For Pilgrims Traveling Unofficially, Performing the Hajj Can Be a Harrowing Journey

A Jordanian details the business of smuggling people into Mecca and the ordeals that face those who succeed

For Pilgrims Traveling Unofficially, Performing the Hajj Can Be a Harrowing Journey
Pilgrims arrive to perform the symbolic “Stoning of the Devil” ritual at Mina, as part of the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. (Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images)

Since childhood, I have dreamed of going on pilgrimage and visiting the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. I often imagined myself walking the sacred path, responding to God’s call: “At your command, O Allah, at your command. You have no peer; at your command. Indeed, praise and blessings are yours, and dominion, you have no peer.” In my prayers, I would seek acceptance and atonement for my sins.

However, I always wondered how I could fulfill this dream given the limited opportunities to perform the Hajj and the logistical challenges involved. Four decades ago, in my home country of Jordan, a decision was made by the foreign ministers of the member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. They endorsed measures taken by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to determine the number of pilgrims using a ratio based on each country’s population, as compared with the global Muslim population. Since Jordan’s population is a small fraction of the world’s Muslims, only a few Jordanians are permitted to perform the pilgrimage each year. Priority is typically given to the elderly or, sometimes, granted through favoritism. Consequently, I concluded that my chances of performing the Hajj through the formal route were slim, if not impossible.

Two months before the Hajj season, a trusted friend informed me of an opportunity to perform the Hajj, albeit informally. In 2019, Saudi Arabia began issuing visitor visas as part of its efforts to encourage tourism and diversify its national income sources. These visas allow holders to visit Saudi Arabia for a full year, with the exception of Mecca during the Hajj period. Last year, my friend said, many people used these visas to perform the Hajj pilgrimage.

I decided to try this method, a decision I now deeply regret. I had often heard the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but I never imagined that my attempt to perform the Hajj outside the official pilgrimage system would lead me to a nightmare.

For years, we have heard about the tragic deaths during the Hajj pilgrimage, historically caused by stampedes during “the Stoning of the Devil” ritual in Mina, near Mecca. Notable incidents include the 2015 stampede that claimed the lives of over 2,200 people and the crane collapse at the Masjid al-Haram, the Great Mosque in Mecca, on Sept. 11 of the same year, which resulted in 110 fatalities and 209 injuries because of severe winds and heavy rain.

While these incidents had sometimes been a genuine concern for me, I had come to terms with their likelihood, especially given the millions of pilgrims who gather annually from all corners of the globe. These pilgrims bring varying levels of awareness, civility and organizational skills, to put it mildly.

Never did it cross my mind that the primary danger during this Hajj season would come from the scorching sun and heat exhaustion, which took the lives of hundreds of so-called irregular pilgrims. Despite their good intentions and noble purposes, they could not escape the tragic fate that awaited them.

Although many news agencies have reported the deaths of over 1,300 pilgrims, most of whom were “irregular pilgrims,” I felt that these reports were impersonal, reduced to mere statistics. This is why I have chosen to share my experience, from booking my tickets to the kingdom to being smuggled into Mecca and ultimately to facing near-death situations multiple times while performing the Hajj informally under the blazing sun.

My friend informed me that he had contacted trusted individuals working in official Hajj missions who could arrange for us to complete the Hajj this year for around $3,000. He assured me that hundreds of thousands of people in Jordan and Egypt use this method as a viable and relatively affordable way to circumvent the quota policy and reduce the exorbitant Hajj expenses without encountering significant challenges. After some hesitation, I agreed, and we reached out to those responsible for facilitating our entry into Mecca. Our motivation came from our long-held dreams, our religious fervor and our personal interpretations of the Quranic criterion for the Hajj: “ … by all who can make their way to it.”

A WhatsApp group was created to coordinate the trip, and we paid a deposit of $1,500, with the remainder to be transferred after successfully completing the Hajj journey.

Things were going well in the first days until we were surprised by an unexpected crackdown by the Saudi security services. We took a plane to Medina on June 7 and spent three peaceful days there, visiting the Prophet’s Mosque and the Noble Rawdah. Our stay in Medina was disturbed only by news confirming that the Saudi security services had unusually tightened procedures on irregular pilgrims and were determined to prevent them from entering Mecca this year.

As this news broke, we contacted Sheikh Bilal, the Hajj “broker” responsible for facilitating our entry into Mecca and securing accommodation and transportation during the Hajj. He confirmed the accuracy of the reports and acknowledged that the situation had become unexpectedly complicated. However, he reassured us that there was still a great opportunity to be smuggled into Mecca via “kaddadin” (unlicensed taxi drivers) along the desert route between Jeddah and Mecca. These drivers smuggle irregular pilgrims for exorbitant sums of money, exploiting the Hajj season and people’s desperate desire to perform the pilgrimage by any means necessary.

After a long wait, we received a call from Sheikh Bilal informing us that we needed to go to a place called the “10-Kilometer Stop” to be smuggled into Mecca. The stop is a spot along the old Mecca Road where legal taxi drivers and kaddadin gather to transport passengers to various cities in Saudi Arabia, such as Tabuk and others. This area is just half an hour away from Mecca by car. The plan was for us to reach the stop, where one of these kaddadin would take us to Mecca.

When we arrived at the stop, we were surprised to find the place crowded with people, especially from Jordan, Palestine and Egypt, their faces bearing the marks of despair, fatigue and total exhaustion. Upon inquiring why they were here, we learned that many had been arrested earlier and expelled from Mecca to this area. Some, financially and physically depleted, were preparing to return to their home countries, while others remained steadfast, determined to try again to enter Mecca with the help of the kaddadin, whatever the cost.

Our smuggling journey to Mecca began after we agreed to pay the driver 1,000 Saudi riyals (about $266) per passenger. During our negotiations, the driver advised us to agree quickly, warning that the price would increase significantly with each day of delay. Reluctantly, we agreed to pay the amount immediately and set off toward Mecca.

As we drove, I noticed the driver communicating with his acquaintances and other drivers in a coded language full of riddles. At a certain point on the road, the driver instructed us to jump out of the car and run as quickly as possible toward a house under construction on the opposite side of the road. This was to avoid a checkpoint and find a way around it.

While hiding, I had the chance to become acquainted with my travel companions. One of them, from Algeria, had an ironic story, given our circumstances. He explained that he had spent his life smuggling gasoline and livestock from Egypt to Algeria via Tunisia. When he finally regretted his actions and decided to perform the Hajj to seek repentance, he found himself on a “smuggling pilgrimage” to Mecca, as if smuggling was his inevitable destiny, for better and for worse.

After a few minutes of jokes and laughter, the driver returned, and we piled back into the car to continue our journey to Mecca. As we approached the final checkpoint, I felt a surge of fear when a police officer stopped us and asked for our licenses. The driver replied that we did not have any licenses. Much to our surprise, the officer allowed us to pass. To this day, I still wonder if he was cooperating with the driver and had agreed on a certain percentage of our payment or if it was simply fate that placed a kind-hearted man in our path who would facilitate our entry into the holy city.

Once we passed the final checkpoint, our hearts were overcome with joy, and we began to chant prayers and praise for the driver. He turned to us, proud and with a sparkle in his eye, and then asked us to pay the full amount we owed. We handed him our fares, wished him well and set off on our way to Mecca.

Our “irregular Hajj” took a new turn after we entered Mecca. Initially, everything was calm. After arriving at our residence in the Aziziyah neighborhood, we took a rest and then bought clothes for “ihram” (the sacred state). Our building was humble, hired by Sheikh Bilal through his people, one of the thousands of buildings in Aziziyah that are transformed into accommodation during the pilgrimage season. Owners of these buildings usually offer them for lease in return for money. We made our way, blending in with the crowds of pilgrims to the Great Mosque, performed the “tawaf al-qudum” (circling the Kaaba upon arrival) and completed the “sai” (walking back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwa). Seeing the Kaaba for the first time was a sublime experience; I could hardly believe I had made it this far along my journey. I did not, however, have any idea what the coming days held in store.

Upon returning to the residence, I realized the security threat was still present. My friend and I got to know the other residents of the building, who were also irregular pilgrims. They shared stories of repeated raids, violence, door-breaking and expulsion to Jeddah. For three days and nights, we did not dare leave the residence for fear of arrest by security patrols. We advised each other to keep the lights dim to avoid attracting attention and resorted to buying our food surreptitiously or through authorized persons.

Tensions reached a fever pitch as the Day of Arafah approached, one of the most important rituals of the Hajj: standing on Mount Arafat on the ninth day of the month of Dhul-Hijjah. If we were unable to perform this ritual, our Hajj would be invalid. The mountain was approximately 12 miles away from Aziziyah, where we were staying. All the irregular pilgrims began contacting Sheikh Bilal, who was supposed to fulfill the most important part of our agreement: arranging a licensed bus to take us to Mount Arafat. After descending from Arafat, we were to be transported to Muzdalifah to stay for a night and then attend the Stoning of the Devil at Mina. However, Sheikh Bilal, our facilitator, stopped answering our calls. We persisted for several hours but to no avail.

After midnight, fearing we would miss the Day of Arafah, we all decided to set off on foot from Aziziyah to Mount Arafat. It was striking to see scores of elderly pilgrims traveling the same route with great determination, walking without fuss despite the great distance and their feeble bodies. We walked on, as buses of regular pilgrims and police patrols passed by. We reached the outskirts of Mount Arafat at sunrise, extremely tired and thirsty. I don’t know what happened to the elderly who were left behind. It seemed as though this march was endless, and I could not go any further. I spread out on the ground to rest.

As the heat became more intense, I sought a place to shield myself, only to find every inch of shade along the way to Muzdalifah occupied by other pilgrims. With temperatures soaring to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, I decided to stay on the street passing in front of Namira Mosque. This street was wide and equipped with water sprinklers along the sides that provided some relief from the scorching sun.

As midday approached and the sun reached its apex, the shade dwindled, making the place even harsher for the pilgrims who had sought refuge. This was one of the most difficult moments of my life, as all conditions colluded to add to my misery. I have high blood pressure and had not brought my medication with me. Additionally, I had the flu, was thirsty and hungry, and had not eaten a morsel the night before out of fear of needing to use the bathroom, which was an impossible goal amid the crowds of millions. Under such circumstances, my strength began to wane, sweat poured from my forehead and filled my eyes, and extreme drowsiness took hold. I began to fall into an intermittent slumber, and the only things waking me were the screams of those crushed by the extreme conditions or the unintentional kicks from other pilgrims as they tried to step over us in search of shelter from the sweltering sun.

In this dire state, I was saved from the brink of death by a generous Egyptian woman who happened to cross my path. Amid our indescribable distress, one woman began screaming in extreme panic, her limbs trembling. Other women rushed to her, wiping her face and head with water. She awoke from her fainting state filled with fear. They made her sit next to me, and she muttered incomprehensible words before falling silent again. During this time, I heard my Pakistani neighbor criticizing the lack of infrastructure and facilities for pilgrims on Mount Arafat, saying, “What harm would it have done if they had built large canopies in this vital place like those in the courtyards of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina?” I responded sarcastically in broken English, “It seems to me that they have more important priorities than the pilgrims to the House of God, the Neom project being one.” I was referring to the multibillion-dollar “city of the future” that sits unfinished in the desert.

Overhearing our conversation, the Egyptian woman seemed to realize from my broken English that I was an Arab like her. She asked me a few questions and told me of her own unforeseen ordeal. Then she told me something that saved my life: that the Namira Mosque, the largest mosque in Mount Arafat, was open to worshippers. She advised me to rush there immediately, even if it meant forcing my way in, to save myself from the heat. Following her advice, I made my way to the mosque, thanking and praising God for sending this woman to guide me to this solution. Suddenly, I found myself transported from the blazing heat to the bliss of air conditioning.

My fate quickly took a turn for the worse as the sun set on the Day of Arafah and the pilgrims began moving toward Muzdalifah, three miles away, to spend the night there. Staying overnight in Muzdalifah is one of the main rites of the Hajj, and I had now been walking under a scorching sun for nearly 24 hours without water or food. On the way to Muzdalifah, I saw pilgrims spread out on the streets, using each other’s bodies for shade to avoid sunstroke. When we arrived at Muzdalifah, we decided to spend the first hours of the night there to fulfill the overnight stay and then return to our residence in Aziziyah.

Like everywhere else on this journey, danger followed me on the way back from Muzdalifah to Aziziyah. After midnight, I started looking for a taxi to take me to my residence. A police officer informed me that there was no way I could find a taxi anywhere in Muzdalifah, a wide area that stretches for miles. Later, I knew the Hajj organizing bodies allowed only authorized buses to freely operate in the area to facilitate their movement, a policy that left irregular pilgrims with no option but to walk very long distances on foot. However, the officer directed me to a remote bridge where I might find a cab or board a bus. I walked until I reached the bridge, where I asked another police officer to help me find transportation. He obliged and halted a bus to take me along.

As I looked out of the bus window, I saw what felt like hundreds of thousands of people of all races and ethnicities, all sleeping on the ground in Muzdalifah, spending the night in complete silence in public squares, under bridges and inside tents. It was an incredible sight, unlike anything I had ever seen.

However, the bus driver became angry with me because his destination was far from where I intended to go, and he forced me to get off in a dark and lonely place between tall black mountains. Here, I felt the noose tightening around me. My exhaustion had reached its peak, and I could no longer move or walk. For the first time, I felt genuine fear and the threat of death. My strength was drained, and I was hungry, thirsty and sick. I had walked over 12 miles from the Aziziyah neighborhood in Mecca to Mount Arafat, stayed in Arafat for many hours under the hot sun and then continued walking an additional three miles to Muzdalifah. In Muzdalifah, I walked more than six additional miles in search of a taxi to take me to my residence.

Summoning the last of my strength, I continued walking until I reached a camp for a delegation of regular pilgrims. I found them sleeping on clean mattresses with carpets underneath. Fortunately, I discovered an almost empty carpet, so I sneaked onto it to sleep until morning, hoping no one would see me. In the dark of the night, I collected leftover water from used plastic bottles to drink and quench my thirst. After hydrating and feeling a bit more at peace, I lay down on the carpet and fell asleep.

While I slept, a young Saudi man wearing Ihram clothes noticed me. Concerned that my private parts might be exposed, he covered me and instructed a worker to bring me two pillows. His noble behavior encouraged me to share my troubles and ask for help finding a taxi to take me to my residence. Through our conversation, I learned that he was as chivalrous and generous as many of the security men I had encountered. He suggested I stay with them until morning and promised to take me wherever I needed to go.

In the morning, he met me in his pickup truck and drove me to Mecca, giving me instructions on the correct route to reach my destination. I bade him farewell, feeling immensely grateful to this man who had helped me silently and without expecting a single word of thanks.

After this incident, I completed the Hajj rituals and participated in the Stoning of the Devil. On the way to the stoning rites in Mina, I saw pilgrims who had died or were taking their last breaths, lying on the sidewalks among piles of empty water bottles. The sight, shockingly, did not alarm anyone. These were cruel and terrifying moments that made me question the purpose of the Hajj if it ends in tragedies like these for some families. I also pondered whether our decision to undertake the Hajj in such a risky manner was correct, and if all of this was the result of poor planning and lack of forethought.

In truth, this was a journey fraught with dangers but rich and intense with events. It showcased examples of unparalleled patience and determination to complete the Hajj. One such example was a pilgrim named Omar, a man in his early 50s. He came to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa about five weeks before the Hajj and stayed in Aziziyah with a group of young men. Omar worked in a center for memorizing the Quran, and hundreds had graduated under his guidance.

He was optimistic, patient and determined to complete the Hajj no matter the cost. Whenever I complained to him about the difficulty of the situation, he would say, “For shame! Do you not see the elderly men around you, walking on their feet and enduring the most bitter ordeals? So, be quiet!”

Omar and his companions lived in calm and tranquility during the first days of their stay in the neighborhood until the raids began by forces that those around me called the secret police. I do not know their official title, but they were harsher in their dealings than the other security services. One time, after receiving a warning of a raid, Omar fled into the street without having time to put on his shoes. A number of security personnel entered and surrounded the residence, but Omar managed to evade them and escape into the surrounding streets, barefoot. He fled to a nearby hill, where he hid for hours until the danger passed.

When he returned, Omar recounted his experience with a smile. He described his suffering from the pricks of thorns while fleeing on the hill and the burns on his legs from the hot streets, humorously describing this pain as the “delicious” kind that he would talk about for years to come.

After I completed the trip and returned to my workplace, major international newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times began reporting the deaths of a large number of pilgrims, most of whom were irregular pilgrims. According to the Saudi Press Agency, citing Minister of Health Fahad Al-Jalajel, the health system dealt with large numbers of people affected by heat stress during the Hajj season, with some still receiving care. The agency reported that 1,301 people died, 83% of whom were unauthorized pilgrims who walked in the sun without shelter, including the elderly and those with chronic diseases. The situation escalated to the highest levels, with news of investigation committees being formed to look into the circumstances and the referral of individuals and companies to the judiciary on charges of human trafficking.

It was a strange feeling to read about an incident I had experienced in all its details. Seeing people exchange accusations, blame one another and treat the victims as mere numbers felt surreal. I remembered the names and stories, as well as what happened to those affected. On the ground, things were complex and intertwined. There were security men who were so kind and chivalrous that you could not forget them, brokers and moneylenders — some deceitful, some honest but exploitative — and there were people who would come to your rescue, advise you and help you without asking for anything in return.

Since the trip, I have been haunted by the sight of elderly people lying on the sidewalks, struggling to survive. I have spent countless hours grappling with one question: Was this tragedy preventable? Were the unauthorized pilgrims who evaded the laws and fell victim to the human traffickers responsible for this tragedy? Or does the responsibility lie with the governments of countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt that failed to put in place the right mechanisms to protect people, cater to their needs and effectively manage the Hajj season?

I don’t have all the answers. I know only that many Muslims have dreamed their whole lives of going to Mecca to fulfill their religious duty, just as I have. And I know that the bureaucratic and practical obstacles remain in place — perhaps they are even more cumbersome. And, unfortunately, there will always be unscrupulous actors like Sheikh Bilal, willing to sell you the dream at the expense of great harm, even death.

Become a member today to receive access to all our paywalled essays and the best of New Lines delivered to your inbox through our newsletters.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy