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Mecca journal: My journey starts in Germany - and Yemen

DW reporter Ali Almakhlafi follows the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – and invites all Deutsche Welle readers to join him online.

Portrait of DW's Ali Almakhlafi, as a three-year-old in Yemen

Our reporter's Yemeni childhood helped shape his feelings about Saudi Arabia

Hello there and As-Salamu Alaykum. Let me introduce myself - I'm Ali. Ali Almakhlafi. I'm a journalist from Yemen. I live in Germany. I'm 31 years old. I'm Muslim. And I've never been to Mecca in my entire life. Even though, when considered from distance, I was born and spent the first 19 years of my life "right next door."

Yemen is the poorest country of the Arabian Peninsula and has a common border with Saudi Arabia – one of the richest countries of the region and guardian of Islam's holy sites. From Yemen's capital, Sana'a, it's about a 90-minute flight from there to Mecca. From Germany it takes about six hours.

Reporter, not a pilgrim

Ali Almakhlafi

Ali's journey takes him from Bonn to Mecca.

Yet my journey to Mecca starts here in Germany, the country I live and work in. And I'm deliberately not traveling as a religious pilgrim, but as a neutral journalistic reporter. My main goal is to provide non-Muslim users with insights into the Hajj pilgrimage - just as I was once introduced to Easter, Christmas, and other Christian feasts.

As you may know, according to Saudi Arabia's interpretation of Islam, only Muslims may visit the holy city of Mecca. However, it is allowed to let non-Muslims know about it. This is what I want to do as I tell you about my impressions, discoveries, and encounters with pilgrims from all over the world - and particularly from Germany.

Even many Muslims know little more about the Hajj than the pictures they get on television, which show religious rites and crowds pouring in. I'm sure that there's a lot to find out about the Hajj - so won't you join me on my journey of discovery?

Muslims beginning their ritual pilgrimmage, the Hajj, at Mecca

Praying at the mosque in Mecca

Would you like to know how, exactly, the religious rituals are performed? What safety measures are taken? Whether men and women go on their pilgrimage together? Or whether conflicts between moderate and radical political groups in the Islamic world influence the festivities?

Honestly, I don't know many of the answers to these questions myself. But whatever you may want to learn, I'll try to find it out for you! Please post your questions and suggestions on Deutsche Welle's Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/deutschewelle

Even though I will visit Mecca as a journalist, this is anything but a "typical" reporting assignement to me. Maybe it's like a Catholic-raised journalist reporting from the Vatican: You're keeping a distance and reporting neutrally, but somehow the subject moves you more than, say, a piece about the latest tax reform.

Learning about prophets, and people

So I can't keep all my childhood memories separated from my thoughts about, and preparation for, my first trip to Mecca.

Specifically, my religion class in Taiz, the town I was born in, comes to my mind. They taught us that God is in heaven watching us. That Jews and Christians share a lot of prophets with Muslims except the last prophet and messenger of God: Muhammad. That the citizens of Mecca once chased Muhammad out of the city. And that Muhammad returned to Mecca eight years later and destroyed the statues of false gods that had been built.

As a little boy I was deeply impressed and shaped by these religious basics. Today they inextricably belong to my personal cultural heritage.

Picture of Taiz, Yemen

Our reporter hails from Taiz, in Yemen

Of course, at school, I also learned about the five religious duties of every Muslim, the so-called five pillars of Islam. The Hajj is one of them - a spiritual journey that is to be performed by every Muslim who is healthy enough and can afford to do so.

Examining my picture of Saudi Arabia

I also want to examine my personal picture of Saudi Arabia - which is closely linked to my Yemeni descent. There were times when Yemenis were allowed to enter the country without a visa. Older men, such as my grandfather, used to go on business trips to the country next door and bring us back precious presents.

But there was also a time - when Saudi Arabia and Yemen were at serious odds about the Kuwait War - that Saudi Arabian leaders expelled hundreds of thousands of Yemeni "guest workers" from the country.

During this period, unemployment and poverty increased dramatically in Yemen, and the number of students in my class went from 20 to 120. That is when I realized that Islamic virtues such as solidarity and brotherhood can vanish into thin air when politics come into play. And that a common belief doesn't prevent people from committing human-rights violations.

I wonder what kind of experiences I will have in Mecca? Maybe they'll be very different from what I expect.

Author: Ali Almakhlafi (ds)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn