafat is that of Eid ul-Adha: The religious festival commemorating the Old Testament and Qur'anic story of the Prophet Abraham's commandment from God to sacrifice his son.

On this day, Muslims the world over buy new clothes and presents for themselves and their families, and sacrifice an animal, with part going to themselves, and the rest to charity.

For the pilgrims, coming out of ihram also means cutting their hair. Barber-shops around the Grand Mosque compound were doing a roaring trade as we walked the streets.

One unfamiliar with the traditions and just arriving in the city would be forgiven thinking a new fashion trend had hit the streets. Some pilgrims weren't bothering with the barber at all: Squatting at the side of the road as their fellow pilgrims took to their locks with long, gleaming razor blades.

Shopkeepers weren't doing too bad either; pilgrims were streaming in and out of shops laden with big bags. No doubt there will be many a smiling face when the pilgrims arrive back home. From toys, to shimmering headscarves to kitchen utensils to designer wristwatches -- they don't call it a shopping Mecca for nothing!

As we headed back to the hotel, after doing a segment link in one of the side streets around the Grand Mosque -- we remarked to each other about the strong scent filling the shopping concourse facing the hotel lobby.

Whilst in ihram, pilgrims are forbidden to use scent or perfume. And from the heavy sweet smell of a hundred perfumes and 'attar' (a traditional non alcohol-based scent favored by religiously observant Muslim men and women) in the lobby, we guessed they had taken to their new liberation from 'ihram' with gusto.

From there, back to our beds, and to counting sheep!'

December 31

If the day of Arafat is the culmination of the Hajj, then the days following are the ones to watch: Wherein the tradition of symbolically stoning the devil takes place in the Mina valley. It is during this ritual that there have been tragedies in the last two years, where the crowding has led to stampedes.

This time around the Saudi government was pulling out all the stops: Investing millions in upgrading the facilities at the Jamarat Bridge on which the three pillars symbolizing the devil are located, as well as deploying hundreds of security personnel on the site. This is in addition to the high-tech monitoring systems for crowd control, which the CNN crew were given an exclusive view of during our tour of the operations center earlier in the week.

We left for Mina mid morning, Adil, Muhammad Jamjoon, our minder and our driver. We knew the roads would be heavy with traffic, and our driver deftly negotiated a series of back-ways and alleyways to get us to Mina faster.

We got there soon enough, but in the main road leading up to the Jamarat Bridge the traffic was at a virtual standstill. Deciding it would be more sensible to walk the distance rather than be stuck for two more hours in the traffic, we grabbed our equipment from the car and set out on foot, leaving our driver to make his way to the end of the traffic, then come around to get us.

It looked like the security officials had things in control. There was a new flow system that basically directs the pilgrims in one direction to complete their ritual, and in the opposite one to leave.

One of the explanatory factors for the stampedes in the past was that those going to and from the pillars were colliding. For a while it seemed we too were stuck in the mass of humanity making its way towards the pillars. The good thing about being in a crowd, strangely enough, is that it pushes you along at quite a pace, helpful when you are huffing and puffing like we were with all the equipment.

Adil decided the best way to get the job done would be to shoot pictures hand-held, and started capturing images of the faces in the crowds.

Here again, the sight of all nations on earth walking in unison (and still smiling, albeit a little less brightly) was a touching scene for us to observe. As we were swept along by the ebb and flow of the crowd, Adil's lens picked up all and sundry, from throngs of Nigerian woman pilgrims in identical burqas to a trio of old, stooped Chinese pilgrims walking in a neat line, despite looking at least 100 years old!

The pilgrims as usual loved the idea that they might be seen on television screens worldwide, and many shouted and waved into the lens as they walked by. The women with full black face veils, as usual, scurried away or turned around when the camera's gaze rested on them.

We squeezed our way through the crowd to get to the pillars, where people were pelting the devil with enthusiasm. The day before they would have collected their stones in the Mina Valley, and brought them along. But not everyone. Other pilgrims could still be seen crouched at the side of the road trying to find some stones. Which are essentially tiny pebbles. Any larger would do real damage. Not so much to the devil as to other pilgrims, as they would rebound off the pillars and hit others in the face.

As Adil was hoisted onto the security guards' platform around the pillars to get some close-up shots, many a pilgrim could be seen hobbling off away from the pillars, their face contorted in pain, and clutching their foreheads.

By the time we reached the other side of the Jamarat Bridge, which directs the pilgrims away from the pillars, we were a little low on steam. As we passed by the Ministry of Health on-site clinic, we were offered bottles of water and a local drink known as Tamarindi which is basically clarified date juice. Just what the doctor ordered for us parched pressmen.

By the time we finished getting all our pictures, over four hours, our driver had made it around the traffic, and we piled gratefully into the air-conditioned car to take us back to Mecca.

Back at the hotel, somebody remarked that it was New Year's Eve. How odd to be in a place where the culture and custom is so different; where the traditions we are accustomed to go by with barely a mention.

Whereas elsewhere Champagne corks would be popping and fireworks lighting up the sky -- in Mecca this day -- prayer, animal sacrifice, putting on traditional scent and stoning the devil are all the hallmarks.

Not that we mind. So far we've been having a devilishly good time working on this story!

Pilgrims stone the devil at the Jamarat Bridge.

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