With the tragic, and it seems entirely avoidable deaths in Mina this year, I am reminded of the stifling heat and chaos of leaving the tent city during my own Hajj in 2011.
The story of that particular trial follows:
Leaving Mina was an emotional rollercoaster. I went from despair to ecstasy with detour through all the flavours of anger.
Shia and Sunni leaving times are separate. You might think that the fewer overall numbers of Shia would make our exit shortly after midday a seamless and trouble free affair, with the true chaos to follow. How wrong, oh my Lord, how wrong.
Someone had pinched the wheelchair. It is heavy and does not fold up into a particularly compact shape, so I found it eventually outside one of the Iranian tents. The tingle of annoyance began here, let’s call it 1 on the overall scale, although my wife might argue my baseline of irritation is about 5.
A bit of deep breathing and the reassurance of locating Mum quickly helped me regain my Hajji calm. We joined the queue to go up the concrete steps to the exit gate. The stairs were split down the middle by a narrow ramp, theoretically a plausible way of rolling the wheelchair up without trying to carry it, but in practice gravity is as inevitable as the day of judgement and the stairs were very steep. I resorted to carrying it, surrounded by Iranian women, probably from the same tent that had attempted the wheelchair theft. In any event they seemed to have some momentum of antipathy towards me, and no sympathy for the fact that I was trying to lug a large metal object up steep stairs in a crowd. There were inevitably some bumps and scrapes.
A few people helpfully pointed to the ramp as if I was some kind of moron. I tried again, to show goodwill, and more people got hurt. When two objects try to occupy the same space the hard metal one is likely to win over the soft fleshy one. At times like these I think the grey matter at the head end of the soft fleshy things should take charge. Alas it seemed the folks around me were using the very soft fleshy bits at the back and halfway down for decision making.
By the time I got the top of the steps I was probably on a 6, but the relief of getting there eased me back to a 3.
Trust me on the maths, there were about a quarter of a million Shia attempting to leave Mina through one gate a couple of metres wide. In Hajj terms this is a reasonable but not overwhelming crowd. There were also police 4x4s, policemen on foot, and importantly, a huge crowd of Sunnis trying to go the other way and get into Mina before their own official departure time.
I spotted our group flag, pointed it out to mum, who was by now a couple of metres and a dozen bodies away, and steeled myself to forge through the intervening distance. At a guess I had about twenty metres to traverse. Progress was in inches. At every step the wheelchair caught on something. That something was invariably attached to a someone.
Sailors thrown overboard in a storm may feel like this as an unthinking, unreasoning force drags them away from the tantalising sight of safety.
I went sideways, I went backwards, and rarely did I go forwards. The police looked on impassively. At one point they tried to force their 4×4 through the crowd, and then gave up. I lost mum, I got shoved and shouted at, it was insanely hot, and everyone was trying to breathe the same air and sucking in each other’s carbon dioxide. And then the red mist came down.
I was in a hostile crowd with a significant weight of pointy metal. Things could have gone very badly, but some element of the Hajj spirit remained. I wasn’t going to force my way through, but I was not going to be moved. If someone pushed and hurt themselves on the wheelchair, so be it. I planted my feet, set my shoulders and secured my grip on the frame of the folded wheelchair.
My determination must have shown in my expression. My pleading and apologies had had no effect, but looking at my clenched jaw and flinty eyed glare the crowd parted minutely. I edged painstakingly through the crowd to the group flag. They were an eye of calm in the storm of humanity around me, and I was welcomed in with arms draped around my shoulders. There was no relief; there was no sign of mum.
I asked them to look after the wheelchair while I dived back into the writhing mass of bodies and those same welcoming arms held me back. I was on the verge of panic. I looked to the heavens and vowed a day’s fast if mum made it through the crowd safely.
An agonising minute passed, I scanned the crowd desperately, trying to see over the heads for her diminutive form. A second minute passed, bodies surged away from us and deeper into Mina. She would be carried back by the incoming Sunni tide as far as the Jamaraat before the crowd thinned, and that would be the best that I could hope for.
Raza’s wife emerged from the inexorable press of bodies. As the men at the outer edge of our group parted to let her through to safety, she said: “Ali bhai, I’ve found Auntie, she’s with me.”
Sure enough there was mum. I closed my eyes for a moment to give thanks and ushered her to safety too. I did not begrudge Allah the two minutes of panic. Any less than that would have required a more overt miracle of the moon splitting variety.
As the group slowly coalesced we moved en masse towards the main gates. I was at the edge with Raza and still towing the wheelchair when a lady from another group collapsed near us. It was a moment of real danger. Falling in a Hajj crowd has a high probability of ending in death.
I opened out the wheelchair as the crowd struggled to make some space, and the people with the lady helped her sit in it. Raza, with great presence of mind popped out a couple of glucose tablets which they gave her.
I realised then why I had fought to bring the wheelchair through the crowds, this lady needed it. I gave it up then. There was a man with the lady, he could have been brother or husband. I used hand signals to tell him to take the wheelchair. After demurring several times he accepted, only for the lady to surge to her feet, and decline the help. The glucose tablets had kicked in, and her momentary faint in the press and heat had passed.
We settled mum into the wheelchair, which was decidedly the worse for wear, and then began the long walk back to Azizia.
My Hajj diary is available here
Further extracts here