Hajj through the eyes of a Saudi veteran of the pilgrimage

During Murshid’s most recent Hajj, he was stuck between Mount Arafat (above) and Mina, and had to ask a stranger for a lift back to Mina, as he could not make the journey on foot. For him, this is the spirit of Hajj. (Supplied)
Updated 09 August 2019

Hajj through the eyes of a Saudi veteran of the pilgrimage

  • Zakaria Murshid, 86, has served as a voluntary paramedic, Hajj mutawwif and guide
  • He lauds efforts to make the pilgrimage easier but is also nostalgic about the old struggles

RIYADH: As a child of Makkah and a regular visitor to the Kaaba since before he was 10 years old, no one knows the grounds of the Grand Mosque better than Zakaria Murshid. He told Arab News he has performed Hajj “maybe 40 times,” but probably more.

Growing up in the city, Murshid volunteered with various organizations over the course of many Hajj pilgrimages.

He has been a volunteer paramedic, a mutawwif (someone who leads pilgrims in the traditional rites and prayers of Hajj and Umrah) and a guide. But 86-year-old Murshid is special in one more very personal way for me: He is my grandfather.

When I was growing up, he would regale me with his tales of Hajj. I recall playing with one of his old books that would pop up to become a mini replica of the Kaaba, which my siblings and I would circumambulate while repeating the prayers he taught us.

He would tell us stories of incidents you could only really experience in Makkah: Two pilgrims who speak different languages having an entire conversation without any words, or seeing pilgrims from all over the world come together to help, support and protect each other.

It is the most noble thing a human can do, he told me, and I grew to believe it as the years went by.

Murshid was keen to perform Hajj yearly, and made sure each of his children went on their first pilgrimage as soon as they were old enough. Even when he moved to Riyadh in the 1960s, he took his family to Hajj almost every year.

Over the years, Murshid’s ability to perform the pilgrimage yearly has dwindled for a number of reasons.


FAST FACTS

• Hajj takes about 3-5 days and occurs on the 8-12th of Dhu Al-Hijjah month of the Islamic calendar.

• Pilgrims stay at Mount Arafat, then move to Muzdalifah and Mina, where they perform the stoning ritual at the Jamarat.

• Almost 2.4 million pilgrims performed Hajj in 2018.

• Hajj is the fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam.

• For every Muslim, performing Hajj at least once in their lifetime is obligatory if they are physically fit and financially able.

• Male pilgrims are required to dress in two white sheets. Women can wear normal modest and clean clothes.


 

Aside from factors such as age-related health problems, he said it has become much harder for people to perform Hajj on the spur of the moment.

“It used to be that you could just drive to Makkah and perform Hajj on your own. The regulations have gotten much stricter as of late,” he said.

Nowadays you cannot perform Hajj without a permit, and unregistered pilgrims face hefty fines and risk deportation or jail.

Also, the Saudi government will not issue Hajj visas to individuals who have performed the pilgrimage in the last five years.

But Murshid does think there are benefits to this. “Restricting the number of pilgrims each year gives more people a chance to come for the first time,” he said.

“I consider myself lucky to have been able to perform Hajj so many times. That was a long time ago, however. Things are different now, and maybe for the better,” he added.

“We used to just drive up to Mina, pitch our tents and go along with the crowd. When I was a young bachelor, I’d travel in the back of an ambulance with the Red Crescent or go along with the mutawwifeen,” Murshid said.

“When I married, my wife, children and I would go with family. We’d get our trusty pickup truck, pile the tents and equipment in the back, and drive from Riyadh to Makkah.

“We’d perform the rites often unaided, and things were definitely harder back then. Transportation, for example. If you didn’t have a car, you had to walk everywhere.”




Zakaria Murshid, now aged 86, has worked as a volunteer paramedic, a guide and a mutawwif (someone who leads pilgrims in the traditional rites and prayers of Hajj and Umrah). (Supplied photos)

During his most recent Hajj, he was stuck between Arafat and Mina and had to ask a stranger with an all-terrain vehicle to take him back to Mina as he could not make the journey on foot due to his age.

“That, for me, is the spirit of Hajj — that kindness and willingness to go out of one’s way for a stranger,” Murshid said.

He applauded the government’s efforts to make the pilgrimage easier, with new introductions such as the train system, the organized efforts of licensed Hajj campaigns, and the renovations of the mosque grounds and other facilities.

But Murshid is also nostalgic about the old struggles of Hajj. In his view, people are missing the point of the experience when they seek ultra-luxurious facilities and lodgings.

“The point of the exercise is to struggle, to mingle with everyone out there until everyone is the same,” he said.

“No one should be above anyone. We need to work harder to unify the experience for everyone.”

My grandfather has performed Hajj more times than anyone I know, but he said he would do it again in a heartbeat if he could.

“Hajj is like nothing else in the world,” he said. “The closeness you feel to Allah, the knowledge that all of your efforts and exertions are pleasing Him, and knowing that at the end of the ordeal all your sins will be cleansed and you’ll be as you were the day you were born — those are my favorite things about Hajj.”

Murshid offered advice to the all-female Arab News team performing the pilgrimage this year. “Stick together, take care of each other but, above all, immerse yourselves in the experience,” he said.

“Hajj is the most beautiful thing you’ll ever take part in. And know that you’re making us all proud.” 


LA Italian eatery Amadeo delights the palate in Riyadh Season pop-up

Updated 15 December 2019

LA Italian eatery Amadeo delights the palate in Riyadh Season pop-up

  • Despite minor setbacks he faced while setting up, Vietina considers the experience to be a positive one

RIYADH: Renowned Italian restaurant Amadeo has opened up in Al-Murabba for Riyadh Season. 

The pop-up has started brightly, and head chef Gianni Vietina invited Arab News to sample the menu and chat about his experience.

Vietina, in Saudi Arabia for the first time, said that he loved the location he had set up in, and was very happy to be opening up in the Kingdom. 

“The location is gorgeous. At night, with all the lights on, the music going, it’s very nice.”

Despite minor setbacks he faced while setting up, Vietina considers the experience to be a positive one and that the response was even better than he had expected. 

“Like anything new, you have quests, you have problems. Up to now, we’re doing pretty good. We are up and running. We’re comfortable now, which is a shame as we’re leaving pretty soon,” he said.

He added that he would repeat the experience in a heartbeat if he could: “They were nice enough to ask me to stay in Saudi a little longer, but I can’t. I need to go back home. But I would love to come back.”

He said that while he was not planning to open up a permanent restaurant in Saudi Arabia, he would not rule it out completely.  “I’ve been offered options, and friends have offered to show me locations while I’m here, but I can’t do it right now, I just opened a new restaurant two months ago,” he said.

“I chose the dishes that I know that most of the Saudis that visit my restaurant in Los Angeles like.”

Gianni Vietina, Head chef of Amadeo

The pop-up’s menu contains most of what the original restaurant offers, including his ever-popular penne amadeo and spaghetti bolognese, with the chefs using a combination of imported and locally sourced ingredients. 

“I chose the dishes that I know that most of the Saudis that visit my restaurant in Los Angeles like,” he told Arab News.

For the pop-up, Vietina has stuck to using halal and alcohol-free ingredients. 

“It was challenging at the beginning. But the bolognese at Amadeo doesn’t contain pork, and I realized after we tried cooking without wine that almost nothing changed. I actually prefer it,” he said.

Amadeo is a favorite of Saudis visiting Los Angeles, with Vietina going so far as to describe the restaurant as a “Little Riyadh” on most evenings between July and September. 

He even recognizes some of the customers who have come into the Riyadh pop-up, and always stops over to greet them.

Upon sampling the menu, it’s easy to see why the food at Amadeo has remained popular all these years. 

The eggplant parmigiana is a perfect blend of crusty cheese and silky smooth eggplant, with hints of basil and rosemary. 

The bolognese is rich, meaty and decadent, without being too heavy and greasy. And the penne Amadeo, which Vietina has been eating since his childhood, is a timeless classic of crushed tomato, basil, finished off with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano for a creamy, rich flavor.