About 10 years ago, I was blessed with the opportunity to perform hajj with my family. It was perfect, because hajj season was during winter break and I was in high school, so we got to escape the Midwest winter to embark on a journey of a lifetime.
Hajj will always be a memorable experience and I am so thankful I was able to fulfill one of the pillars of Islam when I was young.
But of course, there are negative moments from the pilgrimage that I will never forget — such as being groped right in front of the kaaba, realizing that the women’s area of the rawda was tiny in comparison to the men’s side and opened for a shorter period of time, and seeing so many poor people right next to lavish hotels and shopping centers right next to the Grand Mosque.
(Man selling dates, photo taken by Aya Khalil during hajj 2006)
Ten years ago, hajj was around $5,000, from what I can remember. Now, hajj packages start at $12,000.
Hajj is an obligation on anyone who can afford it and is healthy enough, but think of a family of five who want to perform hajj from the U.S. — that’s a whopping $60,000!
I’ll never forget the feeling of guilt of going to a five-star lavish breakfast at the hotel that overlooks the kaaba and then making my way to the kaaba to pray next to people who have been saving for this trip for years and stay at modest hotels several blocks away.
I still remember the zaghareet (vocalization from the Middle East and North Africa used to express joy) Egyptian women were making at Egypt’s airport before departing to Saudi Arabia because they had saved up for this moment their whole life, and it was their first time to ride on an airplane.
I was only 15 at the time, but I remember also feeling guilty on the long bus rides to Mina from Mecca in air conditioned bus, while a beat-down truck right next to us had several pilgrims scattered around with no A/C.
The world’s largest hotel is currently being built in Mecca, right next to the Grand Mosque. Abraj Kudai luxury hotel costs $3.5 billion to build.
“Abraj Kudai will feature 12 towers, 10,000 rooms, 70 restaurants and four helipads. It is expected to cover 15 million square feet and rise 45 stories high by the time it opens,” an article from Middle East Eye reported.
Many pilgrims who barely afford hajj stay at hotels and housing far away from the main hajj points — like Mina, the Grand Mosque, and the Prophet’s Mosque — and they often walk more than an hour to get there. Further, many can’t afford any hotel or housing, and they end up sleeping right there in front of the kaaba, while a huge tower is being built. The juxtaposition is unreal.
I mean, come on now. There are already tons of luxurious hotels in the area, but this is a bit too much. Nights in that hotel will cost anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500 a night. Hajj is supposed to be a reflective journey that humbles pilgrims and forget most worldly matters, not a competition on who can get the best view of the kaaba from their hotel room.
With all the lavish and luxury, hotels and shopping centers for the pilgrims to enjoy, 20 percent of the population in Saudi Arabia lives in poverty. Around the kaaba, there were always children and older women and men selling toys, napkins and other items — and pan-handlers were not uncommon.
Hajj should not only be for the wealthy and privileged; rather, it should be more affordable for everyone around the world. More affordable accommodations need to be available in very close proximity to the Grand Mosque, as well as transportation.
Most people come to hajj from developing countries, and the country needs to do better by accommodating people from all socioeconomic backgrounds, instead of mostly catering to the wealthy.