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The Hajj

November 15, 2010

The Hajj has begun. After an eventful journey, DW reporter Ali Almakhlafi has reached Mecca, and started answering DW users' questions. But first - a sudden change of clothes.

Madjid al-Haram mosque at night
Some 3 million pilgrims make the Hajj each yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

On Sunday, Nov. 14, the moment had come: Two million pilgrims from all around the world, and I was right there in the middle of them. I visited the holy al-Haram Mosque, and saw the Kaaba at its center. I've got to admit it: I was completely mesmerized. There is really such a big difference between seeing it in pictures or reading about it in articles, and actually standing in front of it.

Hadsch in Mekka 2010
About 100,000 security forces are there to protect some 2 million pilgrimsImage: AP

I've been to Cologne Cathedral, the Vatican, and the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul before. But the Kaaba is special to me. Childhood memories of religion class in Yemen come up - and somehow things seem to have come full circle.

Originally, I arrived with a group of pilgrims, but I lost them in the crowd. Never mind, I say to myself; it's good to be alone, for I first need to digest this experience by myself.

Despite the Kaaba's deep impact on me, I'm still here as a journalist. Well, as a journalist that looks like a pilgrim. And just how did that come about? Let me tell you.

After facing some unexpected problems, I decided to change my polo shirt and jeans for the pilgrim's robes. I decided I don't want to be recognized as a visitor anymore. I've had enough trouble with that already.

Hadsch Pilgerfahrt nach Mekka
Frankfurt Airport: Pilgrims, Saudis, and foreigners heading to Jeddah in Saudi ArabiaImage: DW/Almakhlafi

You really feel misplaced among the masses of Muslim pilgrims if you are smooth-shaven and casually-dressed. In fact, I've felt like this since I left Frankfurt Airport: The other passengers gave me startled looks. And at the check-in counter of Saudi Airlines, none of the employees expected me to have the special Hajj-visa in my passport.

Pilgrims need to get special luggage stickers, so that their cases arrive on the separate Hajj terminal at Jeddah airport. Well, I got the stickers and my luggage arrived at the right terminal as well. But I didn't.

Hadsch Pilgerfahrt nach Mekka
American movies with Arabic subtitles are shown on the airplaneImage: DW/Almakhlafi

After my flight, I found myself at the terminal for non-pilgrims. The employees at Jeddah airport had sent me there because of my "civilian" getup. There I was – surrounded by international tourists and business people. After more than an hour of confusion, I finally got the last shuttle bus to the proper terminal at around midnight. I was the only passenger… or, the only one who was late.

An American in Mecca

That couldn't have happened to Jack (name changed). Jack is American. He converted to Islam a few years ago. We first meet at Frankfurt airport. I ask him about his white Hajj-clothes. I want to know how he feels in this outfit. After all, most people from the West would only wear clothes like that to a costume party.

Hadsch Pilgerfahrt nach Mekka
A stewardess with a modern interpretation of a traditional headscarfImage: DW/Almakhlafi

"This probably looks funny to some of the people here, I guess," says Jack. "I can tell by their looks." But Jack doesn't care. "The Hajj-outfit is meant to be simple and modest. It reveals that religious beliefs don't distinguish between rich and poor, black and white, etc." Jack makes his comments as a Muslim, but the way he says them, with his typical American accent, it almost sounds more like an American ideal.

Flying, Shopping, Watching CNN

Aboard my plane to Jeddah, I make some more interesting observations. For example: Most pilgrims watch CNN. Some of them even watch American movies. However, the movies' love scenes are carefully retouched, even though they are rather harmless from a Western point of view. The stewardesses wear headscarves and speak English – even with the Arab passengers. And many of the bearded men, who first appeared to be rather strict, conservative, and humorless, turn out to be very friendly family men. They play happily with their kids and advise their loosely veiled wives on what makeup to buy from the choice of duty free products.

Hadsch Pilgerfahrt nach Mekka
The Hajj terminal at Jeddah airport: 2 million people arrive here - with their luggageImage: DW/Almakhlafi

Before I finally put on my new pilgrim's outfit, I first want to thank all the DW users for commenting on my first diary entries on the English, German, and Arabic DW Facebook pages - and for wishing me a safe trip. I would like to reply to a question posted by Hans Youssef Ernst from Germany on the Arabic page: "I'm a Christian and I would like to accompany my Muslim friends to religious feasts in Mecca some day. Do you think that this will be possible in the future?"

Dear Hans Youssef, I don't dare to try and make a forecast. As far as I know, the Koran doesn't explicitly state that non-Muslims aren't allowed to visit Mecca - but, as always, this is a matter of interpretation. From a Saudi perspective, non-Muslims are definitely not allowed to visit the holy sites of Mecca. As an Islamic scholar told me here in Mecca: "That should be accepted, just like Western constitutions need to be accepted by Muslims living in Europe. By no means, however, you should mistake this as a sign of a lack respect or even contempt for non-Muslims."

Hadsch. Pilgerfahrt nach Mekka
DW reporter Ali Almakhlafi can move on after a short delayImage: DW/Ali Almakhlafi

Among Islamic scholars, you can find different opinions about this topic. There's even a prominent politician who strongly criticizes the current prohibition: Libya's Muammar al-Gaddafi – who's clearly not known to be a good friend of the Western world. Five years ago, Gaddafi asked for Christians and Jews to be allowed to visit Mecca. However, so far nothing changed…

This Monday, November 15, I want to experience the pilgrim's prayers at Mount Arafat and I will then attend the Feast of Sacrifice at Mina. I've already collected quite a number of voices from other pilgrims. I'll tell you more about them in my next diary entry.

Author: Ali Alkmakhlafi (ds)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn