One of the most memorable and rewarding photography stories I covered and experienced was the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca: The Hajj.
In January 2004, after eight months at my new job as the Middle East Manager for the European Pressphoto Agency, I decided to photograph the holy pilgrimage. I am Muslim (otherwise you are not allowed to go to Mecca). I am, however, not very religious. I fast during Ramadan and have been a Muslim for 28 years. I was born in the Middle East and have lived in Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt, so Islam has been a part of my life since I was born.
I did not know what to expect from doing the Hajj, both as a Muslim and a photographer. All media have to be invited by the Saudi government and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Dawa and Guidance. The ministry guides you in your media coverage and, if you so choose, in accomplishing the rituals of the Hajj yourself. A guide is assigned to you and mine was a very kind and charming man named Fawzi.
It is a privilege to do the Hajj and as a member of the invited media you are treated as an honored guest. We met and had dinner with the Mayor of Jeddah. We were given camel rides through the Old City and (after completion of the Hajj) had an audience with Prince Muhammed Bin Nayef.
Saudi Arabia is a very closed society and suspicious of foreigners and the media. Photography is generally discouraged and as a professional photojournalist you should be accompanied by a minder. However, I soon learned news photography of the Hajj is quite open and you are pretty much allowed to take pictures of anything to do with the pilgrimage. The only restriction is that you are not allowed to take pictures in mosques. I think this is restricted as a courtesy to the pilgrims who may not wish to be photographed.
The Hajj is a treasure trove for photographs. The incredible diversity of the pilgrims is amazing and very photogenic. Pilgrims are on their best behavior and are generally very accommodating when it comes to being photographed. There is a camaraderie and respect among pilgrims. We are all here at the first house of worship, the Kaaba, built by Ibrahim (Abraham) and Ishmael to show our love and devotion to Allah.
The actual pilgrimage is five days of intense rituals, but usually pilgrims stay 10 days or longer.
Each day we would head out to cover different aspects of the Hajj. At first it was the pilgrims arriving in the country and moving to Mecca where the first of a series of circumambulation (going around the Kaaba) takes place. Then there is the great tent city of Mena where pilgrims camp in tents for a number of days as they make their way to Arafat for three days of stoning the devil at the three jamarats (pillars). And finally there is the sacrifice of an animal to symbolize the sacrifice that Ibrahim was commanded to make by God.
I had decided to do the Hajj myself. As a participant, you are permitted to work during the pilgrimage. I entered the state of holiness (Ihram), dressed in the two seamless cloths and wore sandals.
Along with Fawzi and a driver, we proceeded to Mecca. We passed through a checkpoint where a sign read “Muslims Only Permitted” and drove onward to Mecca. When I first saw the Kaaba through the giant arched entrances I was surprised at the intense emotion I felt. Here I was gazing at the place where all Muslims face to pray. Though I am not very religious and did not pray regularly I felt something deep inside of me. It wasn’t the awe-struck feeling you get when seeing a natural wonder like the Grand Canyon or a historic wonder like the Great Pyramids. This was different. It was the soul: a sense of wonder of the power of religion and its significance on your being. We put away the cameras and gear to perform the rituals. Though it would have made for fascinating pictures to photograph inside the Sacred Mosque while people circumambulated the Kaaba, recited verses of the Quran, waved to the Black Rock, spilled tears of joy, drunk from the holy Zam Zam Well, and prayed among the marble pillars, it was good to be unencumbered by cameras and to be able to focus and devote my full attention to properly carrying out the rituals.
I photographed freely around the mosque. People praying, interacting, buying prayer beads and souvenirs. On the Friday before the start of the Hajj, when the Sacred Mosque is packed to capacity, we were taken to the highest point overlooking the mosque (the Hilton Hotel at that time) to photograph the sunset prayer. Here you are able to those very visual time exposures of pilgrims going around the Kaaba. Because of the crowds and the difficulty of moving, I travelled light and did not carry a tripod. Bracing the camera against the overhang, I was able to do long enough exposures where the blurred effect of the moving worshippers created a surreal vision.
The following Friday, we again sought a high but different vantage point for the noon prayer. This time, menacing clouds and strong winds greeted us. Rows of worshippers with their colorful prayer rugs made for graphic images. Just as the noon prayer ended, the clouds opened up and a torrential downpour ensued. I photographed the pilgrims as they hurried through the flooding streets using prayers rugs to protect themselves. One image I took of three male pilgrims in their rain-soaked irham clothes reminds me of the three wise men as they journeyed towards Bethlehem.
We moved to the tent city of Mena where we prepared to arrive at the Mount of Mercy where the Prophet Muhammed gave his final sermon. I decided to wake before dawn to photograph pilgrims as they converged on the Plains of Arafat, and to catch the rising sun from atop the small mountain. I photographed pilgrims proceeding towards the holy place on their knees lit only by orange-colored street lights. I climbed up the stone borders and reached the top as the sun peaked over the mountains. It was a moving scene as worshipers prayed atop ledges and sat among the rocks reciting verses.
For wire service coverage, it is necessary to file pictures every day if possible. Wireless connectivity was not a possibility back in 2004 in Saudi Arabia, so it was necessary to find an internet connection somewhere. They had provided some facilities for media, but in these remote locations they were limited, electricity to run computers and charge batteries was also in short supply. The challenges were frustrating and exhausting. Added to that, I had become a bit of a media sensation because I was one of the very few white pilgrims, a member of the media and American. Many newspapers, television stations, and radio programs wanted to interview me about my experience and about Islam.
I started to lose my voice and eventually lost it completely. Partially because of all the talking but – also affected a bit by what is commonly referred to as “The Hajj Flu”. There are many people in tight quarters and weather conditions can be brutal. All year round, Mecca is hot. However, in winter you have torrential downpours like the one I experienced at the Friday noon prayers. That year, a number of people were killed in that Friday’s downpour. You are going from air-conditioned vehicles and building to the hot outdoors. As members of the media, we tried to cover the story and stay ahead of the throngs of people while fulfilling the requirements of the Hajj. For example, after Arafat, we left at sunset to proceed toward Muzdalifa to collect pebbles for the commencement of the next day’s stoning of the devil ritual. I had been up before dawn and now it was night. We rested briefly after collecting 49 pebbles and then headed back towards Mecca. Once there, we completed the second tawaf (circumambulation) and went between the rock outcropping of Marwa and Safwa three times. By the time we completed this it as almost dawn.
Totally exhausted and feeling the onset of the Hajj flu, we made it back to Mena just after dawn. I crashed and put in ear plugs to muffle the noise outside. It was a restless sleep as sounds of sirens and helicopters intruded on my sleep. I thought it was the normal goings on at a campsite of two million people. I was eventually roused from my sleep by the incessant ring of my cellphone. It was the office calling to tell me there had been a stampede at the main Jamarat (the place where the first stoning of the devil takes place) and pilgrims had been killed. The tent where we were lodged was on a high point overlooking the tent city and the pillars that symbolized where the devil tempted Ibrahim on his way to sacrifice his son. By the time I learned of the tragedy, it was over and the ritual stoning had resumed. I photographed what I could of the stoning from above and then started to see if the Saudi Press Agency had images of the tragedy they could release. I filed photos and eventually obtained images of the tragedy. I also followed up by visiting the injured in the hospital. It was strange to think that, while I tried to sleep, nearby 244 people were trampled to death. This affected me for the rest of the Hajj.
Unfortunately, such tragedies are not uncommon during the Hajj. There have been massive fires, stampedes, floods, and even an armed take over the of Holy Mosque by terrorists – all resulting in loss of life and destruction. However, the Hajj continues and those who die on the pilgrimage are believed to ascend to heaven and paradise.
The Stoning of the Devil took on new significance to me. For the ritual, one throws seven pebbles at each of the three Jamarats (Pillars) except on the first day where only one pillar is stoned (hence the increased likelihood of a stampede with two million people trying to reach and stone that one pillar on the first day). I shouted “Allah U Akbar” (God is Great) as I threw each pebble. Afterwards I said a silent prayer for all those pilgrims who perished and were injured in the stampede. That evening at dinner, Prince Muhammed Bin Nayef had come to congratulate us on becoming Hajjis. Unfortunately, the Hajj flu, exhaustion, and too much talking had rendered me practically voiceless and when it came time to greet the Prince I whispered a practically inaudible “Salam Aleikum” (Peace be Upon You) greeting.
One last stop on the pilgrimage (though not part of the rituals) is a visit to Medina where the Prophet Muhammed fled to, live, and is buried. I had rested up after a couple of days of relatively painless Devil stoning ritual and coverage, and was recovering from my bout of Hajj flu. We did the 800 kilometer round-trip journey in one day. Leaving early in the morning, we visited a number of sites before praying at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. We rested up at a hotel, then headed back to Jeddah after the evening prayer. I was now with a young group of guides in a Chevy Suburban with my colleague from Agence France Presse – the local boys were in a mood to party. As we traveled the road back to Jeddah, they broke out an arguila (waterpipe) and we took turns smoking and joking as we sped through the Saudi desert in the early hours.
My pilgrimage had come to an end. It had been an incredible experience in so many ways. There was the camaraderie of having accomplished a difficult and demanding journey; the significance of completing one of the five pillars of Islam; the historic and religious impact of the place and the holy sites; the friendships and encounters of fellow pilgrims; the journalistic documentation and amazing photographic record of such a significant annual event; and, of course, the sobering reminder of all those who died to realize their dream of doing the Hajj. I felt blessed and grateful to be alive, to be a photographer, and to be a Muslim.