Hajj is Islamic pilgrimages to holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia which is only compulsory for those that could afford it, while Umra is the lesser Hajj which is optional and supererogatory. Most Muslims undertake the lesser Hajj during Ramadan, month of fast.
Pilgrims perform the religious obligation for personal spiritual upliftment and obedience to God. Nevertheless some people embark on the pilgrimage for other reasons, such as high profile networking, politicking, commercial purposes and consolidation of matrimonial vows. There are instances where daring beggars sponsor their trips to the holy land in order to beg for alms.
Considering the stressful and demanding nature of assignments as the spokesperson of the Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), I chose to go for the Umrah to seek solace in the presence of God and put behind me the pressure of attending to recurring natural and human-induced disasters such as floods, rainstorm, building collapse, bomb explosions and road accidents which also occur in other countries.
Initially the Director General of NEMA, Muhammad Sani-Sidi refused to grant my leave for the spiritual retreat, insisting that there were urgent emergencies that required physical interventions, relief distributions and advocacies on Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). On Friday August 19, 2011, after attending to such crucial assignments in some states, I flew to Jeddah International Airport in Saudi Arabia.
An average of 15 million people visit Saudia Arabia annually and mostly for religious purposes although non-Muslims remain formally prohibited from entering the cities of Mecca and Medina. During my visit, about 5 million Muslims performed the Umrah who came from various backgrounds, colours and ethnicities, mainly from Middle East, Asia, Europe and Africa.
Saudis have transformed their towns surrounded by mountains in the desert into modern mega cities. Developers continuously embark on gargantuan projects, multi-storey hotels, restaurants, mega shopping plazas and luxury apartments. There are no signs of penury but rich cultural heritage and splendid infrastructures: beautiful landscapes, memorable monuments, good road networks, functional factories and highly receptive people. The cities brightly illuminated due to constant electricity supply; yet potable water gushes out of the taps in torrent from a desert country; almost all places have cooling systems due to hot weather temperature.
Accommodations are available for the pilgrims ranging from leading luxury Hotels to cheaper apartments as well as free spaces for those who would rather stay in the mosques for continuous prayers. The security personnel and volunteers courteously control traffic of massive crowds and are so helpful in guiding pilgrims. Due to the strict sharia law that provide harshest punishments for offenders, cases of stealing, robbery, kidnapping, hostage-taking and immoral behaviours are strange words here as shops are left open during praying period.
Having put Nigeria behind me, I was in the grand mosque of Mecca on August 26, 2011 being the last Friday of the Ramadan. The inner and outer parts of the mosque had over a million pilgrims in attendance being a unique spiritual day. As the Imam uttered the ‘Salam alaikum’ to end the noon prayers, I received an emergency call about an explosion in United Nations (UN) House in Abuja, Nigeria. Text and email messages inundated my mobile set from representatives of foreign media in Nigeria, especially CNN, Reuters, AP, Blomberg, BBC among others who always like to authenticate information from reliable sources. As PR practice I was in touch with NEMA officials in Abuja for updates as I also issued Press releases through my mobile phone.
In the evening I received a text message from NEMA boss who had arrived Mecca in the company of the Nigeria’s delegation led by the Vice President Namadi Sambo. Sani-Sidi asked me to meet him the Makkah King’s Palace where the Nigeria’s delegation was hosted by the government of Saudi.
By the time we met at the magnificent palace, editors from Ibadan-based Nigerian Tribune newspapers had called to enquire about NEMA’s rescue efforts over devastating flooding ravaging the city of Ibadan in Oyo State due to heavy rainfall. After discussing the twin-tragedies that occurred in Nigeria within a day, the NEMA boss decided to return to Nigeria with any available flight immediately, so as to coordinate the rescue efforts and relief interventions. Not ready to sacrifice my spiritual retreat, I requested to remain behind and conduct any further assignment online.
At about 12midnight, Muslims had once again jam-packed the holy Kaaba where it would be difficult for ordinary mortal to pass through the mammoth crowd of pilgrims into the mosque. There is a Mosque overlooking the Masjid al-Haram (The Sacred Mosque) and the Kaaba at the topmost floor of the Makkah King’s Palace where the royals, presidents and other top delegations across the globe hosted in the palace observe their prayers. Being a visitor at the right time I went to the floor and sat at a strategic position waiting for the commencement of a prayer that usually took about 3 hours of intermittent standing, bowing, prostration and sitting in supplication.
A few minute before the rigorous spiritual exercise, a young boy of about 10 years came and with humility requested from a man beside me if he could spare a space for an old man. The feeble looking old man, whom I presumed to be his grandfather, limped to my side with the support of a walking stick.
The old man used his walking stick as support throughout the duration of the strenuous and energetic prayers through standing, bowing, prostration and sitting for more than two hours. Immediately after the prayers, I asked the old man who had early offered me drinking water why he must stand throughout the session rather than sitting when it is permitted in Islam for the weak to pray in whatever position that is convenient for them.
He politely replied that “when it comes to serving God, you do it with all strength and faith.”I responded: “I admire your strong heart and faith at your advanced age and your ability to go through the prayers as I could sense the pain you went through.”
Amazed at his flawless English, I asked where he learnt to speak fluently. He replied that he schooled in Britain more than 30 years ago. We chatted about adulteration of language, especially Arabic due to civilisation. We discussed the use of scientific technology to resolve moon-sighting for Ramadan period. He emphatically told me that the Ramadan fasting in Saudi Arabia would be 29 days rather than a full month of 30 days. When I raised the issue of significance of internet as the modern tool for communication and information gathering, he pointed out that he was reluctant to be an internet freak because it could be addictive and distractive from natural norms of interaction and communication. He further added that he got the information he wanted from reliable channels and sources. The disclosure made me to realise the reason most of the hotels in Mecca and Medina do not give priority to the use of the internet as telephone and Fax are mostly their tools for communication.
As we were chatting, I could see some guests at the side waiting to see him. He was comfortable and at ease during our discussions and even asked for my name and whether I could visit him in Jeddah after the Ramadan fasting. After taking my name, I simply ask him: “What is your name?” He replied thus: “Khalid!”
I said casually: “Thanks Mr. Khalid.”
He asked one of his aides, Ahmed Saleh to give me his numbers.
After he left with his guests I asked Ahmed Saleh, the aide: “Who is that old man?”
The aide replied: “You had just spoken to Prince Khaled Alfaisal the Emir and Governor of Mecca.”
I was very shocked; I rushed to my hotel room and googled his name. The picture of the same old man appeared with his quite impressive profile.
So an Arab Sheik and royal prince could be so simple, unassuming and compassionate! That encounter proves to me that among princes, Khaled is a noble and humble person who demonstrates the equality of men before God.
This article by Yushau A. Shuaib has appeared in some online media and also in the following print media: Economic Confidential september, People Daily September 13, New Nigerian September 14, Trust September 18, Nigerian Tribune September 18, Thisday September 18, Daily Independent September 28, Leadership September 30, The Guardian October 2, Vanguard October 5, and the Punch November 18, 2011