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Letters from the Desert (4) Snappy Haircut - Been to Mecca?

Dear Barry:

There is a severe hair shortage in Jeddah right now. Saudi Arabia is a conservative country (to grossly understate the case) and long hair is not looked upon kindly. It won't get you arrested, at least not in Jeddah, but people will stare. The exception is beards, although these usually show up on sheikhs or sheikh wannabes. But right now, more than ever, large numbers of nearly bald men are wandering the streets of the Kingdom. These men have been on Hajj.

Ramadan happens every year, everywhere there are Muslims. Hajj is different. Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim is expected to make once in his lifetime, providing he can afford it, and it will not leave his family at risk. Jeddah is the modern gateway to Mecca, the port of entry this year for more than a million international faithful seeking to join a million or more Saudi's on Hajj.

At King Abdul Aziz Airport in Jeddah there are two terminals. During most of the year only one terminal is used. It handles all the national and international flights and is as well - or as poorly - organized as any other big city airport. There are shuttle buses from the runways to the terminal, and there are the inevitable long lines at customs. The terminal is modern and air conditioned, although there isn't a lot of duty free shopping.

The second terminal is far more interesting. It is styled to resemble a complex of huge tents and it seems to be largely open air. This is the Hajj terminal, the arrival point for some 4,200 or more flights of pilgrims. (So says the government - I wasn't out there counting.) The tent shape is symbolic. Most of the pilgrims landing here will spend much of their time in the sprawling tent city the government sets up each year around Mecca.

4200 flights seems a lot, but my compound is at the end of the city nearer the airport, and jets are common in the skies. In the daytime you hear them rumbling overhead, at night you see their lights blinking in the sky, two or three or four at a time circling the city.

This year there were a million or more such international travelers, and most of them landed in Jeddah. Then most of them were herded onto buses and driven down the highway to Mecca. I'd like to have gone myself, to see the rituals and the Muslim holy shrines - there are two holy shrines in the Kingdom, by the way, which is why the current King has taken to calling himself "The Defender of the Two Holy Mosques". I am not allowed to go, though. Mecca is off limits to any but the faithful. This is strictly enforced.

Every foreigner has an iqama - a sort of internal Saudi version of the passport. This is necessary because your employer takes and holds your passport as soon as the iqama is processed. As well, one needs travel letters - written permission from your employer to go anywhere outside of the city you work in. My iqama is brown. If I were a Muslim, it would be green. My employer would never give me a letter to travel to Mecca, but even if I managed to get one, my Iqama would keep me out. I would be directed politely but firmly to take the highway bypass that shuttles all non-believers past Mecca with not so much as a glimpse at the holy city.

Hajj itself is a complicated ritual lasting several days for the man who wants to do it all by the book. This isn't absolutely necessary. There are short versions, so I am told, although that is kind of taking the easy way out. However one performs Hajj, special seamless white robes are worn, symbolizing "ihram", a state of purity and holiness, the kind of state the faithful aspire to when they circle the Ka'bah.

A large rectangular structure draped in black, the Ka'bah is the heart of the Islamic religious world. It is circled seven times, and it
holds Hajar al-Aswad, the black stone which pilgrims will touch or kiss. Pilgrims also trek seven times between Mount Safa and Mount Marwah. They sacrifice animals, throw stones at three pillars in Mina representing the Devil, and visit several other holy sites outside Mecca. It can be physically draining, and in days past death was a common companion on Hajj.

The modern version is easier. The Defender of the Two Holy Mosques has water readily available, air conditioning in the shrines where possible, and an army of soldiers, medical personnel, and fire fighters available to handle whatever might happen. He has a lot of barbers, too.

Somewhere after the animal sacrifice or after stoning the Devil (I have been given conflicting versions) men get their head shaved. Any Muslim man who goes to worship at Mecca throughout the year gets a haircut there. But with a million or more Saudi's and a million or more international pilgrims lining up, Hajj hair cutting is a production line kind of thing, rather like a B movie version of American army recruits getting their long hair reduced to a buzz cut. Women get their hair cut as well, though not as severely. A lock from one side, one from the other, maybe one or two from the back.

Hajj is a sacred ritual, and the pilgrim who makes it is supposed to be accorded an extra measure of reverence, but some people still look funny with a buzz cut. There has been much hooting and laughing at one or two teachers here in the last day or so. I don't know the exact translation from the Arabic, but it's pretty clear it starts with something like, "Snappy haircut - been to Mecca?" It goes downhill from there, at least until the bell rings and classes call. Which is happening right now.

One thing before I go, Barry. The Hajj haircut is symbolic, but a very real barber has to be paid. At 10 Saudi Riyals, about 2 1/2 Canadian dollars, the cost is not exorbitant. On the other hand, there are 2 million plus pilgrims. That's a lot of hair.

From the Kingdom,

The Major


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