Image 1 of 10: Hey Hajj hoggers: stay home! Attention regulars! Don’t plan on redeeming any of your frequent flyer miles this year! The Saudi government announced that visas will not be issued to anyone who has made the journey to Mecca within the last five years in an effort to curb what the “hajj hogger” and “Umrah overstayer” phenomena.
Image 1 of 10: Mecca Metro: The first phase of the pending massive 4 railway project, Al Mashaaer Al Mugaddassah Metro, was launched in 2010. Metro Mashallah could be a pertinent tag for its super speed and high passenger capacity. Since the expansion has been slow in the offing, perhaps Metro Inshallah would be a more apt appellation for the plodding project.
Image 1 of 10: Pilgrim plague? On top of standard disease control that mandates pilgrims carry a vaccine certificate bill of clean health, some countries issued Mecca bans on their weaker links - the elderly, pregnant and terminally ill - in fear of the health scare of the year that made Saudi its host, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus aka MERS.
Image 1 of 10: Smooth operators: The KSA has cracked down on more than 10 pirated pilgrimage packages being run from within Saudi by Arab & Asian expats. Despite promises of the most luxurious religious enlightenment around, these fake campaigns are nothing but sinful and sketchy sales by agents that could lead to deportation and a 10 year ban from re-entry.
Image 1 of 10: Jams around the Jamarat: Crowd control measures for Hajj mean that Hajjis will dodge traffic, with 5 levels of access now installed for pilgrims to participate in the stone-throwing ritual. Since the fatal 2006 “stampede,” Saudi authorities have installed new crowd routes and emergency ramps to prevent congestion & chaos - Al Hamdulilah!
Image 1 of 10: A Hajj fit for Kings? This phenomenon, under-reported due to the taboo of 'status' along the pilgrimage that celebrates equality ( with pilgrims deliberately dressed in the same simple garb), is when VIP pilgrims cause a whole red carpet palaver. The Huff Post in 2011 ran with "Luxury Hajj: Iraqis Stew As Officials Make Pilgrimage In Style".
Image 1 of 10: Hajj Vegas: What happens in Mecca stays in Mecca? The neon lights & luxury pilgrim services are enough to cater to every rich Hajj fancy you desire. With souvenirs for those who can’t afford the posh pilgrimage - My friend went to Hajj & all I got was this lousy T"- there are 2 helicopter landing pads for you & your entourage to avoid the masses.
Image 1 of 10: Partisan Hajj: A journey all Muslims should undertake - but no need to apply if you’re a supporter of Bashar Assad. The Saudis are a vehement pro-Syrian opposition and have been granting visas according politics - KSA only issues visas to those ‘approved by the Syrian opposition’. Cuddle up to Kerry if you want your pilgrimage privileges.
Image 1 of 10: Contraband Hajj: If Assad’s your main man and you’re a political pariah, fear not - there is a booming black market for Hajj visas that will see you into Saudi despite your Hezbollah hankerings. Even if you do get your unverified visa, you still need a Hajj permit. Failure to have either will cause you to say masalama to Mecca.
Image 1 of 10: What’s in a name? To Hajj or not to Hajj? Just saying Shahada -- uttering those eight words -- is all you need to become a Muslim in God’s eyes! But in the eyes of the Saudi state, you need a certificate, a name change, and a notarization to qualify for the Hajj lottery- and, with the name Michael on your passport, you might not make the cut!
As one of the five pillars of Islam, the ceremonies of Hajj are endowed with the most essential concepts of Islam -worship, spirituality, and social justice. In their quest to fulfill one of Islam’s five pillars as well as recovering a clean slate akin to “just coming out of their mother’s wombs”, it is no surprise that millions of Muslims flock to Mecca each year to undertake this journey of a lifetime -- or for others, for their frequent flyer experience. We at Albawaba thought to go on a journey to explore how the way to the Ka’aba is paved with red tape and, for those who can afford it -- red carpets!
Mecca is supposed to be the only place on earth where people can transcend worldly vices of race, class, ideology, corruption and bureaucracy. But given that Mecca exists in a region broadly that has not escaped association with all the later woes, there is little chance for the Holy City to escape its location on the map. Existing under the patronage of the Saudi state means that its massive bureaucracy controls and monitors Big Brother-style via CCTV cameras every step of the holy journey, ranging from whether you are visa-worthy to your views on the Syrian conflict and your even toilet visits while a religious tourist in the Kingdom!
The Islamic sura, "Let there be no lewdness, abuse or arguing during Hajj” proves that Hajj is about psychological perseverance as much as it is about physical rituals. And when it comes to the subpar service by certain of the Hajj operators, and those 'customers' who complain about not getting their KFC on Mount Arafat, patience does truly prove to be a virtue and a half! Perhaps a more healthy perspective, keeping the sinning and bickering of your Hajj down and religious spirit high is that maybe the Hajj police mean well-- perhaps the Saudi government, with its overbearing anality on Hajj matters, just wants test us and allow us to earn more points with Allah.