The various trials and preparations to be expected when going for Hajj
Going for Hajj or visiting the holy mosques of Makkah and Medina are lifetime dreams for most Muslims. Hajj is obligatory for a person who is physically able and has the financial wherewithal to do it.
A lot of preparation is required to set out for such a journey. Having gathered the necessary money and having mentally prepared, one looks for an agency that would work out the details and facilitate the journey and performance of the rituals involved.
With the all-encompassing IT a host of information is already available to people opting to go for Hajj. These days it is also much easier to communicate and find an agency of one’s choosing. After selecting an authentic agency and paying the amount, the rest is arranged by them, including the visa, air ticket, etc, as per one’s choosing and commitments made.
The local agent
Stepping into the office of a Hajj agent at some bustling city centre, a soothing Arab incense named Oud tickles the nostrils, the light smoke gently rises out of the decorated incense stand. Typically one is ushered into a cozy room and perches on a comfortable couch. Wet towels are offered; a cup of Kawa; some dates and nuts — all follow on a nicely presented tray.
Then the proprietor approaches in a humble voice congratulating the decision to go for the divine journey, offering different packages for the Hajj giving some details of the accommodation, food, transportation arrangement for the event, and then he proceeds to convince the prospective pilgrim of their overall wellbeing while his agency takes charge.
He also offers a tour plan of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and several other places of interest. He assures of facilities such as close proximity to the holy mosque, a three-, four- or five-star accommodation commensurate with the payment and a flawless journey during Hajj to Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifa and so on.
A person deciding for Hajj definitely gets spiritually and emotionally captivated. There is little hesitation to spend any amount of the hard-earned money for the sojourn to ensure desired comfort and safety on their journey.
There is a big business built centreing the rituals of Hajj worldwide. The agencies promoting and supporting Hajj tourism have got to invest in skilled personnel both in the host country and KSA to coordinate the whole gamut of activity — liaison with the Saudi government authority and good communication among the other service providers in addition to spending money.
The fact that such agencies are required to maintain their offices both in KSA and home country well justifies any service charge or profit margin they deserve for letting people go for such a significant event. But the pilgrims have a right to expect some kind of transparency and accountability from the agents.
The word Muallim has great significance which means a guide, mentor, teacher, leader, guardian, etc. It is obligatory to go under a Muallim for the performance of Hajj. Muallims are persons nominated by the Saudi government who control all activities concerning pilgrims including transportation, accommodation in hotels, and in particular the events of the five days during actual Hajj.
They also act as the medium between Hajj agents from various countries and the government authority in KSA. All Hajis must belong to some Muallim for their identification and organization into Maktab. Though the term seems quite lofty, frustratingly not much of activity of Muallims can be seen on ground. Their physical presence or those of their representatives are hardly witnessed by pilgrims.
Modern day Hajj
I heard an experienced Hajj agent who had been organizing Hajj for the last twelve years who conveyed that his experience of more than a decade was not much of use this year because of digitization and modernization at the Saudi end. Later we found this was just a lame excuse to cover up some of his failures.
Yes, the Saudi authorities have modernized, resorted to IT and made things simpler and disciplined in many cases. Hotels in Makkah and adjoining areas have been given tasfia — meaning clearance to be rented out for use by pilgrims. Such hotels having tasfia only can be rented out from which the government earns its slice of revenue through transparent transactions.
The journey between Makkah, Mina, Arafat, Muzdalifa, Jamara has been connected with shuttle trains which are very efficient and reach the destination within a few minutes. The train system can carry 50 thousand passengers in buses per day. This has almost done away with the traditional road bound system where pilgrims had to wait for hours for getting into a bus. The buses would take an uncertain number of hours on the clogged roads.
Pedestrian movement has been prioritized thus allowing unhindered movement to all destinations through tunnels where required. Pilgrims need to get an armband with a QR Code inscribed which allows them entry to the train station. This is to be ensured by the Muallim or Hajj agent beforehand.
Risk of exploitation
To save money, some hajj agents avoided this booking and resorted to the old system of renting buses which was most chaotic, uncertain, and full of sufferings. In particular, women and elderly found it very difficult to avail such bus rides, because three times as many passengers would fight each other to get into the bus than the bus could hold.
We came across a Hajj agent who rented a few hotel suites in the prominent Clock Tower very close to the Majsidul Haram in Makkah. This he did through an underhand transaction with a Saudi owner for which he had no valid proof of payment and documents. This particular hotel was actually not a functional hotel and as such did not have the clearance.
The cunning Bangladeshi Hajj agent exploited his pilgrims by showing the video of some suites so close to the holy mosque, that whoever saw it felt tempted to stay in a place at such close proximity. The pilgrims didn’t hesitate to pay even three lakhs more than the usual government rate to ensure their stay in such a coveted location.
It is assumed that the Saudi owner also benefited from the monetary transactions which weren’t transparent. But at some point in time there was a clash between the two which resulted in disconnecting water supply of the pilgrims on three occasions. This was horrifying as the poor victims suffered in spite of paying very high prices. The pilgrims were so helpless that they couldn’t lodge a complaint to any authority. The fact that all their passports are kept with the Muallim or agent is intimidating enough to refrain from any such step which might invite further trouble.
Accommodation and facilities in Mina was another concern for Bangladeshi pilgrims. Bangladeshis were accommodated in D-type tents which were very cramped with no gap between beds. Praying, going out for the toilet, and food was a big ordeal as one had to cross over so many fellow pilgrims. The washing facilities and toilets were rather insufficient causing hundreds to queue up and wait for their turn in great discomfort.
The Bangladesh government needs to take up the issue with Saudi authority to lessen the sufferings of pilgrims in Mina for the future. Increasing the number of toilets and bathing facilities, double or triple the current number should not be a big deal for the Saudi government.
In addition to punitive measures against unscrupulous Hajj agents for cheating and ill-treating the pilgrims, they need to be counselled and motivated to maintain transparency in their business transactions and not to resort to twisted ways while dealing with such a noble venture.
Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor.
Source: Dhaka Tribune.