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Taking The Sacred Hajj Pilgrimage ... VIP Style


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll sit down with MacArthur Genius fellow, Maurice Lim Miller, and talk about what some call his groundbreaking work on poverty.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program when we talk about faith, religion and spirituality. Many of us are familiar with significant spending on religious holidays and rituals like massive Christmas parties and lavish bar mitzvahs.

But now, we want to focus on the luxurious side of a critical ritual for Muslims, the Hajj. Today is Eid Al Adha, but it's the second day of the Hajj. Yesterday, an estimated two million Muslims began the four-day pilgrimage outside Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Every Muslim is required to make this pilgrimage at least once in a lifetime and it can be a transformative experience for the faithful. It can also be hot, crowded and exhausting, but for those who are willing to shell out the big bucks, there are VIP alternatives.

Here to tell us more is Jamal Elshayyal. He's a reporter and senior producer with Al Jazeera English and he joins us from Mina, one of the main sites the pilgrimage outside Mecca. Welcome.

JAMAL ELSHAYYAL: Hi. Good to be with you.

HEADLEE: If you want to get a taste of the Hajj, there's actually a live webcam that streams the Hajj 24 hours a day, so let's take a listen here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Chanting in foreign language).

HEADLEE: So, Jamal Elshayyal, we should explain you're on a cell phone in an extraordinarily crowded city of Mina outside the Hajj, but maybe you can start us off by briefly explaining what the Hajj is and why it's so important for Muslims.

ELSHAYYAL: Well, essentially, Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. The idea behind it, from an Islamic perspective, is to bring all of God's creations on a level playing field and to shed any differences that may be between us due to worldly things, so for example, wealth or race or language or background - to shed that in exchange for two simple white cloths that Muslims wear around them in order to make it impossible for you to know who is the prince, who is the pauper, who is the rich person, who is the poor person and, essentially, bringing together all these different backgrounds, all these different races on one level footing with the acknowledgement that it is what is in your hearts that God will judge you on and not what title you may have in this world or how much money you might have in your bank account.

HEADLEE: And yet, despite all of that, what we're talking about today are VIP alternatives, which seem to be kind of going in the face of what you say is the purpose of the Hajj. Can you explain what the VIP, the luxury options are for the Hajj?

ELSHAYYAL: I think it is a very important topic that you are talking about, but we have to look at it in context. Those who will do this so-called VIP Hajjor something that is a lot more luxurious than the usual pilgrimage is barely even one percent. It is less than 30,000 people you'll find. Rather than, you know, getting stuck in the hustle and bustle and the people traffic, they will pay large amounts of money to companies that essentially use this as a tour service.

So what they will do - they'll put them up in very luxurious hotels and apartments that are overlooking the grand mosque, to the extent where people - for example, rather than going down and praying in the mosque, because their apartment looks over it, they will conduct their five prayers from that hotel room or that apartment and that idea may be one of the indicative signs that (unintelligible).

The authorities here haven't been able to strike the balance between the spiritual aspect of the pilgrimage and the commercial aspect that comes hand-in-hand with any large gathering of any sort. Striking a balance maybe hasn't been done as well or as tastefully as many Muslims would like.

HEADLEE: Tastefully - I would imagine you're talking about the world's second tallest building, the replica of Big Ben, which now towers over the mosque. But, although you say that it's only one percent of pilgrims that choose these VIP packages, the impact of that one percent seems to be pretty severe. I mean, we're talking about security guards going down and clearing a place in the line of pilgrims so they can walk freely and not have to brush up against other pilgrims. We're talking about people whose hotel towers actually obstruct your view of the surrounding hills. What kind of problems is this causing with the other 99 percent of pilgrims?

ELSHAYYAL: Well, you know, say it is a reflection of the mismanagement and inability of those governing authorities in charge of Mecca to ensure that something like that doesn't hinder the pilgrimage. As far as a lot of pilgrims are concerned, though, because so many of the millions of people who've come here literally have been yearning for the chance to come on this journey, many of them have spent their life savings. Others have waited, you know, year after year, their visas being rejected until they finally were able to be part of that quota of those allowed to come to Hajj.

I think, while a lot of them look at these things negatively, but their joy and the euphoria they feel about being in what they consider to be the most holy place, walking in what they consider to be the footsteps of their beloved prophets, that kind of overshadows it. I think it's only when they reminisce, looking back when they go back home that they look at it and they think, oh, you know, this surely shouldn't be like this.

I mean, from my perspective as a journalist looking at it, not from a spiritual or a religious perspective, just from a practical point of view, there are huge question marks as to the wisdom behind how these things have been planned. You look at the trajectory of how the number of pilgrims increases, year on year, and you realize that the grand mosque needs much more expansion.

But, because they constantly build these massive towers, which essentially engulf or suffocate the grand mosque, you are then limiting yourself to how many customers, how many pilgrims can come to you.

So from whichever way you look at it, there really has to be a reassessment by the authorities, as to why and how these things are being done, even - like I say, if it's not in light of the spiritual duty they have to maintain and upkeep the holiest place on earth, as far as Muslims are concerned, even from a commercial perspective, it really doesn't make any sense.

HEADLEE: Jamal Elshayyal is a reporter and senior producer for Al Jazeera English. He joined us by cell phone from Mina, where it's very crowded. He's covering the four day Hajj pilgrimage. Happy Eid to you, Jamal. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELSHAYYAL: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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