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This year’s Hajj was held in sweltering heat, and for those serving pilgrims there was little relief

by Lucas Garcia
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Hajj pilgrimage

This year’s Hajj took place amidst scorching temperatures, providing little relief to those serving the pilgrims.

Under the blazing sun, hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims followed in the footsteps of the prophets. Meanwhile, contracted cleaners, dressed in lime-green jumpsuits, offered plastic bags to collect the empty water bottles left behind by the pilgrims.

The annual Hajj pilgrimage, which accommodates 1.8 million faithful from around the world, requires the assistance of tens of thousands of cleaners, security personnel, medics, and others. As the Hajj concluded on Friday, these workers embarked on a massive weeklong cleanup operation.

For the migrant workers serving as cleaners, this event represents a much-needed source of income. However, this year proved to be particularly challenging as temperatures soared to around 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) throughout the five-day pilgrimage, which predominantly takes place outdoors with minimal shade.

“This job is not easy,” expressed a 26-year-old trash collector as he briefly paused to splash water on his face before swiftly returning to his duty, anticipating the arrival of the next wave of pilgrims. Speaking anonymously due to fears of reprisal, he was one of six cleaners from Bangladesh who shared their experiences. They revealed that they earned 600 Saudi riyals (approximately $160) per month and worked 12-hour shifts without any days off for several weeks surrounding the Hajj, only to resume their cleaning responsibilities elsewhere in the kingdom.

The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca represents one of the five pillars of Islam, obligating all Muslims who are physically capable to undertake it at least once in their lifetime. This year marked the first time in three years that the Hajj took place without coronavirus restrictions.

As the Hajj came to a close on Friday, pilgrims circled the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure, for a final time before departing from the holy city. Following the ritual stoning of pillars representing the devil, men often shaved their heads while women cut a lock of hair, symbolizing renewal.

Despite the intense heat, pilgrims firmly affirmed that the journey was worthwhile. For many Muslims, it serves as the pinnacle of their spiritual lives—a transformative experience that absolves sins and brings them closer to God. Some individuals save money for years and eagerly await a permit to embark on this sacred expedition.

The Hajj also serves as a source of immense pride and legitimacy for the Saudi royal family, the custodians of Islam’s holiest sites. They invest billions of dollars in organizing this annual pilgrimage, which stands as one of the largest religious gatherings worldwide.

While the Hajj holds profound significance for the pilgrims, it is also a job for the cleaners, and this year’s heat made it an especially arduous one.

The relentless sun beat down on the open spaces and roads, reflecting a blinding light off the white marble of the holy sites. Some days lacked even a gentle breeze, while on others, hot winds stirred up gusts of sand. Cellphones overheated and shut down within minutes.

According to the Saudi Health Ministry, over 8,400 pilgrims received treatment for heat exhaustion or heat stroke, with almost half of them requiring hospitalization.

Mehwish Batool, a 29-year-old from Pakistan on her first pilgrimage, resorted to using a spray bottle to prevent dizziness. She found little shade except for the umbrella hat she wore. “There is nothing here, there is only the sun right above us,” she lamented. “I love the experience, but the worst part is the heat, and there is nothing to protect us.”

Saudi authorities installed canopies and industrial misters in certain locations. Pilgrims carried umbrellas and spray bottles, drenching themselves with water and gratefully accepting free drinks distributed along the routes between the holy sites. Subsequently, they discarded their bottles into the bags held by workers or left them on the ground to be collected later.

Usama Zaytoun, a spokesperson for the Mecca municipality, mentioned that a total of 14,000 workers were contracted from private companies to handle the cleaning duties during and after the Hajj. He refrained from commenting on their salaries or working conditions but asserted that there were no reports of health issues among the workers this year.

Zaytoun explained that the post-pilgrimage cleanup typically takes around a week. Municipal workers gather the waste and feed it into 1,200 industrial compactors before sending it for processing. They also disinfect and treat the streets, campsites, and bridges in and around Mecca with pesticides and disinfectants, aiming to safeguard the environment and prevent the spread of diseases.

The efforts of the workers do not go unnoticed. Sheikh Dawood, a 40-year-old Indian pilgrim on his first journey, was among several who were observed giving money to the workers as a gesture of charity during Eid al-Adha, a holiday focused on acts of philanthropy that coincides with the final three days of the Hajj. Other pilgrims offered water or refreshing sprays from handheld misters to the cleaners.

“They are doing a great job,” Dawood praised. “Their service is excellent, and we cannot express it in words. They deserve support.” He believed that working in such extreme heat would bring the workers even greater blessings from God.

“I think everyone is very thankful for them,” he added.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Hajj pilgrimage

What is the Hajj pilgrimage?

The Hajj pilgrimage is one of the five pillars of Islam and is an obligatory religious journey for Muslims who are physically able to undertake it. It takes place in Mecca and is a significant spiritual experience.

How many pilgrims participate in the Hajj?

The annual Hajj pilgrimage accommodates approximately 1.8 million faithful from around the world. It is one of the largest religious gatherings globally.

What are the working conditions for the cleaners during the Hajj?

The cleaners, often migrant workers, face challenging conditions during the Hajj. They work long hours, usually 12-hour shifts with no days off, and endure sweltering heat reaching up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).

How do the cleaners cope with the heat during the Hajj?

Cleaners try to cope with the heat by using spray bottles, seeking shade from umbrellas, and accepting drinks distributed by pilgrims. However, the extreme heat remains a significant challenge for them.

How is the post-Hajj cleanup managed?

After the Hajj concludes, a massive cleanup effort takes place. Approximately 14,000 contracted workers handle the cleanup, collecting waste, using industrial compactors, and disinfecting the streets, campsites, and bridges in Mecca.

What support do the workers receive during the Hajj?

Some pilgrims offer financial donations or provide water and refreshing sprays to the workers as a gesture of gratitude and support for their service during the Hajj.

What is the significance of the Hajj pilgrimage?

For Muslims, the Hajj pilgrimage holds immense spiritual importance. It is a journey of purification, forgiveness, and a means of drawing closer to God. It is considered a transformative experience for many believers.

More about Hajj pilgrimage

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