Attending my first haj

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A Muslim pilgrim prays as she gathers with others on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
Naceera, 37, a Muslim pilgrim from India, walks during the annual haj pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 21, 2018. "I feel privileged that God chose me this year to be among those who had to fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam. I dreamed for five years to come and perform the haj. I am so thankful," Naceera said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
Haleema, 27, a Muslim pilgrim from Ghana, eats an ice cream on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2018. Haleema is on her fist haj. "I'm happy that I'm here, I pray for God's forgiveness. Sitting in Arafat makes me feel like I am cleaned from all my dirty sins I may have committed in the past. Haj was my lifetime dream," she said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
Aisha (C), 30, a Muslim pilgrim from Nigeria, poses for a photograph at the Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2018. "It's my first haj. I feel fresh. For me haj means worship," Aisha said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Samah (C), 27, a Muslim pilgrim from Syria, walks on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2018. "It's my first haj. I am fulfilling the last pillar of Islam, I am honoured by God to be here," Samah said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Muslim pilgrims touch the wall of the Kaaba during Tawaf al-Ifada after Arafat day during the annual haj pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
Ibtissam Al Assiri (R), 39, a Muslim pilgrim from Yemen, collects stones in Muzdalifa to cast a pillar that symbolises Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia, August 20, 2018. �When the war began in Yemen I never would have imagined that I would one day have the capability to come to haj," said Al Assiri. "God bestowed this place upon Muslims to unite us." REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
A Muslim pilgrim takes a selfie at the Mount Al-Noor, where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad received the first words of the Koran through Gabriel in the Hera cave, ahead of annual haj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 18, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
Muslim pilgrims perform Tawaf al-Ifada during the annual haj pilgrimage at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, August 23, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
A Muslim pilgrim prays as she gather with others on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia August 20, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
Sanjeeda Bagam, 60, a Muslim pilgrim from Pakistan, is wheeled by her son after they cast their stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia, August 21, 2018. Sanjeeda is on her first haj. "When I arrived in Mecca and saw the Kaaba, I had a feeling like never before: joy erased my entire past, as if I only know the present right here," she said. "I immediately took a taste, and now I wish I could come again." REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Djumhuriya (C), 60, a Muslim pilgrim from Iraq, sits in a wheelchair after casting her stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia, August 21, 2018. Djumhuriya drove for three days to reach Mecca and perform her first haj. "I have dreamed of performing haj for a long time. The road from Basra was long, but I was so excited to see the Kaaba, 'the house of God.' Today, I feel like I am born anew," she said. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra 
Muslim pilgrims cast stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia, August 21, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
Muslim pilgrims walk to cast their stones at a pillar that symbolises Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mena, Saudi Arabia, August 22, 2018. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File photo 
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MECCA, Saudi Arabia, Aug 24 (Reuters) - On the plain of Arafat, I stood among hundreds of thousands of people who were all trying to reach the top of Mount Mercy, whilst covering my first haj after 20 years as a photographer for Reuters.

Instead of praying in the traditional way, people were doing it in the “21st-century” way — using their mobile phones to read out prayers and take pictures at the mountain.

There was one woman sporting a bright turquoise ring that caught my eye. Decades of haj tradition dictate the norm is to not wear jewelry.

My first time walking around the holy city of Mecca, I was amazed by the mixture of people. There were Africans, Asians, Europeans, Americans, and Arabs, all coexisting in this tiny place.

In Jamarat, during the stoning of the devil ritual, where pilgrims hurl pebbles at a giant wall, men and women mixed together without the restriction of gender segregation that has been custom in public places in Saudi Arabia for decades.

One day, after taking pictures of sunset prayers at the Grand Mosque, I sat on the side of the road watching thousands of men and women file out. I was surprised at how closely they were all crowded together, something that is frowned upon in most Muslim countries.

That is part of what makes this place so special for me; the haj unites all Muslims, even those who might be waging war against each other back in their own countries.

"When the war began in Yemen I never would have imagined that I would one day have the capability to come to haj," Ibtissam Al Assiri, a 39-year-old pilgrim from Yemen, told me. "God bestowed this place upon Muslims to unite us."

 

'THE HOUSE OF GOD'

One of the lasting impressions I have is from the sound of pilgrims reciting in unison the main verses of the haj rituals. It sounded like a perfectly-synched orchestra. It gave me chills and filled my heart with joy.

More than two million pilgrims attended this year's five-day ritual, which retraces the route Prophet Mohammed took 14 years ago. Many Muslims save their entire lives to attend.

At the stoning ritual, where pilgrims hurl pebbles at three walls in a symbolic commitment to resist the devil's temptations, I met two 60-year-old women in wheelchairs at their first haj.

Djumhuriya, from southern Iraq, made the three-day journey by car to reach Mecca.

"I have dreamed of performing haj for a long time. It took me so long to make it come true. The road from Basra was long, but I was so excited to see the Kaaba, 'the house of God.' Today, I feel like I am born again," she told me.

Sanjeeda Bagam came from Pakistan with her son, who was pushing her wheelchair.

"When I arrived in Mecca and saw the Kaaba, I had a feeling like never before: joy erased my entire past, as if I only knew the present right here," she said.

The extreme heat is a challenge at haj, with daytime temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) this week. As a photographer, I ended up walking a lot more than the 40 kilometers (25 miles) for an average pilgrim.

The light is also very harsh during most of the day. That is a photographer's nightmare, because it means there were only a couple of hours just after sunrise and then again just before sunset when I could get the pictures I wanted.

 

(Click on https://reut.rs/2BIMgG1 to see a related photo essay)

(Writing by Stephen Kalin. Editing by Patrick Johnston)

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