A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Hajj in the Age of H1N1

I haven't yet posted anything about this year's Hajj, but the month of Dhu'l-Hijja (literally, the month "of the hajj") begins today and the Saudis have announced that the crescent moon was seen last night and thus the Day of ‘Arafat — the second and central day of the hajj — will fall on Thursday, December 26: the same day as Thanksgiving in the US. The ‘Id al-‘Adha celebrated by Muslims worldwide will also occur over the US Thanksgiving weekend this year. (I'd better write my holiday posts ahead of time: my family won't let me blog during Thanksgiving dinner.)

The hajj is often billed as the largest gathering of human beings in one place, at one time, for a single purpose, on earth, and I can't think of what other claimant to that title there might be. Up to three million people assemble in Mecca for the days of the hajj; though Muslims may make the lesser pilgrimage (‘umra) to Mecca at any time, the hajj only occurs once a year, and is considered a pillar of Islam: incumbent on the believer once in his or her lifetime, if possible. All those millions perform the same ritual on the same days at the same time.

There are always the usual security concerns about the hajj: about large scale movements of crowds that have led to trampling deaths on several occasions; political actions by other pilgrims (Iran was long a major problem on that score), and so on: but this year there's the added factor of the H1N1 virus. The Saudi media has stopped using the term "Swine Flu" so far as I can see (it would be pretty inappropriate in this context, anyway). But concern over a mass outbreak due to the large crowds gathered for the hajj has been under discussion for some time. As far back as the first stirrings of the virus last spring, Egyptian clerics were suggesting suspending the hajj or other drastic measures. The Saudis seem determined to encourage people to make the pilgrimage, while discouraging those who might be especially vulnerable and, of course, seeking to screen out any infected pilgrims at the point of entry.

For details in English language media, I can refer you to
a CNN report, a Saudi Gazette article about the Army of health professionals checking arriving pilgrims at Jidda Airport, a somewhat overlapping Arab News story about precautions taken by the Health Ministry, etc.

As the hajj approaches I'll no doubt have more to say.

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