Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

Owner of a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London, Hamdy El-Sawy. (AN Photo)
Updated 09 March 2018

Meet the UK’s oldest Hajj tour agent who helped pave pilgrims’ path to Makkah

LONDON: The maps of Makkah and Mount Arafat are wearing thin at El-Sawy Travel, a Hajj and Umrah tourism agency in St. John’s Wood, northwest London.
Faded finger marks show where owner Hamdy El-Sawy has traced the journeys made by hundreds of British Muslims he has taken on the sacred pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia over the past four decades.
“I enjoy serving them— they are the guests of God,” said El-Sawy, rubbing eyes that are rheumy with age.
When El-Sawy established his business in 1978, he was the only Hajj group tour operator in the UK. Today, scores of similar businesses take more than 25,000 British citizens and residents to Saudi Arabia each year to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam.
Times have changed since El-Sawy first visited Saudi Arabia in 1974. Traveling from his native Egypt to undertake the Umrah, he journeyed by sea. “I think it took 40 hours,” he recalled with a laugh.
After moving to London and setting up a translation company in the late 1970s, El-Sawy began organizing weekend bus trips across the country for London’s Muslim community.
“One day we were coming back from Manchester when somebody asked, ‘When is the big trip?’ I thought maybe he wanted to go to the Lake District or Wales. So I said, ‘where would you like to go?’ He said: ‘The Hajj’”
The pilgrimage to Makkah is one of the five pillars of Islam, with all able-bodied Muslims required to visit the holy site at least once.

El-Sawy led the first British Hajj group to Makkah in 1981, taking 47 Muslims from all different origins and ethnicities on the sacred journey. The “very simple” town of Makkah where El-Sawy landed with his first group of pilgrims has long since given way to a global hub with infrastructure capable of managing the annual arrival of 6.5 million faithful from across the globe each year.
“There has been a lot of improvement,” El-Sawy said.
Other tour operators agreed. Abu Tahera, who has worked with with Birmingham-based Premier Hajj Tours for a decade, said that communication between authorities in the Kingdom and the UK has improved markedly.
“I’ve been doing this for about ten years, and there have been a lot of changes in terms of logistics, and in terms of the way the [Saudi] embassy deals with the issuance of visas…. It’s getting better and easier,” he said.
Another change has been in the cost of the Hajj. The first year he led a group on the Hajj, El-Sawy charged pilgrims £325 ($451). Today, Hajj tours purchased through his business cost between £4,000 and £6,500.
Nevertheless, Britain’s Hajj tourism industry is thriving despite the appreciable price tag on packages. On average, tours cost £5,000, with super luxury itineraries selling for £13,000 and more, according to Rashid Mogradia, CEO of the Council for British Hajjis, a UK national charity which promotes the welfare of British pilgrims. According to statistics provided by the City of London, British Muslims spend £90 million on pilgrimages each year.
Despite the considerable sum, more and more British Muslims are investing in the journey. “The UK market is very strong and growing.” Mogradia told Arab News. “The more reputable and licensed operators are showing an increase in their bookings.”
Between 2016 and 2017, the number of British residents embarking on the Hajj jumped from 19,000 to more than 25,000, while the number taking the Umrah soared from 75,000 to 100,000 over the same one-year period.
Mogradia said that the sharp increase is due in part to the Islamic calendar, which changes each year and currently sees Hajj fall during the summer months. “People are off work, it’s the holiday season and its easier for them to undertake the pilgrimage.”
However, other reasons may also be behind the dramatic increase in British pilgrims: “The fact that in the time where Muslims are under constant attack you have the prevalence of Islamophobia within the UK and around the world— the Hajj is seen as a spiritual rejuvenation. People go and seek solace through their faith,” said Mogradia.
The average age of UK pilgrims is decreasing, several operators said, as British families today bring young children on the Hajj. But there is also a cross-generational mix not seen previously as middle-aged Muslims take older parents along with them.
The younger generation of pilgrims demand top quality Hajj services. “People are doing research before going,” said Tamim Ahmed, managing director of the family-owned Ahmed Travel, based in East London. “Ten years ago when I first started in the market, people didn’t do much research: they went to their local mosque and [selected] which group was easiest to join,” he said.
“People look for the best hotels: it’s about quality to make sure their Hajj is done properly,” said Ahmed, whose company took more than 350 British muslims on the pilgrimage. “People are shopping around for packages,” he explained.

Afghanistan has half a million widows, and the number is increasing, says government

Updated 24 June 2018

Afghanistan has half a million widows, and the number is increasing, says government

  • Some 15 kilometers southeast of the capital is the “zanabad,” or city of women, built completely by widows
  • Widows are the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan

KABUL: The burden of life has made Masooma look twice her age. Her life story in many ways is similar to those of several hundred thousand other Afghan women who have become widows since the latest conflict began here more than 40 years ago.
She lost her husband in a rocket attack 17 years ago in Kabul and since then has been feeding and raising her five children, doing jobs such as cleaning and laundry.

Looking frail and exhausted, Masooma is now part of the army of Kabul’s municipality and cleans roads in the city where the gap between the rich and poor is widening, thanks to the flow of foreign aid that has largely ended up in the pockets of commanders and those with links either to the government or foreign troops, as Masooma laments.

“I hate to beg and am proud of my job. I'm happy to earn a livelihood in a legitimate way,” Masooma told Arab News, sweeping a road and wearing an orange gown and a tight headscarf.

Like the rest of her female colleagues, she cleans the streets by braving the attacks, the rising heat in summer and extreme cold in winter.

Her eldest child is a young man now and he is a bus conductor, helping her to pay the rent for the house and sharing other responsibilities. 

But her life has been a long struggle in a male-dominated society where women are perceived largely as owned by their father before becoming their husband’s property and widows are often rejected or regarded as burdens.

“You cannot imagine the hardships I have gone through. It is not easy to raise five children without a father, without money and a house,” Masooma said.

Widows are the most vulnerable people in Afghanistan. They suffer violence, expulsion, ostracism and sometimes forced remarriage, often with a brother-in-law, as reported by the UN Mission in Afghanistan in a study in 2014.

Ferooza, another widow, lost her husband 20 years ago during a clash with the Taliban in northern Baghlan province. She moved to Kabul along with her daughter, Habiba. They have similar jobs to Masooma, with no health or life insurance in a country in the middle of war that relies on foreign aid.

“Life is very tough for widows. It is not easy for women to clean the streets day after day, for months and years, but we do not have an alternative. We are content and feel happy that we are working rather than being a burden on others,” Habiba told Arab News with a mild smile.

According to the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, Martyrs and Disabled, there are more than 500,000 widows in Afghanistan, most of them war widows. Of these, 70,000 are breadwinners for their families, the ministry said in recent statistics given to the media last week.

Some 15 kilometers southeast of the capital is the “zanabad,” or city of women, built completely by widows. The first women settled on this stony-slope location outside Kabul in the 1990s, hoping to escape the stigma they are forced to endure.

Today it is known as Afghanistan’s "hill of widows," home to a cluster of women who have eked out independence in a society that shuns them.

Ninety percent of them are illiterate, some even taking care of as many as eight children, Hashratullah Ahmadzai, spokesman for the ministry, told Arab News.

“We are in a state of war. The number of women who become widows is increasing. Those who fight on the government side and those on the side of the Taliban and the miltants have wives and mothers too. People on both sides suffer and women on all sides are affected more than anyone in this war,” Ahmadzai said. 

War widows who are registered by the government receive some meagre annual help from the ministry, but that does not meet the need of the victims, he said.

Gul Ghotai, head of the statistics department at the Ministry of Women Affairs, said the government lacks any strategy on creating vocational or short-term jobs for the widows.

“The ministry of women has done nothing on this. The government as a whole has failed to address the widows’ problems because it does not have the capacity. It has not even come up with a plan as to how to tackle the problem,” she told Arab News.