Why Is It So Hard?


It's time for a pause in looking at the rituals of Hajj and their spiritual impact on pilgrims to consider how this phenomenon is reported. This is the largest annual gathering of people on the planet. The most diverse accumulation of people anywhere. An extraordinary set of events that everyone has to complete on a set schedule. The threat of disease, disaster, and getting discombobulated looming at all times. What a story!

Due to religious restrictions all reporters, producers, camera people and other technical crew are Muslim. You'd be amazed how many stellar and qualified professional Muslim journalists there are. Reporters covering the Hajj this year represented Reuters, Al Jazeera, Saudi Television and Radio, ITV Johannesburg, Córdoba Internacional (Spain), Turkish TV, the Gulf Madhyamam Daily of India, Indonesian press, German, Ghanaian and other countries I can't recall. Not surprisingly there are very few Americans. In fact I only met one other: the accomplished photojournalist Samia El-Moslimany.

My team was two British citizens, an Indian, and a young woman from Denmark who has U.S. residency. In 2003, when I directed "Inside Mecca" for National Geographic, my crew was British, Egyptian, Syrian, Turkish and Canadian. In 1998 they were Sudanese. In each case I was ship's captain and the only U.S. citizen. Until this year I was the sole woman on my team. Just like the hajjis, we journalists were a multi-cultural mélange of the planet. And like them we faced our trials.

Telling the hajj story in long form is always difficult -- three times out of three for me, at least. You're not reporting a daily story but integrating yourself in the ongoing experience of individuals. You've got to be there when they wake up and watch them end their day. Ain't nobody got time for sleep.

Producing and reporting Hajj for "Religion and Ethics News Weekly" in 1998 was a killer because I went alone, with no credentials, no crew, and nothing but a fascinating pilgrim I'd found back home who I needed to locate among the two million people gathered in Mecca. Divine intervention got me credentials. Relentless effort by R&E's production manager turned up a crew. Eight hours of walking in the blistering heat of March in Mecca found me my man. My Sudanese crew chief channeled Crocodile Dundee and gates opened before him, making it possible to cross the barrier of "no" that seems to be the Saudi first answer to every request. Crocodile Dundee Daoud rigged our camera and a light to a car's engine when the batteries died so we could complete an interview in the middle of the night. I left Mecca believing in miracles.

For National Geographic I ran three teams -- each attached to one of the three pilgrims whose journeys we followed. In hindsight the hindrances we experienced as police, soldiers, pilgrims and sojourners all took turns telling us "no" were but simple gifts to teach us patience and perseverance -- two of the great and consistent lessons of the Hajj. Somewhere an eleventh commandment must read, "Thou must have patience and let the will of God play out in its own time." The 12th would insist, "Thou shalt not give up under any circumstances even though trials will smite you and test your will to keep your temper and your word." The tests facing the pilgrims were mirrored in our filming experience.

I've reported from Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries since 1984 and I can't believe "just luck" had it that only once in nearly three decades was anyone ever rude to me because I'm a woman. To me it seems that stereotype is wildly over stated. In most instances manners do prevail and did ... until this time. Maybe it wasn't the gender card. Maybe it's that I'm American. Right now U.S.-Saudi relations are apparently at a perilous low. Or maybe it was just bad luck. Maybe it was God testing my team and me above and beyond expectation. Just like the Hajjis. Just as God tested Abraham/Ibrahim (What? Kill my son?), Jonah (Oh please, not a whale!), Noah (Build an ark?), Moses (Cross that sea?), and Jesus, whose tests are too numerous and tragic to list. Mohammad the Prophet, too, had to lead his followers where no one had gone before in terms of religion, governance, war and diplomacy.

Whatever the reason, my team faced huge challenges in getting our job done. On the good side, our subjects were terrific: articulate, emotional, available and accessible. The visuals were unimaginably beautiful, haunting, and surreal -- you've seen the photos of Hajj: it's a cinematographer's dream. On the other hand, the people assigned us by the government to ease our way seemed intent upon barring our every move. We tried diplomacy, coddling, coaching, and complaining. We were patient and missed opportunities; we persevered and missed more opportunities. We gave up the idea that the car promised us would show up on time. We walked miles hauling two cameras, two tripods, an audio mixer, and sacks of water. We worked until one am and were "wheels up" (with no wheels) at four practically every morning. Ain't nobody got time to rest on the Hajj. Ain't nobody got time to be lazy. Ain't nobody got time to lament life's unfairness or wonder why it's so hard to function professionally. Invent Plan B, C, and D and do it.

The Ministry of Culture and Information housed and fed us with the other journalists at a compound overlooking the tent city of Mina. The rooftop served as a studio for television coverage. One background was the dazzling new four-story Jamrat, where pilgrims symbolically stone Satan. Another background was the myriad tents of Mina under which pilgrims eat, rest and pray. A third was the distant clock tower of Mecca, so tall it peaked over mountaintops between Mecca and Mina, a beacon for all to know the direction of the Ka'aba.


The Ka'aba. The direction to face and pray. Therein lies the lesson: for my crew, for me, for millions of pilgrims. The quest is to permit yourself absolute surrender to God's will no matter the circumstances, while simultaneously giving it all you've got to make things turn out. Abdicate control while projecting your intention as fiercely as you may. It's the pilgrim's paradox. It's something to practice for the rest of our lives.

Keep clicking those ruby slippers, Dorothy. Only Glinda knows what's next.

Hajj Blog Anisa Mehdi