ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42

Preying on pilgrims?

By Ayesha R. Rafiq and Ayesha Inoon

Once a year, the Holy City of Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the epicentre of the Muslim world, undergoes an electrifying transformation. Over two million Muslims from around the world converge on this desert city in an unsurpassed show of unity, humility and equality, as they answer the call of Allah by performing the Hajj pilgrimage.

Undertaking (at least once in a lifetime) this sacred pilgrimage which has followed in the footsteps of Prophet Muhammad for over 14 centuries is the bounden duty of every Muslim who is physically and financially able to do so. It is the ultimate religious achievement for every Muslim and seen as an opportunity to begin their spiritual lives anew.

Invoking Allah’s blessings at Mecca

The journey, however, is not without its trials. To begin with, the cost of the pilgrimage is often prohibitive, averaging as much as Rs. 500,000 per couple, which for many, represents their life savings. Added to this are the spartan desert conditions and the more rigorous physical rituals the pilgrimage entails, such as the symbolic stoning of Satan at Mina, and the seven-fold run between the hills of Safa and Marwa, all making the Hajj not only a pilgrimage of faith but also a gruelling test of patience and endurance.

Owing to the huge demand on the limited resources available in Saudi Arabia during the Hajj, pilgrims are unable to make satisfactory travel and accommodation arrangements for themselves. In Sri Lanka a large number of Hajj tour operators fill this vacuum by undertaking, for a package fee, to procure visas, flight bookings, accommodation and transport, as well as provide religious guidance on performing the Hajj, to groups numbering from 45 to 500 pilgrims.

In recent years though, a majority of Haajis (pilgrims returning from the Hajj) have complained that unscrupulous practices by the tour operators often leave an astronomical gap between what they promised and deliver, depriving them of the opportunity to perform the pilgrimage in a fulfilling manner.

The problem begins with the lack of adequate supervision over the tour operators. In the absence of a separate Ministry for Muslim Affairs, one of the responsibilities of the Department of Muslim Affairs (DMA) is to supervise and regulate local Hajj tour operators. But with inadequate formal guidelines, the Department is in a quandary as to how exactly regulation is to be carried out.

Pilgrims on the move in packed vehicles at Mina

Currently, a total of 64 tour operators are registered with the DMA, Director of the Department I. Ameer pointed out. The only requirements to obtain registration are that the tour operator be a Muslim, display some knowledge of the operational procedure involved in the pilgrimage and have a bank balance of Rs. 2 million. Thereafter, for an annual registration fee of Rs. 50,000 and a refundable deposit of Rs. 300,000, a licence to operate a tour group can be obtained.

As a result of these lenient regulations, mushroom agencies spring up overnight, all offering similar facilities for various package prices. The pilgrims who have no way of ascertaining the quality of services offered by each operator, receive several rude shocks during the course of the pilgrimage.

For A.S.M. Misbah, a recent pilgrim, the problems began as soon as they arrived in Mecca. Having been promised rooms within walking distance of the Grand Mosque, where the pilgrims congregate for the five daily prayers and spend most of their time in worship, the distance turned out to be over 10 km from the Mosque, entailing long walks under the scorching desert sun. “If we had been in the location we were promised, we could have spent much more time performing meritorious deeds, rather than wasting time and energy travelling,” he complained.
The accommodation also holds many surprises, he said. The star class facilities his group was promised turned out to be temporarily unoccupied large buildings. Added to this, having been promised accommodation of four people per room, as many as 10 people - who are often strangers to each other - have to share rooms and sanitation facilities.

The pilgrims also charge that the rooms in Mecca and Medina, the two main cities of the pilgrimage, are only booked in advance for the first few days, after which they languish in uncomfortable conditions far away from the promised locations, while the agents scout around for cheap rooms which would lower the cost they incur, notwithstanding the package rate charged at the outset.

Vice President of the Sri Lanka Hajj Tour Operators Association and Managing Director of F & F Travels, F. Mohamed, however refuted these allegations. “About a month before the commencement of the Hajj, all tour operators have to visit Saudi and sort out all procedures, including booking adequate transportation and accommodation facilities for the entire duration of the pilgrimage. It is only after we have satisfied all these requirements that the South Asian Establishment (SAE) for Hajj in Saudi Arabia - the body overseeing Hajj procedures for the South Asian countries - will grant us the licence to bring a tour group. So there is no way such incidents can occur,’ he said.

The question then arises as to why the majority of pilgrims echo the same complaint.

The second stage of the pilgrimage is at Mina, where pilgrims leave the relative comfort of their rooms to sleep in tents on the desert ground. A 14-square foot tent area is meant to accommodate around six people but Mrs. F. Samsudeen, another disappointed pilgrim, complained that tent space is sold to Sri Lankans living in the UAE who do not arrive with any particular group, resulting in as many as 18 people having to share one tent.

Mr. Mohamed however said it is the Mutawaffi or the religious guides provided by the Saudi Government, and not the agents themselves who engaged in these practices. “During the Hajj we have to take procedural guidance from the Mutawaffi, and if we are asked to accommodate more people in a tent, we have to do it,” he said.

With the magnitude of the crowds that the annual pilgrimage attracts combined with the harsh weather conditions, many pilgrims often fall ill. While Mr. Ameer stressed that every year the DMA sends along an adequately equipped medical mission at its own expense, this turns out to be of little use to the pilgrims as no one including the tour operators themselves have any idea of how to locate the doctors.

Among the many other complaints the pilgrims have is that the religious guidance promised by the operators is rarely available. Very often the religious scholars the tour operators advertise to draw crowds, are themselves paying customers who are performing the Hajj and thereby not duty-bound to guide the pilgrims.

The failure by the operators to ensure proper transportation facilities for the pilgrims, results in more hardship. “I saw several Haajis fainting on the road after having walked long distances in the heat of the day or the freezing cold of the night,” Mr. Misbah said. The pilgrims' health is made worse by the sanitation facilities and poor quality of food offered. I even saw rice being washed in filthy toilets,” he shuddered.

Living in a foreign land, unfamiliar with the language and forbidden to assert themselves, it is during the Hajj that a Muslim needs guidance more than at any other time, Reyyaz Salley, Vice President of the Association of Sri Lankan Muslims in North America, an active campaigner for the rights of the pilgrims, pointed out. “However many tour operators consider their duty done when they show them the way to the site, and the poor Haaji is compelled to copy strangers and hope that his Hajj will be accepted. Although the agents blame most of the inconveniences on the Mutawaffi, in reality, for an extra fee better facilities can definitely be secured, especially since the rates charged by local operators are the same as those charged by foreign operators who provide much better facilities,” he said.

While most of the complaints are against the tour operators, a lack of guidance from the Sri Lankan Government also seems to be adding fuel to the fire. The main issue, as Mr. Salley pointed out, is that a different Government Minister is appointed each year to oversee the Hajj, whereas if the same Minister was in charge, he could devote his energies to developing a strong relationship with the Saudi Government.

Another suggestion is that the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi Arabia takes over the responsibility of overseeing the tour operators once they arrive in Mecca, as they would be more familiar with the country, Government procedure etc. But Mr. Ameer said that numerous such suggestions to the Minister in charge of the Hajj every year have gone unheeded.

At the end of the day, what must be kept in mind is that for many, performing the Hajj is the culmination of a lifelong dream, and all parties concerned should make a more concerted effort to ensure that the pilgrims are given the care and guidance they deserve as they embark on a spiritual journey of a lifetime.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.