Thursday, September 8, 2016

Haj, Humanity and Saudi Arabia

By Rafia Zakaria
September 7th, 2016
WHEN he was about 22 years, Ibn Batuta set out from his home in Tangier for Makkah. The year of his departure was 1325 and, according to records, Ibn Batuta travelled for much of his life and performed Haj five times. Several hundred years hence, the wonders of jet travel have made the journey to Saudi Arabia and consequently Makkah a less legendary act, one that is no longer limited to intrepid explorers.
In Pakistan, travellers to the kingdom are of two major types, those in search of livelihood and those in search of salvation. In the present season, it is the latter that dominate, their white garments marking them as the devout bound on the journey of a lifetime, their lips forming words of prayer. Those who have not undertaken the journey look upon them longingly, wishing it was they who were going.
The other kinds of travellers who make their way to Saudi Arabia are not usually the envy of their peers. These are the tens of thousands of workers whom Pakistan sends to Saudi Arabia every year. They carry different loads, rolled-up bedding and battered suitcases — and, crucially, the responsibilities of large families that await their pay-checks.
As newspaper reports have detailed in the past several months, about 9,000 of these men working in Eastern Saudi Arabia have not been paid by their employers and remain stranded in that country. Reportedly, the largest employers that have reneged on payment are Saudi Oger, Al Khobar and M/S Saad Trading. Sometime ago, the government of Pakistan took notice of the situation and approached the Saudi government for resolution of the matter. In the meantime, the prime minister ordered that families of the workers be provided Rs50, 000 each, with Rs210 million from the Baitul Maal reserved for this purpose.
The government of Pakistan, however, can only do so much. It is difficult to prevail against the intransigence and arrogance of Saudi employers. The Pakistani workers demanding their wages outside the gates of these big Saudi corporations can testify to their hard-heartedness and to the hopelessness that pervades their lives.
So acute is the despair that confronts these workers, that one of them, a middle-aged father of four, reportedly committed suicide recently. According to his brother, the family had taken out a loan of Rs250, 000 to send him to work in the kingdom. As the possibility of getting paid grew dim, the weight of the unpaid loan loomed large. He was found hanging from the ceiling of his room in Al Abwa, Saudi Arabia.
On the other side are the Pakistani pilgrims; among them many who have saved all their lives to fulfil the religious obligation. Eager as ever, they pile onto planes and head out to the very kingdom where other Pakistanis ache to be paid and yearn to leave.
Planeloads of them arrive in Saudi Arabia in the days prior to Haj, their arrival, visas and documentation all duly vetted by a Saudi regime that makes millions every year from the pilgrimage. The vast engine of Haj, the cleaning of spaces, the moving of people, the feeding of so many hundreds of thousands is accomplished by workers from elsewhere, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis and many others.
Haj is a religious imperative, seen as a route to spiritual salvation. Regardless of where they come from, pilgrims arrive with the hope of seeing a holy place they have turned towards five times a day for their entire lives. The fact that such holy places are located on Saudi territory means that admission and entry are dependent on the Saudis.
As can be seen by the restrictions on Iranian pilgrims this year, the Saudi government does not hesitate to use this reality as a means of imposing a cost on pilgrims when their governments refuse to tow the line of Saudi intentions in international relations.
It is in this last sense — the simultaneous identity of Saudi Arabia as a nation state with strategic interests and an agenda, and as home to the holiest sites in Islam — that a conundrum arises.
Even those Muslim pilgrims that oppose Saudi Arabia’s actions as a nation state — the bombing of Yemen, for instance, or the non-payment of wages to Pakistanis and others — are forced into a sort of compliance by Saudi sovereignty over the pilgrimage sites. Because of this, even a poor father whose son has awaited wages for his labour for many months, still longs to visit the holy sites and complete the pilgrimage, even as that wish lies in the domain of those who have so wronged his son.
In a sense then, a Muslim anywhere in the Muslim world is forced into silence when it comes to Saudi wrongdoings because he or she does not wish to jeopardise the possibility of performing the pilgrimage.
The nation state did not exist during the time of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) when Haj became one of the five pillars of Islam. It exists now, and the divisions, the separate camps and arrangements made for arriving pilgrims, are visible everywhere during the pilgrimage. The imagined Ummah, a vast united mass that would be drawn together by faith, is in this sense not an accurate description of many aspects of the occasion or of how people are divided and moved.
The Saudi nation state, its sovereignty over what is holy to all Muslims, appears far more real and dominant than the concept of an Ummah. The individual Pakistani pilgrim is largely powerless over many of these realities but he or she should not forget them. If it is spiritual mindfulness that is the purpose of pilgrimage then some may also be motivated to alleviate in whatever small way possible, the suffering of families of Pakistani workers who wait for their wages and justice from their Saudi bosses.
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