South African arrivals herald beginning of Hajj season
Siraj Wahab I Arab News —
JEDDAH: The first group of pilgrims arrived yesterday for Haj 2008 at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport. The Cape Town-to-Jeddah flight via Dubai brought in nearly 200 pilgrims, both men and women, from South Africa.
The first to emerge in the reception area after completing immigration formalities was 73-year-old Abbas Jones. “This will be my 30th Haj,” he said excitedly to waiting reporters. He was embraced by Abdulwahid B. Saifaddin, chairman of the establishment of pilgrims from non-Arab African countries, and Mahdi Basadien, South Africa’s consul general in Jeddah.
“Every year I have seen tremendous improvements in Haj services. I want to take this opportunity to thank the Saudi government and our pilgrim establishment for their efforts in making our journey comfortable,” Jones said. “It’s always a great feeling to be in this holy land, and it’s an equally great feeling to be among the first group of arrivals for this Haj season.”
Cape Towner Farida Osman was also in the group. “We are so happy to be here. The first leg of the journey was very smooth. God has been very kind to us,” she said.
While Osman was talking to Arab News, her husband joined in the discussion. “I am 63,” said Mohammed Salig. “This was the same age when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) performed Haj. I can’t express my happiness in being here. This journey has been planned for an entire lifetime,” Salig said.
Saifaddin said all arrangements were in place for the pilgrims’ stay in Makkah and Madinah.
He said his establishment will take care of nearly 180,000 pilgrims this year. “There is a marked increase in the number of pilgrims from non-Arab African countries this year. Last year we only handled 162,000 pilgrims,” he said.
Initial reports suggest there will be no effect of the global economic crisis on Haj. “We have not seen any impact for the moment. One reason for that perhaps is the advance preparation that goes into Haj arrangements. All these pilgrims paid their money far in advance, and their accommodation arrangements in the holy cities were finalized maybe six months ago. This economic crisis started only recently,” Saifaddin said.
Nigeria will be well represented this year. “The largest group (of non-Arab Africans) is from Nigeria. There will be 95,000 Nigerians this year,” Saifaddin said. “The smallest contingent will be from Swaziland.”
Among the other countries handled by Saifaddin’s establishment are Cameroon, Niger, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mauritius.
Basadien said the South African Consulate was ready to assist the guests of God.
“We will have 5,000 pilgrims from South Africa this year,” he said. “We have an official quota of 2,000, but the Saudi authorities have always been very generous in granting whatever number we request.”
The Haj quota is based upon a nation’s Muslim population. According to previous estimates, South Africa’s Muslim population is less than a million, and the number of pilgrims from South Africa has actually gone down.
“We used to have 7,500 pilgrims,” said the consul general. “The number went down to 5,000 last year. And this year, too, we will have the same number performing Haj. One reason for the drop in the numbers is the Saudi rules and regulations that bar people from performing Haj in quick succession.”
According to Mohammed Amin Hartly, a member of the South African Haj Mission, the fluctuation of currency rates has made Haj a costly proposition for South African pilgrims. “On an average the pilgrimage used to cost SR8,000 earlier. This year it will cost around SR10,000,” Hartly said.
The South African pilgrims will stay in the Aziziyah and Ruseifah areas. Somewhat removed from the Holy Mosque, the buildings are new and complete with all basic amenities.
Many of the buildings in Makkah’s central district that once used to house South African pilgrims have been demolished to make way for better buildings either in the planning stage or under construction.The arrival of the first group of pilgrims heralds the start of the 45-day Haj season that peaks in the plains of Arafat, near Makkah, on Dec. 7http://www.arabnews.com/?page=1§ion=0&article=115845&d=28&m=10&y=2008