Inside the Middle East
October 28, 2012
Posted: 1223 GMT

At entrance to Mecca, Saudi Arabia


'Tis the Hajj season again – once a year the world views the iconic images of a sea of pilgrims dressed in white at Islam's holiest site, Mecca in Saudi Arabia, as more than 3 million people from around the world embark on this ancient pilgrimage. It is one of the pillars of Islam that all Muslims who are financially and physically able must perform this journey at least once in their lifetime.

I've personally been to the Hajj three times - in 2005, 2006 and 2007 – not as a pilgrim, but as a producer covering the event for CNN. It was one of the most logistically challenging assignments I've ever faced and one that left me with some of the more colorful and poignant memories of any story I have covered.

Overlooking the Kaaba from our live position.


The memories came flooding back as I watched the crowds at Mecca's Grand Mosque circling  the Kaaba, the black cube shaped building. It is believed the Kaaba stands on the spot where Abraham built his first temple to God and, while the building itself is not sacred, it is a spiritual symbol. It is towards this direction that Muslims around the world orient themselves to pray five times a day. Hotel rooms around the region have a sticker somewhere with an arrow pointing towards the Kaaba so the visiting faithful can know which way to pray. It is the proverbial North in a Muslim's compass.

These are not the accounts of a pilgrim, but one of the relatively few people who get to be AT the Hajj without being IN the Hajj.


The World Passing By

It seems logical to begin with the obvious. Sitting there on the white marble floor of the Grand Mosque, it was difficult not be blown away by the diversity of the people passing by. Groups of Indonesians in crisp white wearing colored headbands for identification and moving in tight phalanx formations quietly chanting the mantra of the Hajj (which translates approximately to "Oh God, I have obeyed your call"). Groups of West Africans in colorful garb almost singing verses of Islam's Holy Book the Quran. Old Chinese couples, groups of blonde Europeans and Americans; it felt as if we were literally watching the entire world walk past. The effect was nothing short of hypnotic.

The Jabs

Every time I received a call telling me I would be covering Hajj again, my first instinct was to immediately dread the vaccinations I would need. Although Viral Meningitis is the only vaccination legally required by Saudi Arabia, my doctor recommended getting an additional SIX : pneumonia, Tetatus, Hepatitis A, Typhoid, Diphtheria, Yellow Fever, and the run of the mill flu shot. Yet despite meticulously getting vaccinated AND constantly wearing a surgical mask around the crowds, there was not a year that the crew did not return home with the infamous "Hajj Flu." No, most doctors wouldn't call it that, but I'm convinced that gathering that many people from that many parts of the world at such close quarters for five days in the desert creates some hybrid super-virus that has knocked me down every time. During one particularly rough year, I lost my voice – which, for a field producer, is the equivalent of a cameraman losing his camera. The solution? Twice a day, the hotel doctor came to give me cortizone shots to unclench my vocal chords so I could speak.

The Devil's Makeover

One of the key rituals of the Hajj is called the "stoning of the devil." Part of the cathardic process of the pilgrimage is to throw stones at three pillars known as the Jamarat symbolizing a rejection of the devil's temptation. This was also the most dangerous part of the ritual when it came to crowd control as 3 million people tried to throw stones at the same time at the same location. There have been many instances where people closer to the Jamarat have been killed or badly wounded by stones being lobbed by pilgrims further back. The Saudi Arabian authorities spent millions of dollars renovating the area, making it multi-layered like a garage instead of one flat plain, and renovating the pillars themselves that represent Satan. When I first visited Mecca, the "Devil" was an obelisque-like pillar but the renovations included replacing the structure (after much religious scholarly debate) with a wide oval wall-like structure with a much bigger surface area that was easier to hit. I recall one late night as we were shooting a story on the preparations, being driven out to the Jamarat area with a security escort as an engineer explained to us how the "Devil" had been remodeled. I couldn't resist taking a photo.

The new "Devil" after renovation of Jamarat in 2006


For anyone wondering where pilgrims get the stones, it's at the nearby desert location of Muzdalifa. (The math: 3 million pilgrims, throwing seven stones at each of three pillars – that's 63 million stones.) After every Hajj, the authorities collect all the stones that have landed at the foot of the Jamarat in Mina and take them back to the plain of Muzdalifa in anticipation of next year's pilgrimage, making sure to sift out any that are too sharp or too large.

The Segregation Problem

Saudi Arabia is a religiously conservative country that practices a very strict interpretation of Islam, which includes that unrelated men and women should not mingle in private spaces. When you're a CNN crew, it means that the female reporter and producer technically can't be in the same room (or tent, once we're out in the desert) as the male cameraman. This is one of my very distinct memories – every year negotiating all manner of compromises to convince the authorities that the team all needed to share a work space. Various compromises included leaving the hotel room door wedged open at all times, leaving the tent flap open, sometimes having a token chaperone in the room in the form of a government minder or just occasionally being dropped in on to make sure we were actually working and not misbehaving in any way.

I must note here that one thing I appreciate about the Hajj is that women and men all pray together and perform all the rites together (whereas mosques are segregated.) At Hajj, men and women are only segregated in their sleeping arrangements.

The Wardrobe Malfunction

Women in Saudi Arabia, and female visitors, have to wear a long-flowing black robe (called an abaya) and a headscarf covering their hair. In many malls, hotels and restaurants in big cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, women can get away with removing their headscarves. But in Mecca, during Hajj, these rules are particularly strictly abided by. As a CNN crew, we often worked late hours or had requests to be available live during U.S. prime time hours which were very late at night local time – so sleep deprivation was a common companion. On one late night as we were frantically trying to make an edit deadline, I received a call from an interviewee bringing a video diary he had filmed of himself so we agreed to meet in the hotel lobby. I rushed down and walked out of the elevator and within a few seconds realized that every single person in that lobby was staring at me in horror. It took me a moment to soak in the terrifying realization that I had forgotten to throw on my abaya and headscarf and was donning only jeans, T-shirt and a pony tail... which is comparable to walking around the Vatican in a bikini. Needless to say, waiting for the elevator to come back down and take me up to the room was the longest 30 seconds of my life.

The Day the Apocalypse Arrived

It was the last day of the Hajj in 2005. We were in our hotel room overlooking the Grand Mosque as the pilgrims performed the final rites as they circled the Kaaba. The sky began to darken, the windows shook with the force of roaring thunder as torrential rains started pouring down. We went out among the crowds and the scene was almost movie-like. Exhausted pilgrims who had just reached the peak of their spiritual journey, caught up in the moment, started saying that Judgment Day had arrived and that we were witnessing the apocalypse. The grounds of the mosque were flooded, the tent city at Mina suffered landslides and several groups of pilgrims had to be rescued by chopper. On the roads, cars and buses were turned on their side in the middle of the road and it was utter chaos. It turned out not to be the apocalypse, but a sobering reminder of what can happen when a desert city without drainage infrastructure gets hit with torrential rains while 3 million people happen to be in town.

The Stampede

In 2006, as the crew was headed to the airport thinking our assignment was over, we received word that a stampede had taken place. In people's rush to try to beat the crowds on the last day, the crowds got crushing that more than 350 people were trampled to death. We came back to the sounds of ambulance sirens wailing in warning and family members wailing in mourning. Just a few hours earlier the sense was one of collective euphoria as pilgrims completed their rites and were spiritually "cleansed" and ready to go home. Now the scene was chaos, blood, bodies shrouded in the same white cloths that they had performed their pilgrimage in. It was the deadliest day at Hajj in years. Subsequent pilgrimages have avoided similar disaster by spreading out the times that people can conduct the stoning ritual, carefully controlling the number of people at the Jamarat at any one time to avoid bottlenecks and overcrowding.


Tears on the Plain of Arafat

Overlooking the Plain of Arafat.

Despite the tragedies... Despite the crowds (it could take half an hour to find a hotel elevator with enough room to fit a 3-person crew with equipment)... Despite the traffic (it could take 4 hours to travel a couple of miles and if it happened to be prayer time, everyone abandoned their vehicles and started praying on the streets)... Despite  it all, the most powerful memory that stayed with me is standing on the plain of Arafat. The Day of Arafat is the spiritual culmination of the Hajj, the peak of spiritual cleansing as millions of people shed tears as they prayed for God's forgiveness for their sins.

As media, we had access to the Saudi Television facility that had a high tower overlooking the entire plain. There is no sight more overwhelming than seeing waves and waves of people in white praying and crying in the most effusive expression of religious emotion I have ever witnessed. It is a day that people smile to each other through their tears, as if in disbelief that they're finally there, finally completing the journey of a lifetime, finally so close to God. It is a moving and powerful moment that this spectator will never forget.

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Filed under: Hajj •Islam •Religion •Saudi Arabia

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November 18, 2010
Posted: 908 GMT

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Filed under: General •Hajj •Saudi Arabia •Video

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November 29, 2009
Posted: 733 GMT

Amir Ahmed, CNN

Mecca, Saudi Arabia (CNN) - Chanting "Allahu Akbar" - God is Greater than any - more than 2 million pilgrims crossed new pedestrian bridges Saturday to perform one of the last rituals of the Hajj season.

Jamarat is a re-enactment of an event when Prophet Abraham stoned the devil and rejected his temptations, according to Muslim traditions.

The ritual stoning of three pillars, which occurs in the tent city of Mina - about two miles from Mecca, was the scene of stampedes and many deaths in the 1980s and 1990s as pilgrims passed a crowded bottleneck area leading to the small pillars on the ground.

But this year the Saudi government completed a new project that avoids past congestion at the site. The government has erected three massive pillars and completed a $1.2 billion, five-story bridge nearby where pilgrims can toss stones. Authorities and pilgrims say it's a roomier atmosphere and more efficient way to accommodate the faithful.

"Everything went fine so far," Col. Khakled Qarar Mohammadi, head of the emergency forces at Jamarat, told CNN.

"It is an immense responsibility that we had to deal with. About 3 million pilgrims move in a small geographic area at the same time wanting to do the same ritual. So we have been preparing for this for years now."

Irtiza Hasan, a pilgrim from the United States, said all went well at the ceremony.

"The only incident I saw was that there were some handicapped women who were turned away in fears that they get hurt."

But Mohammadi said, "There are 10 vans on the second floor especially designated to serve the elderly and handicapped. Each van can take up to 14 pilgrims."

As a measure to alleviate harm, according to Muslim traditions, the elderly and the handicapped can appoint someone else to stone for them.

The five-story Jamarat bridge is air-conditioned at 19 degrees Centigrade, or 66 Fahrenheit, throughout the day and backed by water sprinklers that can reduce the temperature to about 29 degrees C, or 84 F. The bridge is designed to allow the addition of seven more levels to hold as many as 5 million pilgrims in the future if the need arises.

According to authorities, the bridge is 950 meters (1,039 yards) long and 80 meters (87 yards) wide. Each floor is 12 meters (13 yards) high with three tunnels and 12 entrances and 12 exits in six directions. It has a helicopter pad for emergencies.

According to Mohammadi, the project has 509 advanced closed-circuit television cameras monitoring pilgrims' movements. Those cameras feed into the main operations room, which oversees the Jamarat Bridge and the surrounding areas - all screened by dozens of security officers on 72 monitors at the operation room.

The stoning ritual is done over at least two days, where pilgrims stone three pillars at Mina - believed to be where the Prophet Abraham stoned the devil when he tried to dissuade him from obeying God's orders to slaughter his son. According to tradition, the event was a test from God, who gave Abraham a ram to slaughter instead.

The last ritual that marks the end of Hajj is when pilgrims go from Mina to Mecca to make a last visit to al-Masjid al-Haram, Islam's holiest site, before going back home.

The ritual is called Tawaf al-Wada'a - or farewell circumambulation in the holy mosque. It's where pilgrims go around the black cube seven times counter-clockwise asking that their Lord accept their pilgrimage and grant them another visit to the holy city.

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November 25, 2009
Posted: 747 GMT

CNN's Isha Sesay explains why millions of Muslims make a pilgrimage to the Hajj each year.

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Posted: 742 GMT

By Daniela Deane, CNN

London, England (CNN) - Forget stampedes, fires and terrorist attacks. The big fear this year concerning the Hajj, the annual millions-strong pilgrimage to Mecca, is swine flu.

Swine flu has already killed four pilgrims this year, Saudi Arabia's health ministry announced Saturday, almost a week before the pilgrimage's peak.

Three of the victims - a woman from Morocco and men from Sudan and India - were in their seventies. The fourth was a 17-year-old girl from Nigeria.

The Health Ministry said none had been vaccinated against the H1N1 virus - despite their recommendations - and all had underlying health problems, including cancer and respiratory illness. A ministry spokesman said more than two dozen other cases had been detected among arriving pilgrims.

Latest figures from the World Health Organization (WHO) show the virus has killed 6,750 people worldwide.

Skittish health officials in Saudi Arabia have worked hard to quell fears that the pilgrimage - the biggest yearly congregation of people in the world - will contribute to the global spread of the virus, inviting international health experts to make recommendations and screening pilgrims as they arrive.

During the climax of the pilgrimage, crowds can reach a density of up to seven people every 10 square feet - the perfect storm of flu transmission.

The kingdom, though, stopped short of imposing any travel bans to Saudi Arabia, which earns billions of dollars a year from the pilgrimage.

"Hajj is a major responsibility [for us]," Gen. Mansour Al-Turki, security spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of the Interior, told CNN. "We are prepared for everything."

Performing the Hajj by traveling to Mecca and Medina is an obligation for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it at least once during their lifetime. Al-Turki said up to three million are expected this year.

The Hajj season - dates vary depending on the sighting of the new moon - peaks between Wednesday and Saturday this year, just as the winter flu season gets underway in the Northern hemisphere.

Dr. Ziad Memish, deputy Saudi Health Minister, told CNN the kingdom invited 25 international experts, including specialists from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and the WHO, to advise them on how to deal with the pandemic. He said the team inspected airports, seaports, and other facilities and strategies Saudi Arabia had set up to deal with any outbreak.

Memish said the CDC recommended setting up a mobile alert system used in the Hurricane Katrina disaster in the U.S. where mobile devices will document any suspected flu cases via GPS to a command center at the Ministry of Health.

He said the experts also recommended the country continue using thermal screening at arrival points to test pilgrims for fevers. If a pilgrim exhibits symptoms, they will be quarantined until the symptoms disappear.

Memish told CNN a team from the CDC will be staying throughout the Hajj to help the government deal with any problems.

Saudi health authorities ordered 11 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine, giving priority to government workers working at the Hajj. They recommended pilgrims be vaccinated before coming - although clearly, many have not complied.

Hundreds of people have died in recent years in stampedes, fires and demonstrations. The biggest stampede killed 1,426 people in 1990 in a tunnel leading to a holy site.

Political extremism has also claimed lives.

In 1979, 151 people were killed and more than 500 wounded after Saudi security forces stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca to free pilgrims held hostage by Islamist militants. In 1987, 402 people were killed, according to Saudi official figures, when security forces tried to break up an anti-U.S. demonstration by Iranian pilgrims.

During the Hajj, pilgrims throw stones at pillars representing the devil. They circle a black holy stone in Mecca's Grand Mosque seven times. They ready themselves by abstaining from sex, hunting, killing or arguing.

The stoning has proved the most dangerous of the rituals. But bridges have been built at four levels at the site to help prevent a recurrence of fatal stampedes, Al-Turki told CNN.

Al-Turki said the Saudis depend on "a lot of technology" to monitor the crowds, including CCTV cameras and an early warning system that constantly measures the density of crowds in different locations.

He said U.S.-made Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, introduced last year, monitor the crowd situation from above, sending pictures back to command and control centers.

He said new fire-resistant tents have drastically cut down the number of fires.

This year, though, the Saudis are more worried about flu than anything else.

In a bid to stem any outbreak, Deputy Health Minister Memish said a religious Fatwa has been issued saying face masks are acceptable this Hajj, as are alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Usually, stitched clothes are prohibited on the body as is all contact with alcohol.

Not all pilgrims have gotten the news though.

"You can't wear something to cover your face for the women," said pilgrim Lateefa Khan, traveling to Mecca from the U.S. "The face has to be shown."

Despite the flu fears, Khan said she's thrilled to be going.

"I am leaving my kids behind so I can concentrate fully on doing Hajj," she told CNN. "I'm looking forward to focusing all my time on worshipping."

Amir Ahmed contributed to this report.

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July 24, 2009
Posted: 627 GMT
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December 7, 2008
Posted: 1705 GMT


–By CNN's Mohammed Tawfeeq

We left the hotel in Mecca to film what we call a “walk and talk”.  We decided to leave in the afternoon in order not to be stuck among millions of pilgrims especially during the call to prayer


CNN’s reporter Arwa Damon , CNN’s Cameraman Chevan Rayson and I – along with our Saudi minder - walked among hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across the world to perform the Hajj.


We were only few hundreds meters away from the Kaaba, the first and  holiest site for Muslims.  We met many pilgrims during our tour who were so excited and happy to be here …many of whom wanted to be on camera to show to their  relatives and friends that they are here  performing Hajj.


In Mecca its easy for us to find any nationality for an interview but it is impossible to find someone from a different religion.


It is incredible feeling to see millions of people who are walking next to each other in a small area for one purpose only, which is performing the Hajj. 


We walked past the holy mosque to an outdoor market filled with thousands of pilgrims and every store was packed with shoppers. It is really difficult to move through them. Sometimes  we decide to stop filming because hundreds of pilgrims gather around us that make our work impossible. Other times we have to stop filming because religious police as us to move on to avoid a crowd gathering.


After we got what we needed for our story we decided to go back to the hotel but this time we were running literally – to make it back before the call to prayer.  Otherwise we could  we could be stuck for at least an hour in the middle of millions of pilgrims ….we made it this time .


Around 7 p.m. we decided to grab dinner outside but we totally forgot about the night prayers. We were so hungry after a long day of working. We bought some food and we decided to go back to hotel to finish the “walk and talk story”.

We were only a few meters away from the hotel and technically only a few minutes from our rooms. But suddenly the Muezzin called for the night prayers: in only few seconds, hundreds of pilgrims stopped to pray and we were stuck. 


We waited in a small corner until the worshippers finished their prayers.  We sat on the ground eating some of the food  we'd bought earlier, exchanging amused looks and smiling at our predicament.   

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