We Snuck a Camera into Mecca to Film Hajj: The World’s Largest Pilgrimage

We Snuck a Camera into Mecca to Film Hajj: The World’s Largest Pilgrimage

November 17, 2019 100 By William Morgan


SUROOSH ALVI: And this is about
as quiet as it gets. Hajj is the largest annual
pilgrimage in the world. It happens in Mecca,
Saudi Arabia. And for Muslims, it’s a
requirement that you have to do once in your lifetime. The Saudi government estimated
that last year there were over 3 million pilgrims who attended,
but the unofficial number is much higher. My parents are originally
from Lahore, Pakistan. They’re practicing Muslims, and
last year they decided it was time for them
to perform Hajj. So I went with them to help them
with their journey, but also for myself as well. It was the first time
for all of us. And I didn’t go thinking I
was going to make a VBS documentary. I just took the smallest
handicam we had the office and literally shot from the hip. You’re not allowed to shoot in
most of the holy places. So this is the footage I
managed to sneak out. We flew on Saudi Arabian
airlines. It was about a 10 hour flight
from JFK to Medina, where we spent 6 days getting mentally
prepared for the Hajj that we were about to embark on. In pre-Islamic times, Medina
was a place where the travelers who were crossing the
desert in camel caravans would come to rest. It was kind of like
a desert oasis. In modern times it’s kind of the
same thing, but there are less camels and more shopping
malls and hotels. There’s also stunning mosque
there called the Prophet’s Mosque, which is the
second-holiest site in Islam. When you’re there, you basically
just go to the mosque five times a day, for six
days straight, to get into a meditative state. The mosque is huge. It holds almost 700,000
people. And when we were there for
the Friday prayer, it was pretty much full. Flying to Mecca from Medina
was really interesting. Before we went to the airport,
we cleansed ourselves in a very specific way. And then we had to put on a
white seamless garment made our of terrycloth that all the
pilgrims have to wear. And it’s a renunciation of the
life that you come from and is supposed to put everyone
on the same level. There is no upper class
or lower class. Everyone’s the same. It’s just you and the sheet,
and that’s it. [PRAYING] This is called getting into
a state of Irham. Besides the clothes, there
are a lot of other rules. You can’t smoke. You can’t have sex. You can’t shave. You can’t cut your nails,
and there are a bunch of other no-no’s. So we got this charter, just
for the pilgrims, and 10 minutes after the plane took off
from Medina, the captain announced that we’d flown over
a designation, and we were in the zone near Mecca. And we all had to start
saying a prayer. And our group guide got onto the
loudspeaker system of the airplane and started
yelling the prayer. Everyone started chanting it. And I had a moment where I
looked around and saw all of these men and women in their
white robes, the men with their beards, and just thought,
if someone from the West could see us right now,
they would think we were a bunch of fanatical Jihadis
on some kind of an insane mission, when in reality, it was
just pilgrims excited to go on this spiritual quest. I think what was most odd about
this flight were the flight attendants, who were all
Filipino, wearing their normal Saudi flight attendant
outfits, looking like they would rather have any
other gig in the world than this one. We landed in Jeddah and
took a bus into Mecca. And that ride into the city was
one of the wilder scenes I’ve ever seen in my life. There were all these pilgrims
coming from all directions in all kinds of vehicles. And you see them riding
on the tops of cars, and vans, and buses. I remember seeing a pilgrim
jumping from the roof of one bus to another. Everybody’s just trying
to get to the city. Mecca is not a very big city. And during the year, it’s a
relatively mellow place, except during the
week of Hajj. The city completely transforms
and half the challenge of completing your Hajj is getting
all these rituals done in a very strict timeline,
dealing with the fact there are about three million other
people there who try to do the exact same thing at
the same time. After we checked into our
hotel in Mecca we walked towards the Grand Mosque,
which is also known as Masjid Al-Haram. It’s the holiest
place in Islam. And it’s a massive structure. This Moscow can hold upwards
of four million people with its outdoor and indoor space,
which, during Hajj, is technically the largest
gathering of people in the world at any given time. This mosque is what Muslims
pray towards from all over the world. And as you’re walking towards
it, you feel the anticipation build. People have been waiting
their whole lives to come to this place. And once you enter the mosque,
then you see the Kabeh. The Kabeh is a black
box in the center of the Grand Mosque. And it was built
around 2000 BC. And people have been praying
towards it since before Islam started. And when Prophet Muhammad
finally showed up, he cleaned up the place, got rid of all the
idols that the pagans had been worshipping, and reordained
the building as the House of God. So in the Grand Mosque, we had
to do our first ritual, which is called the Tawaf, which
is basically doing seven counterclockwise laps
around the Kabeh. And it’s kind of like being in
a mosh pit with hundreds of thousands of people, but instead
of it being full of angry young punk kids, we were
up against aggressive Bangladeshi grandmothers. I had my parents on each arm
interlocked, and we held each other as we went around the
structure seven times. You’re staring at the Kabeh. It’s a very intense
and heavy vibe. But the one thing that’s a total
bummer is you look up and all you see are these
massive, luxury five-star hotels for the super-rich
Muslims who want to pray from the confines of their room. After running around the Kabeh
seven times you have to do a bunch of other rituals in order
to complete your Hajj. You have five days
to get it done. And it’s kind of like being
on a scavenger hunt. You have a checklist. You have to be smart. And you have to use strategy in
order to make this happen on schedule. You have to do the Sa’i, which
is walking and running back and forth between two hills. Back in the day he used to be
outdoors and now it’s been turned into indoor structure
with two very, very long corridors. You have to spend a day
at Mount Arafat. It’s where the Prophet
delivered his last sermon from. And you spend the day in prayer,
and contemplation, and beg for forgiveness for
all of your sins. It’s a very important day,
and, after spending the majority of it in a tent, I
walked out and went in the direction of the mountain. And I walked through this wild
scene with people everywhere camped out with their animals. And as I got closer to mount
Arafat, it was such an incredible sight because
it had been completely transformed. It looked like a snow-covered
peak. Our tour group operators, before
we went on this trip, gave us some guidelines. And the last point on the
sheet said, be patient. Be very patient. Be very, very patient. I fully grasped the meaning of
this when we had to take a three-kilometer bus ride,
and it ended up taking eight hours. It was the middle of the night,
and we had to collect stones, it was one of our
rituals, in a place called [INAUDIBLE]. And so we got off the bus. We navigated our way around
sleeping bodies all over the ground, found the stones. And then it was time to pray,
and so we just threw the prayer rugs down on
the side of the highway and hit the mats. After picking up the stones,
we got back on the bus and drove to Mina. The Valley of Mina is where
the majority of the pilgrims stay. It’s a tent city that fills
up with, essentially, the population of Seattle for a
week and then, after Hajj ends, it clears out again
and goes away. It’s tents as far as
the eye can see. [SINGING IN PRAYER] From [INAUDIBLE] we arrived in Mina, and that’s
where we had to stone Satan. That’s the next ritual. And this one was actually
a lot of fun. You had to throw 21 stones,
seven at three separate Satan-stoning stations. And I finally got to see
what Satan looks like. Up until a couple years ago,
Satan looked like three big pillars sticking out
of a large pit. But the space wasn’t big
enough, and there was a stampede and people died. So the Saudi government, they
built three ramps the size of a multi-lane highway, and
there were three pillars inside of it that represent
the devil. They’re lit in shades
of green. And there’s a strange rumbling
loud sound coming out of them. And as my dad pointed out, the
whole thing made Satan look quite surreal. Before we finished the Hajj, we
had to repeat some of the rituals that we’d
already done. So we had to revisit Satan,
throw rocks at him two more times. We had to go back to back to
Mecca from Mina and do another seven counterclockwise laps. And then it was time for Eid,
which marks the official end of Hajj, which is a
big celebration. It’s the end of the state of
Irham that we’ve been in. And we slaughter an animal
to celebrate it. And then the last thing you
do is you shave your head. This is the line for
the barber shop. This is the line. Soon, they will all be bald,
all of these men. The barber shops in Mecca
have these massive lines outside of them. And you see hundreds of
thousands of baldos walking around town. And those people have
all succeeded in completing their Hajj. And they’re called Hajjis. Dealing with the Hajj every
year is a huge logistical challenge for the Saudi
government– to the point where they’ve
actually set up a Ministry of Hajj. In the past, there have been
incidents where pilgrims were trampled, when ramps collapsed
and pilgrims died, and the Saudi government has invested
billions of dollars to create an infrastructure to make this
work, with complex crowd control techniques. And what I saw when I went last
year was something that somehow manages to work. But it kind of goes without
saying that bringing 3 million people into such a small place
is going to bring up some complications. There’s a bit of a dark side. This many people in such
a small place, it really gets unwieldy. And despite the Saudi
government’s best efforts to deal with this profound
logistical challenge, the bottom line is that there
are too many people. And people need things. They need places to sleep. They need food. The need toilets. And the poor people who were
there, you see them basically camped out on the side of the
road for days on end. It really felt like Mecca was
maxing out by the end of Hajj. And the whole scene starts
looking and feeling rather apocalyptic. No matter where all these
people come from. No matter what they do. And no matter how rich or poor
they might be, during this pilgrimage to Mecca it
felt like everyone was just the same. It was unlike any place I’ve
ever been and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I was there standing amongst
millions of people, I was there with my family, but, on
some level, I felt like I all alone, on a personal trek. And everyday life felt like it
was hundreds of thousands of miles away. We flew back to New York. We landed in the morning, and
I went straight back to the Vice offices, which
may not have been the wisests of ideas. I felt like I’d been catapulted
from one end of the universe to the other.