Sunday, February 14, 2010

Haj Review: Testing Your Nerves

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Friday, February 14, 2003

Covering Haj tests your nerves, your patience and your driving skills (our means of transport was not a car but a two-wheeler). It requires stamina and courage. Above all, it demands a complete detachment from the events on the ground. If you ever thought being a journalist was a glamorous profession, think again: It requires dedication and perseverance, and the ability to deal with extremes.

For instance, when the paramedics were busy attending to people who had lost consciousness while performing one of the rituals earlier in the week, we were busy either capturing the scene on camera or talking to eyewitnesses for the quotes on which our tribe relies. This detachment is difficult, to say the least, because a journalist cannot and does not function in isolation from his fellow human beings. When the three of us failed to detach ourselves from the events, we found ourselves baby-sitting a three-month-old who had been separated from his mother on the plains of Arafat, or crying along with the three Iraqi pilgrims — Fadl Attoohan and the two women who were accompanying him — who were praying for their country's well-being. There were moments when we reached the limits of our patience. But we persevered and our perseverance paid off. In the end, we came away with some very good stories.

We were struck by the investigative qualities of our colleague Essam Al-Ghalib, who joined Arab News just three months ago. None of us had realized that there was a fantastic photographer waiting to be discovered, as well as a first-rate journalist. This year's Haj gave him the opportunity to discover that he had yet another quality. He would lie on his stomach, or perch precariously on the mountains, to get his brilliant pictures. Considering everything he went through on a personal level during the Haj, he can already be described as a veteran journalist.

Our other team member, Hasan Adawi, was the vital link between the two of us as he knows the topography of Mina, Arafat and Makkah like the back of his hand. He always knew exactly where we were in the sea of white at Arafat. He knew the shortest route from Arafat to Mina. And yes, his skills on the moped are only comparable with an experienced jockey of an Arab steed.

We would have been simply unable to function without him. Others like Jamal Banoon of Al-Eqtisadiah, Mowafaq Al-Nowaisir of Asharq Al-Awsat and Abdul Mughni Al-Ghalib, who have been covering the Haj for years now, were very helpful in guiding us through the day's events. Mughni Al-Ghalib is rightly described as the father of Haj coverage.

Haj cannot really be described in words. Each person's experience will be different and unique. On the plains of Arafat we met many pilgrims who were withering away in the blazing sun, yet many others felt the weather was quite pleasant. But one thing is certain: Haj draws Muslims closer to their spiritual roots. The pilgrims get an enormous spiritual energy, which transcends much of the physical difficulty. Remaining calm is no easy task, whether you are a journalist or a pilgrim.

Moving around the tightly packed hordes can be irritating. The intensity of the experience can elevate even simple tasks into a test of faith. Officials and businesses supply plenty of water, but gaining entry to bathrooms can be an arduous process, and access to mosques and other holy sites can verge on the impossible. The constant crush of hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims, each trying to perform the same rites at the same time in a limited space in unbearable weather, compounds the stress and heightens the demand for good physical conditioning and mental resilience.

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