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.


• 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.” 

Saudi Arabia calls for international action over decaying Red Sea oil tanker

Updated 16 July 2020

Saudi Arabia calls for international action over decaying Red Sea oil tanker

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia has called for strong and decisive international efforts to deal with the global threats posed by a decaying oil tanker moored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast.

During a virtual meeting on Wednesday of the UN Security Council to discuss the stranded FSO Safer vessel, which is loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil, the Kingdom’s permanent representative to the UN, ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, highlighted the “grave risks” the ship presented.

The 45-year-old tanker has been anchored about 60 km north of Hodeidah since the start of Yemen’s civil war five years ago. Iran-backed Houthi rebels agreed on Sunday to allow a UN inspection team access to the ship for a maintenance check.

Al-Mouallimi said: “I would like to express our appreciation for convening this session to discuss the hazardous situation of the tanker and the dangers it is posing to the environment and maritime navigation in the Red Sea.

“The grave risks associated with this floating oil tanker threaten to cause harm to the Southern Red Sea and to the world at large as it is situated in the proximity of Bab Al-Mandab (Strait), through which vital international maritime navigation passes through between Asia and Europe.

“This dangerous situation must not be left unaddressed, and the Security Council bears primary responsibility for securing the safety and security of the area,” he added.

The envoy told delegates that an oil spill from the FSO Safer could have the potential to be worse than the devastating 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

He pointed out that loss of oil from the ship could also result in the closing of the port of Hodeidah for months, leading to severe shortages in the supply of fuel and other essentials to the people of Yemen, and severe long-term damage to the region’s fishing industry.

Marine life, the environment, and Saudi shores would also be seriously and adversely affected, he added, and toxic gases and black clouds from any major spillage would damage agricultural land in vast areas of Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

“The Security Council has already asserted the need to confront the risks associated with this situation and warned against the catastrophic consequences that would result if this situation remains unresolved. The Security Council did so in its resolution 2511 (2020) and its press statement issued on June 29, 2020,” said Al-Mouallimi.

“We took notice of the announcement made recently by the spokesperson of the UN secretary-general that the Houthi rebels have agreed to allow access to the tanker.

“We remain suspicious of the Houthis plans and intentions, and request that the Security Council must remain vigilante and should stand ready to declare strong and decisive measures to deal with this situation and eliminate the risks posed by it.”

The ambassador said that the Kingdom stood ready to take all necessary steps that the Security Council may deem fit to handle the situation.

“The council must not allow such reckless and irresponsible behavior to stand. The council must ensure that a political solution for the conflict in Yemen is found based on UN Security Council Resolution 2216, the GCC initiative, and the outcome of the National Dialogue Conference, acknowledged by the international community as the elements of international legitimacy.”