Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj
Anisa Mehdi became the first US journalist to cover the Hajj for television. (AFP)
Updated 14 August 2018

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj

Telling a story of epic dimensions: How media cover Hajj
  • Hajj adds up to one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on Earth
  • A big event demands a media operation on a commensurate scale

MAKKAH: The numbers alone are simply staggering — last year involving 40,000 civil servants, 17,000 civil defense personnel, eight air ambulances and 300 ambulances on the ground, 2,000 Saudi Red Crescent representatives — all with the same mission; to look after more than three million people from more than 80 countries speaking goodness knows how many different languages.
Hajj adds up to one of the biggest gatherings of humanity on Earth. By comparison, Christmas mass at the Vatican, with 11,000 in attendance, looks like an intimate occasion.
In terms of religious gatherings, only the Hindu pilgrimage, the Kumbh Mela, is bigger with about 100 million to 120 million participants. But that takes place over two months, not two weeks, and rotates around four different locations.
A big event demands a media operation on a commensurate scale. Sky News Arabia, to name but one network, is sending a team of 15, from the London, Cairo, Riyadh and Jeddah bureaus.
Some reporters will mingle with the masses in search of heart-warming stories of family reunions and dreams come true. Others will be in the air, circling overhead in police helicopters.
BBC Arabic, the British public service broadcaster's Arabic service, is sending “a small team, including a reporter and local producer.” Planning began in early June and the coverage will include digital and Facebook content.
This year the Saudi Ministry of Media said that it will be offering “state of the art facilities” to the 800 foreign journalists who are expected to descend on Makkah and its environs.


 There are fully equipped media centers with computers, and a new online portal will be an official source of news and information about the Hajj.
By far outnumbering the “official” journalists are the so-called “citizen journalists” — essentially people recording their Hajj experience on their mobile phone and posting it on social media, with the full blessing of the authorities.
While news outlets have to apply for permits to film or record, pilgrims taking selfies to post on Instagram face no such restrictions.
Arab-American Muslim journalist Anisa Mehdi said that Dr. Saud
Kateb, then Saudi Minister of Culture and Information, told her in 2013: “We’re all about citizen journalism now.”
In 1998, Mehdi, who is half-Iraqi, became the first US journalist to cover the Hajj for television. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “It wasn’t necessarily the government getting in my way, although I had to plead my case when I got there with only a Hajj visa and wanted permission to film. I had to explain why it was essential for the audience I was serving to dispel misconceptions and they (the Saudi authorities) understood that.
“There was simply no tradition of having journalists there so there were no facilities. There was nowhere for the cameraman to recharge the battery for the camera. He had to attach a cable to a car so I could continue an interview. There were no mobile phones so if you wanted to find someone you had to walk. It took more than four hours for me to find one subject in Mina. All I knew was that he was in Camp 19, but there were no maps and it was 110 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Mehdi returned in 2003 for National Geographic and again in 2014 for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) series “Sacred Journeys.” Despite having all the necessary permits, she and her crew were prevented from filming at the entrance to the plaza leading to the Haram.
The solution, which saved both time and hassle, was to distribute small cameras to Hajjis and let them capture the atmosphere in their own way. The minister approved, maintaining it was a good way to project a positive image.
“It’s not only the mainstream media. For non-Muslims it’s good to see the real Muslims,” Kateb told PBS. “Muslims are not having the right image all over the world, and I think we have a big responsibility to show who real Muslims are.”
The fact that the Hajj is a Muslim ritual does not mean that it holds no interest for non-Muslims.
“If you look at press coverage year in, year out, the main reason for interest in the Hajj outside the Muslim world is firstly that it’s perhaps the largest gathering of so many people from so many different parts of the world together in one place at one time,” said Dr. Sean McLoughlin, professor of the anthropology of Islam at Leeds University, who studies Muslim diasporas.
“Another headline issue that has featured periodically in the UK is the radical expansion of the Haram and the commercial redevelopment of Makkah in recent years, and especially the impact of this on Muslim history and heritage.
“However, beyond this focus on the infrastructural and organizational side of Hajj, the journeys of the pilgrims are also a genuine human interest story.”
McLoughlin said that US network CNN pioneered coverage from the Holy Places more than a decade ago. A 2003 documentary on Channel 4 in the UK “gave a genuine insight into pilgrims’ religious motivations an experiences of the sacred journey,” he added.
“There is a fascination too with the spiritual magnetism of perhaps the last place on Earth that non-Muslim Westerners cannot visit.”
In fact, CNN’s coverage of dates back 30 years, but the network is not sending a team this year because resources are taken up with covering other breaking news stories in the region.
The media — both mainstream and social — have an important part to play in challenging the perception of Muslims as “other,” said Dr. Chris Allen, associate professor at the Center for Hate Studies at Leicester University.
“In Britain, religion is a private matter. For Muslims, that line between the public and personal is less clear. If it’s presented well, without the element of preaching, if it focuses on the human story, then coverage of the Hajj has the potential to draw people into what, in Britain at least, is a niche subject.”
Does that mean Hajj is best explained to a Western audience by Western media?
“There is, in fact, very little of the ‘weird practices’ type of reporting,” said Allen. “Stories about people being fleeced by scam Hajj tour operators is not negative reporting, it’s legitimate consumer affairs journalism.
“Reporting on a tragedy like in 2015, when people died in a stampede, is not negative. It was newsworthy. There is an interest in Hajj, but it’s not a sinister interest.”
The influence of social media should not be dismissed, he added.
“The reach may be smaller and more localized than mainstream media, but put a lot of those smaller networks together and it adds up.”
He recounts how staff at his daughter’s workplace rearranged the rota so that a Muslim colleague was able to be at home for iftar during Ramadan.
“He was the only Muslim in the place and the reason the non-Muslims understood about Ramadan was because he had spoken about it. Small numbers can make big changes,” said Allen.
The success of the 2012 exhibition “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” at the British Museum in London demonstrated the growing appetite for better understanding of the Hajj, said Professor McLoughlin.
Several UK production companies have sought to make documentaries since then. BBC One was planning to run a two-part series following Nadiya Hussain, winner of “The Great British Bake Off,” on her Hajj.
While these projects have not all been realized, there is ample evidence that the importance of good media coverage is well-recognized.
Last year the Muslim Media Practitioners of Nigeria organized a conference in Lagos to “examine how robust media coverage can enhance the performance of the spiritual exercise.” It was attended by the Lagos State Deputy Governor, the Commissioner for Home Affairs, the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, States Pilgrims Welfare Boards, private tour operators and airline representatives as well as the media.
McLoughlin said that the new media facilities fit into Saudi Arabia’s plan to expand Hajj and Umrah numbers significantly in the next decade to increase the role that religious tourism will play in the national economy. But there is more to it than that, he added. “Hajj has always been a focus for intra-Muslim exchange and diplomacy.”
Mehdi is now executive director of the Abraham Path Initiative, an NGO that has opened up 2,000 walking trails through Jordan, Palestine and Israel, following the journey of Ibrahim/Abraham, a figure revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike.
“The aim is to promote understanding and bring people together,” she said. “And that’s the point of the Hajj too.”


Hajj numbers

An estimated 2.4 million people performed Hajj last year.

Snapchat launches new shows for Ramadan

Snapchat launches new shows for Ramadan
Updated 15 April 2021

Snapchat launches new shows for Ramadan

Snapchat launches new shows for Ramadan
  • New line-up of 60 shows on Discover covers a variety of topics including comedy, lifestyle and cooking

DUBAI: Snapchat has announced its new slate of shows for Ramadan 2021, which will bring more content from Discover partners to the app.

Snapchatters will have access to 60 new shows curated in partnership with broadcasters, digital publishers, and creators in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Discover partners have created shows such as “Robe’3 Nejmeh” from Rotana Group; “Azma bel 3azba” from Dubai Media; and creators’ shows including “Noor Stars” and “Banen Stars” from Diwan Group; “La Tagoolha” from the Saudi Broadcasting Authority; “Lovin Saudi Ramadan Eats” from Augustus; “Anasala Family” from Alfan; and “Cosmo Mukbang” from ITP.

“People are spending more time on social and communication platforms nowadays, and are becoming more engaged with mobile content. A large number of our audience in the region are using Snapchat every day,” said Fahad Alkhamisi, Head of Digital Media at Saudi Broadcasting Authority.

“Therefore, we are leveraging our successful partnership with Snapchat to provide them with new and exciting content this Ramadan, and we look forward to extending this collaboration that will give them an enjoyable screening experience in the future.”

Snapchatters in the region claim that they will spend 30 percent more time on their social and communication apps this Ramadan compared to last year, leading to these platforms creating more content for the holy month.

Snapchat currently has a monthly addressable reach of 67 million in MENA and 18 million in Saudi Arabia alone.

In Ramadan 2020, Snapchatters in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, spent 77 minutes daily on the app on average. In Saudi Arabia, more people watch content on Discover than on any of the other top 10 TV channels.

“People want to consume content on their mobile phones and at their own convenience. Snapchat’s Discover is the new digital majlis for Snapchatters during Ramadan and is the natural evolution of the story format, with shows that are made by the region’s top media publishers, editorially selected, brand-safe, and made just for Snapchat,” said Sara Abu Zahra, head of Strategic Media Partnerships, MENA & India, at Snap.

The Ray Hanania show compares Ramadan in US and Saudi Arabia

The Ray Hanania show compares Ramadan in US and Saudi Arabia
Updated 15 April 2021

The Ray Hanania show compares Ramadan in US and Saudi Arabia

The Ray Hanania show compares Ramadan in US and Saudi Arabia
  • The Kingdom is using technology to help ensure a more normal holy month than last year, Arab News’s Rawan Radwan tells the Ray Hanania Show
  • Meanwhile there is a growing acceptance among Americans of the importance and significance of this time to Muslims, says US-based professor

Muslims around the world celebrated the start of Ramadan this week, but the experience and traditions of the holy month can vary widely from country to country, especially in the pandemic era.

In Saudi Arabia, for example, the latest technology is being employed to protect the health of worshipers visiting the two most sacred mosques in Islam, Arab News deputy section editor Rawan Radwan explained during an interview on radio program The Ray Hanania Show on Wednesday.

Meanwhile acceptance in the US of Ramadan as an important religious occasion is continuing to grow, according to Saeed Khan, a history professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Radwan said that authorities in the Kingdom have launched two apps to help ensure that only those who have been vaccinated, or are in the process of receiving the shots, can join others to pray and worship.
“Just before the start of Ramadan, the Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques issued a series of guidelines and protocols with the relevant authorities involved, as well such as the minster of the interior and the minister of health,” she said.

“All of this is to ensure that every worshiper and all pilgrims that arrive at either the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah or the Grand Mosque in Makkah receive the proper care and attention that they deserve. Their health comes first.”

Radwan said Saudi authorities require visitors to the mosques to provide documents that confirm COVID-19 vaccination status. When this is verified, worshipers are given set time slots for their visit to maximize participation but avoid overcrowding.

“We have gone digital,” she added. “We are digital by default. We have something like a health passport — it’s not a health passport per se, it is an application that will allow you into establishments and commercial establishments across Saudi Arabia.”

The app, called Tawakkalna, displays a barcode along with the name of the user, an ID number and a color that reflects the health status of the individual.

“If you are vaccinated and you are fully immune, then it is a darker green color,” said Radwan. “If you just received one jab then it is a lighter green. If you just arrived from the US it could either be a blue or purple color and that could (mean) you need you to isolate.”

Ramadan last year was severely affected by the start of the pandemic, as lockdowns prevented people gathering to pray and families from getting together for iftar. The latest measures introduced by the Saudi authorities to protect public health, she said, have raised hopes that this year’s Ramadan will be more normal. But there are still precautions that must be followed.

“The rules are very strict, very, very rigid,” said Radwan. “You cannot enter (the mosques) unless you are vaccinated and unless you have recovered. You have to go through certain entryways.

“You can’t even enter with your car. A bus will take you after you prove you have a reservation, and then you can enter. And, of course, you can’t make any reservation except through (the app).”

Those who are eligible to visit the mosques are given scheduled entry times and they can spend up to two hours there.

“Worshipers at the Grand Mosque in Makkah are allowed to perform Umrah all hours of the day, said Radwan. “Those wishing to pray are only allowed in to pray, and then leave. The Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah closes after evening prayers (and) reopens about a half hour before the Fajr, or Dawn, prayers. Again, the reason is they have to ensure the people arriving are safe.”

Cleanliness and protecting the health of the public are priorities, she added. More than 10,000 workers have been assigned to the Grand Mosque, which is sanitized 10 times daily. More than 200,000 bottles of holy ZamZam water are distributed to worshipers each day.

In the US, meanwhile, there is a growing recognition and acceptance of Ramadan as an important Muslim religious occasion, said Khan.

“At the same time, Muslim Americans are developing more visibility and more acceptance within broader society, (on) a few different levels,” he added. “Corporate America is certainly recognizing Muslims Americans; we see a lot more companies and stores not only providing Ramadan greetings but also providing Ramadan products, greeting cards and other kinds of Ramadan paraphernalia.

“But I think the most important thing that we are seeing is at the institutional level. Schools are becoming much more accommodating to the needs of young Muslim students, recognizing that maybe students that are fasting during the daylight hours might be operating in a slower gear.

“There is now recognition in the largest public school district in the country, New York City, that the Eid festival will be recognized as a public holiday for school students.”

Khan said that this growing acknowledgment and acceptance of Ramadan is the result of community-based educational efforts, and an understanding by Muslims in the US that when Americans of other faiths ask questions about Islam it is not always intended as a criticism.

“There is always more that can be done,” he added. “Part of the essence of that really is to be neighborly and not to be offended by somebody who is asking a question. Most of the time the questions come from a very good place and good faith, wanting to learn.

“There certainly are people who ask the ‘gotcha’ questions but, generally speaking, we find when it is a neighbor, a coworker or a colleague, they just want to know. We can’t necessarily presume everyone knows, that somehow it is self-evident.”

Khan said the evolving experience of Muslims in the US is similar to that of devotees of other religions in America.

“I always noticed that on Fridays the menu in the cafeteria (in school) was always the same,” Khan said by way of an example. “It was fish sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. I learned later that had to do with Catholic students and meatless Fridays.” Although the rules have changed in some countries over the years, Catholics traditionally are prohibited from eating meat on Fridays and on the main religious holidays.

“So, the US has always had that mechanism to go ahead and accommodate religious minorities. Muslims are no different,” Khan added.

Despite the positive signs of growing acceptance of Muslims and their faith, many still face discrimination, however.

“Unfortunately it seems like it is going to be a challenge that will be with us for quite a while,” said Khan. However he added that this is something that can affect people of all faiths.

“I think it is important to remember that it is not necessarily only directed against Muslims,” he said. “I remember in 2012 when Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and now the senator from Utah, was the presidential candidate on the Republican ticket, there were a lot of people who had a problem with a Mormon being someone running for high office.”

• The Ray Hanania Show, sponsored by Arab News, is broadcast in Detroit on WNZK AM 690, in Washington DC on WDMV AM 700 on the US Arab Radio Network. 


UTURN, Facebook sign content partnership for Ramadan

UTURN, Facebook sign content partnership for Ramadan
Updated 14 April 2021

UTURN, Facebook sign content partnership for Ramadan

UTURN, Facebook sign content partnership for Ramadan
  • Launching during Ramadan 2021, exclusive content will be shared across the Facebook pages of the group’s publications
  • Webedia Arabia Group attracts viewership and engagement of 44 million people through its five main publications

DUBAI: UTURN, part of Webedia Arabia Group, has partnered with Facebook to unveil a series of videos throughout the year.

Launching during Ramadan 2021, exclusive content will be shared across the Facebook pages of the group’s publications,,, and UTURN.

Webedia Arabia Group attracts viewership and engagement of 44 million people through its five main publications.

With an emphasis on celebrating cultural nuances, it is especially focusing on developing content for its growing number of Generation Z and Millennial users.

“UTURN, part of Webedia Arabia Group’s key strengths in data, reach and ability to localize content for audiences across the Middle East and North Africa, in combination with the unique support services pioneered by Facebook, can lead the market and make a real impact on our regional audiences,” said Bilal Hallab, regional general manager of UTURN.

The campaign will kick off with the launch of 89 long-form videos (over three minutes each) that will be published throughout Ramadan.

Audiences will have access to three videos daily and more than 270 minutes of content during the month. 

More content will be produced and showcased throughout the year as part of the partnership agreement, which will result in exclusive content on topics including beauty, food, parenting, pop culture and gaming.

3a2ilati will share the diaries of a mother and daughter, as well as storytelling formats covering parenting and educational content for kids during Ramadan; Yasmina will focus on beauty topics; Atyab Tabkha will feature food-related content; Saudi Gamer will produce storytelling content revolving around news and happenings in the gaming scene in the Kingdom; and UTURN will broadcast a game-focused line-up with Saudi pop culture at the heart of its content. 

“In today’s digital age, watching video content is no longer a passive experience but a social one,” said Moon Baz, strategic partner manager for Facebook in the Middle East and North Africa.

“Through our partnership with UTURN … we are excited to unveil Ramadan-themed content that can encourage viewers to engage in conversations, and become active participants in these stories that can ultimately drive some social good.”

StarzPlay strengthens Turkish content offering with BluTV add-on

StarzPlay strengthens Turkish content offering with BluTV add-on
Updated 14 April 2021

StarzPlay strengthens Turkish content offering with BluTV add-on

StarzPlay strengthens Turkish content offering with BluTV add-on
  • StarzPlay subscribers can watch Turkish content dubbed in Arabic with BluTV add-on free for first 3 months

DUBAI: StarzPlay has launched a new add-on partnership with BluTV, Turkey’s first and largest local subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) service, which is globally available for all Turkish- and Arabic-speaking audiences.

With this new partnership, StarzPlay subscribers in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) will have access to BluTV’s Turkish catalogue dubbed in Arabic.

The add-on will be available as a dedicated branded area across all StarzPlay’s existing platforms. The service will be free for the first three months.

The partnership accelerates StarzPlay’s expansion strategy to deliver diversified content for its growing subscriber base.

Earlier this year, the streaming service launched two add-on services in partnership with global brands discovery+ and Ultimate Fighting Championship.

It also ramped up its Turkish content offering just before Ramadan through partnerships with MISTCO, an international brand management and content distribution agency, and Calinos, an Istanbul-headquartered Turkish company that distributes Turkish series, movies and TV programs across international platforms.

“In the highly competitive SVOD sector, it is important to update our content offering continuously and provide diversified entertainment choices that are relevant to our subscribers,” said StarzPlay co-founder Danny Bates.

“Our partnership with BluTV is an extension of our business strategy for 2021 as we continue to make inroads in content aggregation.”

The shows available via BluTV on StarzPlay include “Yarım Kalan Aşklar”, “Gürkan Chef”, “Aşk-ı Memnu”, “Yeşilçam” and “Meryem.”

Aydin Dogan Yalcindag, founder and CEO of BluTV, said: “Our investor, US TV giant Discovery, has an established partnership with StarzPlay in the MENA region, which presented a great opportunity to expand our services into new markets and offer true value to customers.”

Finyal Media launches new branded podcast ‘Al-Silah’

Filmed in Saudi Arabia, the first season of Al-Silah launched on April 13 in time for Ramadan, with two episodes going live per week. (Supplied)
Filmed in Saudi Arabia, the first season of Al-Silah launched on April 13 in time for Ramadan, with two episodes going live per week. (Supplied)
Updated 14 April 2021

Finyal Media launches new branded podcast ‘Al-Silah’

Filmed in Saudi Arabia, the first season of Al-Silah launched on April 13 in time for Ramadan, with two episodes going live per week. (Supplied)
  • Mystery drama podcast series is partnership between GMC Middle East, Next Broadcast Media, Dentsu Aegis

DUBAI: Podcast network Finyal Media, known for its focus on storytelling throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, has partnered with GMC Middle East, Next Broadcast Media, and Dentsu Aegis to create a new mystery drama series.

Eight-parter, “Al-Silah,” is centered on two Saudi brothers embarking on a 13-hour car journey from Jeddah to Dammam in a 2021 GMC Yukon after receiving a cryptic and hurried call from their father asking them to get to Dammam as quickly as possible.

Throughout the drive, the brothers try to piece together the full story from relatives, business associates, and other unexpected sources of information.

Filmed in Saudi Arabia, the first season of Al-Silah launched on April 13 in time for Ramadan, with two episodes going live per week.

Kelly MacDonald, chief marketing officer for General Motors in Africa and the Middle East, said: “The holy month of Ramadan is a period we really cherish at GMC considering our strong connection with the Arab culture.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most important markets for GMC, and we are thrilled to be getting closer to the community through this exciting project featuring our very own 2021 GMC Yukon.”

The new partnership also signified the growth of brand investments in the podcasting industry. Earlier this year, Unilever’s platform Miraa partnered with Finyal Media to release the six-episode podcast series “A Breath, a Step, a Mirror” for International Women’s Day, with more seasons expected throughout the year.

A report last year by UAE-based podcast network, Amaeya Media, found that 50 percent of listeners preferred entertainment-related content, feedback that has been reflected in more brands adopting a storytelling approach to their podcasts.

Leila Hamadeh, co-founder and CEO of Finyal Media, said: “It was really important for us to collaborate with a partner whose brand could authentically and seamlessly integrate into the show in a natural way.

“With the series being the story of a dramatic adventure across the Kingdom, the iconic car brand GMC felt like a very natural fit for the characters in the show.”

Podcasts are becoming a more lucrative advertising opportunity for brands as they offer a complete branding opportunity in a natural and authentic way that is more cost-effective than other platforms.

Lemya Soltani, director of client partnerships at Next Broadcast Media, said: “Podcasts offer our clients the opportunity to reach their audience in a contextually relevant environment where they can get 100 percent of a user’s attention without being intrusive.”

Al-Silah is available for free on Apple Podcast.