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Bliss & blisters
By A G Khan

It was bliss and euphoria the moment we alighted for Haj at the Jeddah airport on 8th February. Our entire stay of forty-two days was a spell of ecstasy. The first glimpse of the Kaaba filled us with unfathomable joy – we completed Umrah in a state of trance! Our gratitude for this immense Mercy in granting us this opportunity was expressed through tears. Never did I know that there was such an abundant supply of tears.

In our bliss and euphoria we ignored minor incidents or inconvenience caused by the Mu'allim (Maktab 8) or our fellow pilgrims. Domestic transport was horribly poor and inadequate. Our first trip to Mena from Mecca was a tale of suffering – the AC was out of order and the windows were firmly closed. To add to our misery neither the driver nor the Mu'allim’s guide knew the destination (exact location of camp). On 9th Dhu'l-hijja the buses were so over crowded that we decided to hire a taxi. We did not waste our time in trying to locate the camps/tents meant for us and preferred to reach Muzdalifa by covering the distance on foot.

Residential accommodations provided were surprisingly fine and comfortable. We have nothing to complain about them. We found the staff of the Hajj Committee both at Mumbai as well as at Mecca extremely co-operative and hardworking. They were always eager to assist. The medical assistance we received at Misfala was quite satisfactory. The entire staff worked with a sense of dedication.

We must record our gratitude towards the super human efforts that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia makes in providing all possible comfort and assistance to the pilgrims. Huge amount of money is spent in providing facilities at the Haramain keeping them clean and air-cooled. Continuous supply of water, fresh air, commodities and concern for the welfare of the pilgrims is evident in untiring efforts that the entire staff make deserve praise. One wonders if our bureaucracy could work with just ten- percent efficiency and dedication with which the public servants and officials work in Saudi Arabia.

However, our journey from Mecca to Medina was a tale of suffering. Normally it takes 7-8 hours to cover a distance of 450 kilometres: We took 16 hours. We had to change bus thrice as each bus dutifully developed some kind of mechanical fault. On all such occasions the police party would come with a relief bus and porters to transfer luggage from one bus to another. We had a narrow escape when the front wheel of the third bus flew away and the bus rolled for almost a kilometre on a single front wheel. All the passengers fell in sajda-e-shukr as soon as the bus came to a halt. One wonders whether such poorly maintained buses are specially chosen for the pilgrims of the third world because there was no dearth of luxurious buses in which pilgrims from Arab and Western countries were travelling. Yet, we are willing to forget and forgive whoever made such travel arrangements.

However, we find it difficult to forget and forgive what we underwent at the Medina airport on 22nd March. First, an unexpected rescheduling of flight. SV 5624 was to take off at 11 A.M. but, all of a sudden, we were asked to leave at midnight and reach the airport at 4 A.M. We were asked to dump our Zamzam containers because we were carrying 20 lit containers and neither the cargo nor the cabin was big enough to carry them. We had ten litres of Zamzam per passenger as per the instructions we received from time to time. There was no instruction with regard to the size or shape of the container. At 4 A.M. in the morning at Medina airport with no shopping complex around we could not find smaller containers and thus we were compelled to proceed without Zamzam. One cannot think of a greater cruelty on a Hajj pilgrim than to deprive him of the most precious gift. With tears in our eyes we dumped our ten lit of Zamzam lamenting our loss. Had it been a domestic organization we would have approached the National Consumer Redressal Forum for such breach of a business contract. It was not only a religious obligation but also a business commitment on the part of the Airlines to honour. We do not know who was responsible for communication gap. This blister on our soul we are not willing to forget and forgive.

The baggage counter unnerved us. Every pilgrim was allowed a baggage of 45 kgs plus 10 lit of Zamzam and additional 10 kgs as handbag in the cabin. Our total baggage (for two passengers) was 95 kgs and this included our handbags too. But the officer was adamant. Reduce your luggage by 5 kgs. I pleaded that we were entitled to carry 90+20 = 110 kgs and therefore total baggage was within the prescribed limit. I also argued that as per instructions pasted at Mecca and Medina hotels every additional kilogram could be charged at 135 Riyals and I was willing to pay 65 S.R. for this ‘excess’ baggage. I was made to unpack and repack the luggage thrice. It took me one hour and intervention of three officers to convince that my luggage was within the limits prescribed. Another pilgrim complained that he wanted to carry handbag in the cabin as it carried two copies of Qur'an but he was not allowed and when he insisted his passport was snatched. Quite a few of us were made to feel as criminals rather than pilgrims. There were no such problems at Jeddah airport. We wish to record our appreciation of the swiftness and efficiency shown at Jeddah as well as at Mumbai airport. The Hajj Terminal at Mumbai cleared us within fifteen minutes without subjecting us to any kind of harshness. It was so warm in Mumbai airport. ‘Welcome Home’ was the slogan on the lips of every officer at Mumbai.

Dr AG Khan teaches English in Ujjain University q

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