High temperatures and profit seekers amplify the dangers of Hajj

Huda Omari sat outside a broker's office in Jordan for two days, waiting for a visa to undertake the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, to Saudi Arabia.

In Egypt, Magda Moussa’s three children pooled their resources to raise nearly $9,000 to fulfill their dream of accompanying their mother on the hajj. When she got the green light to make the trip, she said, relatives and neighbors in her village cheered.

The daylong pilgrimage is a deep spiritual journey and a daunting trek even under the best of circumstances. But this year, amid record heat, at least 1,300 pilgrims did not survive the hajj, and Saudi officials said more than 80 percent of the dead were pilgrims without permits.

Ms. Omari and Ms. Moussa were among a large number of unregistered pilgrims who relied on illicit or fraudulent tour operators to bypass the official authorization process. Both said they knew the once-in-a-lifetime journey would be physically and financially demanding, but neither had anticipated the terrible heat or the mistreatment they would endure.

“We were humiliated and punished for being there illegally,” Ms. Omari, 51, told The New York Times after returning home.

With nearly two million people taking part each year, it’s not uncommon for pilgrims to die from heat stress, illness or chronic conditions during the hajj. And it’s unclear whether this year’s toll was higher than usual because Saudi Arabia doesn’t regularly report the numbers. Last year, 774 pilgrims died in Indonesia alone, and in 1985, more than 1,700 people died near the holy sites, most of them from heat stress, according to one study at the time.

But this year’s deaths have drawn attention to the disturbing underside of an industry that profits from pilgrims who often spend years saving to complete one of Islam’s most important rites.

To control the influx of visitors and avoid tragedies like the 2015 stampede, the Saudi government has sought to register pilgrims. Those who are registered must purchase a government-approved travel package that has become too expensive for many.

Those entering on other types of visitor visas have difficulty accessing the security measures put in place by authorities. So the financial means of pilgrims determined the conditions and treatment they experienced, including their protection from — or exposure to — the Gulf’s increasingly dangerous and extreme heat.

Registered pilgrims stay in hotels in the holy city of Mecca or in Mina, a city of white tents that can accommodate up to three million people and offers showers, kitchens and air conditioning. They are also transported between holy sites, sparing them the scorching sun.

The unregistered in Mecca found themselves crowded into bare apartments in a southern neighborhood that has become popular with the travel brokers who cater to them, according to some of those who have visited. During the months surrounding the ritual, these brokers rent out entire buildings and fill them with pilgrims.

Yet many are undaunted. And as pilgrims return to their home countries, a clearer picture emerges of the conditions they endured.

Working with Saudi authorities, Jordan has limited the number of people allowed to participate in the hajj each year. And Jordanian authorities said last week they had arrested 54 people and closed three travel agencies after 99 Jordanians died during the hajj.

Ms. Omari lives in Irbid, Jordan’s second-largest city, where she said she sells spices to earn extra money. She scraped together 140 Jordanian dinars, nearly $200, for a visa that allows Muslims to visit Saudi holy sites but bars them from the hajj.

In total, Ms. Omari paid 2,000 dinars (more than $2,800) for a package that included travel, insurance and accommodation. While it was “no small sum,” she said, it was still only half the cost of the official hajj package.

Egypt, where rising inflation and a weakening currency have made the pilgrimage out of reach for many, may have had one of the highest death tolls this year, but local authorities have not confirmed the toll. Egyptian officials recently shut down 16 tour operators and arrested and charged two travel agents.

Magda Moussa's three sons had long dreamed of taking her to the hajj, and this was the year that dream would come true. It would cost them 120,000 Egyptian pounds (about $2,500) for her trip alone, and they would accompany her for 100,000 Egyptian pounds each. However, the cost was substantially less than the official package.

When Ms Moussa, a widowed grandmother who worked as a telecommunications technician, received her visa, her family and neighbours in the village of Bahadah, near the capital Cairo, celebrated her good fortune.

The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, dating back centuries when pilgrims first followed in the footsteps of the prophets. All Muslims who are physically and financially able are obligated to perform it at least once.

Nowadays, there are tiered packages available for registered visitors, but the gap between those who can afford them and those who are not registered and cannot afford them is widening.

When Ms. Omari arrived, she said she was assigned a room in a building where the air conditioning barely worked.

“The hallways looked like they were on fire,” he said.

So he shelled out more money for a decent hotel, where he shared a room with women from his hometown.

Ms. Moussa was luckier: Her children paid hundreds of dollars for her to sleep in a hotel room with three other women, while her sons spent more than $200 to sleep on a mattress on the floor of another building, in a room crowded with eight men.

According to some witnesses, as the hajj approached, police raids intensified.

“We are pilgrims. We are Muslims,” ​​Ms. Omari said. “We are not here to cause trouble.”

Panicked brokers, fearing arrest, cut electricity or disconnected internet service in some buildings to make them appear empty, witnesses said. Some even chained up building gates to keep pilgrims in and police out.

“We often felt imprisoned,” said Ahmed Mamdouh Massoud, one of Ms. Moussa’s sons. He had traveled as an unregistered pilgrim before, he said. But this year, he felt very unwelcome.

“I have never seen anything as serious as this time,” he said, describing a heavy police presence, dozens of checkpoints and random checks.

Ms Moussa said her family ate canned food brought from Egypt during the hajj and, out of fear, only ventured out to buy yoghurt and dates in Mecca.

Ms. Omari, who arrived nearly a month before the hajj began in mid-June, remained locked in the room she shared with four other women, leaving only to perform religious rites.

“We know we only go once in our lives, and this was the opportunity,” he said.

On the eve of Arafat Day, the day pilgrims gather near Mount Arafat as part of the hajj rituals, no car or bus would come to pick her up because she didn’t have the right permit, Ms. Omari said. So she walked 12 miles to reach the Arafat plain under a scorching sun and stifling humidity. Temperatures have topped 120 degrees during the hajj period.

“It was like fire from heaven and under your feet,” he said.

Ms. Moussa said she tried to board a bus, but a Saudi police officer asked her and the women she was with to show their hajj permits. The officer threatened to end their pilgrimage, so close to its climax, if they failed to show the permits.

“After all those years of longing for this day, now they want to take it away from us?” he said.

Ms. Moussa, hurt by the treatment, said she quietly got off the bus through the back door. She gathered her things and balanced them on her head, then started walking. Stopping only to pray or ask for directions, she walked through the night.

“I had plastic slippers,” she said. “When I got there, they were so worn out it looked like I had nothing on my feet.”

As she walked, she said, pilgrims on air-conditioned buses gaped at her as she limped along the path. Someone made a video of her that went viral in Egypt.

The families of the two women reached the Arafat plain, but the return journey revealed the tragedy of the situation.

“People younger than me were lying dead,” Ms. Moussa said. “It was heartbreaking.”

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