No easy task: Hajj season and Pakistanis at the pilgrimage

No easy task: Hajj season and Pakistanis at the pilgrimage

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For Pakistan, the second largest Muslim country in terms of population, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah holds cardinal importance. Being mandatory for all Muslims who can afford it, the Hajj is a lifelong desire for even the poorest in society, who save for years to perform the pilgrimage. One could go to any international airport in Pakistan after Hajj, and there will be dozens of relatives and friends, standing with rose garlands to welcome their loved ones home, excited to hear stories of the journey all of them dream of one day making. 

The pilot project of Road to Makkah kicked off in Pakistan in 2019 along with three more countries. It included electronic visas for the pilgrims, their biometrics and luggage coding before embarkation. With an interlude of two years due to Covid-19, the project resumed in 2022 from Islamabad airport and was repeated this year. As test runs were successful, it was decided to include Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar airports from next year. That would mean almost full coverage of Pakistani pilgrims, saving them the need to go through immigration formalities on arrival in Jeddah and the strenuous identification of luggage.

President of Pakistan, Dr. Arif Alvi is going for Hajj this year as well. Kingdom authorities annually make special arrangements for the heads of state and government performing the pilgrimage. This special occasion also affords them the opportunity to discuss regional and international developments with Khadim al Harmain and the Saudi Crown Prince. 

Despite these constraints, the government will provide full guidance and assistance to Pakistani pilgrims during the Hajj season.

Javed Hafeez  

Organizing a smooth pilgrimage for more than three million people is no easy task. Security, sanitation and health facilities are provided by the government while transport, accommodation and food are arranged by the private sector. Saudi ministries of Interior, Health, Hajj and Auqaf are fully involved in this exercise that lasts for over a month, though the core rituals take about six days. This is due to the fact that almost all pilgrims also spend some days in Madina al Munnawara and visit important sites around it.

I had the good fortune of performing Hajj in 1985 and 1990, while posted in the Kingdom. In those days, performing Hajj was not easy. An odd fire in the tents in Mina was a usual tragedy. Some such fires resulted from the careless use of cooking stoves. The problem was later tackled by the introduction of fireproof tents. Tree plantations in Mina were started in the 1980s. Today there is no dearth of mature trees providing shade and comfort to pilgrims in the summer months.

By streamlining the flow of pilgrims at Jumrat, Saudi authorities have reduced the risk of stampedes to a great extent. This year the Kingdom’s authorities have established 172 hospitals and health centres in Makkah and Madinah to provide healthcare to pilgrims free of cost. Similar facilities have also been provided at Jeddah air and seaport. The Kingdom’s authorities provide extensive ground and air surveillance, ensuring foolproof security for pilgrims. Hajj arrangements have shown vast improvements over the years. This is because the Kingdom considers all pilgrims “Diyuf al Rehman” or guests of Allah.

Due to the devaluation of Pakistan’s currency, the pilgrimage costs this year were much higher than last year. The government of Pakistan therefore, decided to outsource some of its quota in order to save precious foreign exchange. Despite these constraints, the government will provide full guidance and assistance to Pakistani pilgrims during the Hajj season. A team of Hajj Guides called Khuddam ul Hujjaj have been dispatched to the Kingdom, as per past tradition. They will attend to any complaints that Pakistani pilgrims may have. Pakistan maintains Hajj offices in Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. To obviate the language barrier, Pakistani dispensaries also function in Mina and Arafat.

However, Pakistani pilgrims are only one part of over three million pilgrims who come from all corners of the world. Arranging fully fledged temporary cities for them in Mina and Arafat along with all allied services is a daunting task for the Kingdom’s government and Hajj offices in the private sector. And they perform these tasks in a superb manner.  

- Javed Hafeez is a former Pakistani diplomat with much experience of the Middle East. He writes weekly columns in Pakistani and Gulf newspapers and appears regularly on satellite TV channels as a defense and political analyst.
Twitter: @JavedHafiz8

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