Adam walks 7,000kms on foot, Halima waited 10 years for Hajj

Overseas pilgrims rejoice after two-year Covid absence: Qataris end long wait for the pilgrimage

By: AFP
Published: 11:02 AM, 6 Jul, 2022
Adam walks 7,000kms on foot, Halima waited 10 years for Hajj
Caption: Adam and Halima.
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Of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims arriving in Makkah this week for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, perhaps none had a more arduous journey than Adam Mohammed, a 53-year-old electrical engineer from the United Kingdom.

Adam Mohammed, who is of Iraqi-Kurdish origin, decided last year to travel on foot to Saudi Arabia, a journey of more than 7,000 kilometres (4,350 miles) that took him through nine countries before he crossed over from Jordan into the northwestern Saudi town of Tabuk.

The trip was made all the more dramatic by the fact that when he started his trek 11 months ago, pushing a cart in front of him that contained his food and other supplies, he had no idea whether he would be able to access the holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah.

It was only in April that Saudi Arabia, which barred overseas pilgrims in 2020 and 2021 as part of efforts to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic, announced that one million Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, would be able to participate this year.

Now safely in Makkah, some 15 kilograms lighter than when he started, Mohammed has no regrets. "I cried when I first arrived. It's an unbelievable feeling," he told AFP. 

"My trip was exhausting. I stopped in many places for rest. But I was focused on one thing: I am 53 years old, so what if I spare 11 months on the road to reach the house of God? It's doable."

Adam Mohammed said Saudi authorities granted him and his wife and two daughters, who have flown from the UK to the Gulf kingdom, a permit to participate in the Hajj, which consists of a series of religious rites completed in Makkah and surrounding areas of western Saudi Arabia.

Most of the other foreigners performing the rite have been selected via a lottery system. 

- 'It is my dream' -

One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj must be undertaken by all able-bodied Muslims who have the means at least once in their lives.

But pandemic restrictions forced countless would-be pilgrims based outside Saudi Arabia to put their plans on hold.

Usually one of the world's largest religious gatherings, about 2.5 million people participated in 2019, before the pandemic began.

The following year, foreigners were blocked and the total number of worshippers was capped at 10,000 to stop the hajj from turning into a global super-spreader.

That figure rose to 60,000 fully vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents in 2021.

Hosting the Hajj is a matter of prestige and a powerful source of legitimacy for Saudi rulers. 

The ban on overseas pilgrims caused deep disappointment among Muslims worldwide, who typically save for years to take part.

Though the number is much higher this year, there are still some restrictions: participants must be Muslims aged under 65 who are fully vaccinated and can submit a negative Covid-19 PCR result from a test taken within 72 hours of travel.

The Hajj officially begins Wednesday, and Makkah is already overrun with worshippers who, like Mohammed, are relieved to have finally reached their destination after long, stressful waits.

A 30-year-old Russian pilgrim who gave her name as Halima said she had been imagining her stay in Makkah for more than a decade. 

The Hajj costs at least $5,000 per person, and Halima said she shared her story with friends to drum up funds for both her and her father to come. 

"Yesterday was the first time I saw the Holy Kaaba," she said, referring to the large black cubic structure at the centre of the Grand Mosque. "It is my dream to be here, and now I am living it."

After blockade, Qataris end long wait for Hajj

After years of a regional blockade and the pandemic, this hajj will be "completely different" for Masoud al-Ali as he and other Qataris are finally able to rejoin the hallowed Muslim pilgrimage.

"This is not the first time that I perform the hajj, however it is completely different," he told AFP. "My feeling cannot be described... returning to perform Hajj rituals after five full years."

Qataris have been unable to take part in the pilgrimage to Islam's holiest city of Mecca since 2017, when Saudi Arabia led a diplomatic, trade and transport shut-out of their small, wealthy Gulf archipelago.

When the blockade was finally lifted in January last year, the coronavirus pandemic ruled overseas visitors out of the annual event, one of the five pillars of Islam.

"We were looking at the Holy Lands and regretting those days. We had a deep longing to visit," Ali said ahead of this year's Hajj, which starts on Wednesday. 

Qatar shares a land border with Saudi Arabia, but for the people of the gas-rich emirate, Islam's holiest sites had remained tantalisingly out of reach.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Doha over allegations it supported extremists and was too close to arch-rival Iran -- allegations Doha denied.

Qatar, host of this year's World Cup, is again on friendly terms with its neighbours after diplomatic rapprochement replaced the rancour of recent times.

Now thousands of Qataris are among the 850,000 foreigners allowed to perform this year's hajj.

The number of pilgrims is capped at one million -- still much lower than the 2.5 million in 2019 -- for Covid reasons.

Between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning, the Qatari pilgrims left Doha on flights bound for Jeddah, the Red Sea city which is the gateway to Mecca, the official Qatar News Agency said.

"It is a different and exceptional hajj season" after the five-year hiatus, said Hatem al-Mansoori, who is leading one of the nine Qatari groups authorised to take worshippers.

"All the pilgrims are happy, relaxed and all is well. Everyone was looking forward to this moment when they would return to perform the hajj rituals."

Mohamed Gohar, who is leading another Qatari group, said the initial quota of 1,080 people was raised to about 3,000 after it was five times oversubscribed.

"It is a great feeling to reach this holy place after five years of absence, and the greatest is the return of the brotherly bond with our brothers in the kingdom. We are one family," Gohar said by telephone from Mecca. 

"We have found a good welcome from the Saudi authorities who removed all obstacles and eased all procedures," he said, adding: "The water has returned to its normal course."

AFP

Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.