With 2 million people gathered in one small city for the hajj, some discomfort was to be expected. And putting up with it was, I initially thought, an opportunity to exercise the patience so very valued by our faith of Islam and in the holiest of cities. So we marched on hopefully.
But with the 40-plus degree heat of Mecca, the harsh policing, the chaotic organisation, the pressure was relentless. As the days went on, I couldn’t have felt a starker contrast between the spiritual tranquility and contentment experienced within the confines of the Grand Mosque and sites, and the anxiety and distress caused by those policing it. Prior to my arrival in Saudi Arabia, accompanying my parents on pilgrimage, my ignorance had led me to believe that one of the richest Muslim countries in the world would be well organised in facilitating the rites of hajj. Now, back in the UK, I am grateful to be alive and still horrified by what I witnessed. I fully understand why hundreds of people were crushed to death and I don’t believe that “God’s will” can be used an excuse.
We’d had a pleasant and spiritual warm-up in the crowded but welcoming streets of Medina. Our group of UK pilgrims remained incredibly organised, my mother’s diabetes was stable and my father, an asthmatic, remained mercifully unaffected by the heat. As a pilgrim, daughter and a GP, I was happy and excited to be heading for Mecca. But the reality was a shock.
Even getting to and from the mosque and other sites was distressing. Accompanying wheelchair users, we had to help them on and off the wheelchairs many times as the pavements were almost knee high with no clear ramps or similar. Considering the number of people with permanent disability or debilitating conditions, this was shocking.
The heat was one of the biggest tests of all, causing many to become exhausted and dehydrated. Yet only a few of the crowded routes had supplies of water. Some of the common pilgrim routes, where the symbolic stoning of Satan takes place for example, were devoid of any water supplies other than the presence of young policemen occasionally squirting random pilgrims’ faces with water.
The manners and communication skills of the stewards and police deployed in and around the mosque were deplorable. With pilgrims from hundreds of countries, one would think that communication in at least one language other than Arabic would be available. This was not the case. Not only that, but their manner of aggressively shouting at even the most softly spoken of pilgrims was both needless and a cause of humiliation for those on the receiving end. Nobody had ever spoken to me or my parents in this way before.
It appeared the only thing the very young policemen were authorised to do was shout the Arabic word for “no” and to barricade entry routes as and when they pleased without warning, offering no alternative: clearly a recipe for a crush or a stampede in any of the holy sites.
We were in the mosque when they barricaded an exit and said we couldn’t leave until the next prayer finished, an hour and a half later. The physical pressure of hundreds of people had started to build up behind us, causing extreme anxiety and hyperventilation. I politely asked first, then literally begged the guards to let us exit as my mum’s diabetic medication was in our hotel which was quite near the mosque. Her sugar levels were dropping, but it made no difference. When we did finally find a pilgrim to translate for us, our exit was still refused. When I almost cried and asked “What happens if she collapses and dies here?”, the response was a shrug of the shoulders: if she dies she dies.
Aisha Khan, a Manchester-based business manager who was part of the same tour group told me a few days later of her anguish after the authorities would not open the barrier to let her husband through to her when she felt very unwell. She physically collapsed. Even then the stewards remained in a small group laughing, not helping him to call for an ambulance. She recalls him running distressed from one side of the road to another pleading for help.
Actually making it into an ambulance was another problem. I saw ambulances stuck in the stopped traffic with no provision for them to manoeuvre or overtake. Having stopped with a group of fellow pilgrims and doctors to help a lady slumped on the ground looking as if she may be having a heart attack, it was infuriating to find that when the so-called paramedics arrived (they appeared to be drivers in uniforms and not medically trained), they refused to even let us tell them what had happened. I partially stepped into the back of the ambulance concerned for the poor lady, to find no medical equipment visible whatsoever. We were shooed off and some of her family were left on the street in tears with no idea as to where the ambulance had gone.
There are numerous other distressing experiences I could relate, as most pilgrims can. But the insistence of some that the deaths of hundreds of people represented God’s will and were therefore unavoidable is something I refuse to accept. I believe Islam is based on reason: unless you have done everything you can within your means to actively avoid a bad situation, you cannot use the excuse of it being God’s will.
Some people who have made the pilgrimage before describe how things are slowly getting better with time. And the Saudi authorities are denying visas to pilgrims if they have done it in the past five years, in an attempt to control the influx. Heavy construction work is being completed at the mosque at the moment (the work indirectly led to the deaths of hundreds of people last month when one of the cranes fell through a roof at the Grand Mosque). But radical changes are required.
Much of the poor management of the hajj stems from the actual functioning of Saudi Arabia itself. Authorities around the holy sites are clearly not allowed to make independent decisions, while members of the royal family and their guests are treated as VIPs, and therefore have no motivation to push the authorities into creating a safe and workable system.
In Mecca I saw Muslims, but I saw little Islam. I did not see compassion from our hosts, I did not see their concern for our welfare. I urge all Muslims, pilgrims or otherwise, not to just accept the above as part of the challenge or experience of hajj, but to raise their voices.