This writer was opportune to embark on lesser pilgrimage(Umra) to the holy land of Saudi Arabia, i.e., Mecca and Medina. Unlike the holy pilgrimage (Hajj) which is obligatory for those who can afford it, at least once in life time, Umra is not compulsory but recommended for spiritual upliftment. Many Muslims prefer to embark on Umra during the Holy Month of Ramadan for complete devotion and prayer devoid of worldly interference associated with official duties and other business endeavors.
While many wealthy Nigerians prefer foreign airlines, even some transiting through some European countries, to get to Saudi Arabia, the poor travel with Nigerian Airways, which is not consistent in its operation. There is also Kabo Air, a privately-owned indigenous airline, which has been operating the Saudi route for more than a decade. Though poorly managed in terms of time-schedules, sitting arrangement, ticketing and other minor services that are effectively provided by local airlines on domestic routes, the poor passengers’ solace on preference for Kabo Airline is that in its nearly three decades of existence it has never been involved in any air disaster and is affordable.
The poor passengers on the Abuja-Jedda route had to spend more than ten hours behind schedule waiting fruitlessly in the airport before their eventual departure the following day without any meal even when the time for the breaking of the fast caught them on board.
Every pilgrim is forewarned on his visa of stiffer penalties for crimes and drug trafficking. The fear of screening by Saudi security agents is the beginning of wisdom when one recalled that just recently a member of National Assembly was released after several months in detention for allegedly breaking the law. But surprisingly most of the pilgrims on this particular day were treated with utmost respect, in fact the checking was done with utmost despatch and decency.
For transportation to Medina, the first port of call for the Umra, a taxi with complete state-of -the-art facility was chartered. All registered taxis, buses and pickup vans are fitted with Air Conditioners in addition to being road worthy. The four-hour trip to Medina was done in the middle of the night, the favorable traveling period for most people in that land. The dual carriage road networks without potholes would surely make Michael Schumaker, the world car racer green with envy. There are no unnecessary police checkpoints with associated intimidation, extortion as the police are said to be well remunerated with additional personal cellular sets to ease the task of policing through effective communication. Can you believe a millionaire in a limousine pleading with a police corporal, for mercy after disobeying the traffic?
Medina is the first city to embrace the religion of Islam and after the demise of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), he was buried in its holy mosque. The occasion of the sacrifice was a gathering of diverse human beings. Some were darker than ebony and others whiter than milk while others were of mixed complexions and colorless. They were also distinctive in physical embodiments – tall, short, medium, fat and thin. From their complexions and bodily structures, you could easily identify the Asians, Americans, Africans, Europeans and Middle Easterners at the sacrificial mission.
Being a fasting period, a pilgrim may not worry about how to break his fast as wealthy Muslims provide free meal for the fhutur. This range from recommended fruit of date, apple, orange, yoghourt, bread and full meal in designated places after the Sallah. The few days in Medina afforded one the opportunity to visit places of monumental importance to Islam like the grave yard of Sayiddinah Hamza, the First Mosque in Quba, the holy battle fields etc. Muslims are constantly reminded that they should seek for forgiveness and favour from Almighty God and pray for His Blessing to the Holy Prophets and believers. The weather in Medina is cold and accommodating unlike other parts of the Kingdom.
After a few days, we took another taxi in the midnight on a five-hour journey to Mecca, where the Holy Prophet received the first revelations. We had to bath on transit and put on white garments before we entered the holy land. Here too, were mixtures of people from different backgrounds. The big mosque conveniently accommodates about two millions pilgrims that perform the Umra without any obstacle. Unlike Medina, the weather here is hot but most houses like the mosques are fitted with air conditioners.
In the holy mosque where millions worship, the equality of the rich and the poor, the leaders and the led was evident as everyone was on his own without body guards, protocol and ushers. A Nigerian General of the WAI fame was alone in the midst of the tight crowd where he was even trampled upon but never bothered. Many Nigerian political juggernauts including members of the executive, legislative, and judicial arms, apart from corporate chief executives were not left out in self humility before the Almighty.
The only difference between the mighty and the poor manifests after the prayer when people go to their abodes. While the poor live in the Mosque or cheaper accommodations with minimum amenities for comfort, the rich stay in luxurious five star hotels like Hilton, Sheraton and Intercontinental whose average rate is around $1000 ( One Thousand Dollars) per night. Most of our governors, legislators and very rich business men stayed comfortably in these hotels where sometime they had political rendezvous after prayers with loyalists. The consolation of the poor is that the Almighty God doesn’t judge by ostentatious attires or tasteful abode but good conduct and spirituality.
The day of mourning was when tears flew freely from the worshipers as the Imam at one of the prayers lamented the predicament of the Muslim World when some of their just causes are termed terrorism, but when attacked as self-defense. He therefore sought for God’s guidance and ask the Muslims to reexamine themselves critically and promote the uniqueness and nobility of the Islam as most peaceful religion.
Average Saudis apart from their devotion to the almighty God, are passionate about football game. Most shop attendants know the name of Nigerian football stars and their exploits like Kanu, Rashid Yekini and Amokachi. In such euphoria, I proudly identified myself as a Nigerian and sometimes benefitted from some special discount. But such home pride is limited. I could remember a day I was confronted by an educated Arab feeling disgusted with some black female beggars who constitute themselves into nuisances in the street and asked whether I was a Nigerian, I shook my head in denial. It is quite disheartening to see some people traveling to the holy land to tarnish the image of the country just because of money through begging. It seems Nigerians are major culprits.
Another unbecoming attitude of Nigerians is in monarchial shopping where a person buys a lorry load of goods as if the purpose of the pilgrimage is not for worship but trade. Islam is very clear on this when the Holy Prophet said everybody is judged by his intention. Those who go to holy land to worship will be rewarded accordingly and those whose aim is to trade or shop would be rewarded accordingly.
As a perfect Islamic country, education is a must for everybody. Employment is provided for every citizen at mature age with decent accommodations and living wages that discourage corruption, banditry and thuggery in whatever guise. Interestingly, many Nigerian Christians are employed and are working freely in different fields of endeavor such as in medicine, engineering, and teaching professions. It is on record that for decades they have had constant and uninterrupted water and power supplies. It is surprising to note that with the influx of millions of people of different ethnic, tribal, racial backgrounds across the globe, they hardly witness violent protests and demonstrations. This may be because they are well educated on Islamic principles and practices that admonish true love, tolerance, forgiveness and endurance in the face of hardships. What a civilized world from western civilization!
As a country governed by the rule of law, even though the government is against the alleged act of terrorism branded on Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi authority neither visited its hostility against the man’s sin on the family nor on the multibillion business investments of his extended family in the Kingdom.
On way home, Nigerian pilgrims faced another herculean task of boarding a flight where traveling agents were busy selling new tickets an act that deprived others with legitimate return tickets the comfort of easy passage. After long hours of waiting, we landed in Abuja Airport without our checked-in luggage. We are lucky our airline was not over-boarded by passengers who could not get seats as it was the case with another batch from Jedda to Nigeria.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib was originally published in Thisday December 15, New Nigeria December 20, 2002.