Mecca wakes up for business

Once prayers are over, places around the Grand Mosque are transformed into a big bazaar and business booms.
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Published on Jan 31, 2004 09:00 PM IST
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PTI | ByTaieb Mahjoub and Awad Awad (Agence France-Presse), Mecca

Once prayers are over, the roads, bridges and tunnels around the Grand Mosque in Mecca are transformed into a big bazaar, where the shops fill up and business booms.

On a stall at the entrance to a tunnel leading to the mosque, a Jordanian pilgrim trying to buy more worry beads haggles with a Nigerian vendor over the price, insisting he picked them up cheaper at an earlier stall.

The increasingly angry vendor, a 30-year-old woman called Khadija, finally refuses to serve her demanding customer.

"I won't sell to you anymore," she tells the Jordanian pilgrim, who was bargaining for 12 sets of worry beads during the first day of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Khadija has laid out the worry beads and scarves labelled "made in China" on the ground.

"I bought them for five riyals (1.30 dollars) a dozen (somewhere else). Why should I pay seven," says the Jordanian, who then moved two metres (yards) along to another stall where he bought four dozen more sets of beads from another African vendor to take home.

The same scene is witnessed in the many shops selling tunics, prayer mats, or household goods and electrical items.

"I can find them cheaper somewhere else," says Salah, a Yemeni pilgrim, as he leaves an electronics shop, two plastic bags in hand.

"Come in 'hajjis' (pilgrims)," calls an employee in front of another shop, speaking in an Egyptian accent as he beckons prospective customers. A group of African pilgrims oblige, while others, Asians, show no interest in the gadgets on offer, which are largely made back home.

The midday call to prayer, like the others throughout the day, suddenly paralyses life here.

Traffic stops or slows down, and the faithful and merchants turn to pray towards the Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure in Mecca revered by Muslims as the house of God.

Policemen, deployed in large numbers, do the same. The voice of the mosque imam, broadcast through a microphone, resonates across the whole area.

Then the town comes back to life, and the rush to the restaurants in the middle of the day, like the evening, is tremendous. The numerous cheap restaurants and American fast-food joints are stormed. And it's a long wait until being served.

"We work from 10:00 am to two in the morning. We serve 35,000 to 50,000 meals per day, without being in a position to satisfy all our customers," said Mohammed, an Indonesian, who along with three other Asians runs a small corner restaurant in a modern tower block next to the Grand Mosque.

The presence in Mecca of some 1.7 million faithful, of which 1.4 million came from overseas, transforms the town into a hive of activity as it is inundated with a stream of 'religious tourists' dividing their time between meditation and shopping.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims will also visit the holy city of Medina, some 400 kilometres (250 miles) to the north, which houses the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as the many sites around Mecca.

Some pilgrims, at times including the older faithful, make the difficult climb the Jebel-Nour, or Mountain of Light, located six kilometres (four miles) from Mecca, to visit the Ghar Hira, a cave where the Mohammed received the Koran, according to tradition.

The hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is required of able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, if they have the financial means.

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