Hajj, a unique ritual when millions of Muslims gather in the House of God to complete the fifth pillar of Islam to unclog their sins and give it a new jumpstart.

While it’s a real spiritual experience for most, for some it is a yearly event. Those particularly include the filthy rich, royal and politically acclaimed. After sinning, stealing, cheating, corrupting, and killing in peace all year round, they don the spotless white and perform Hajj, buying their way to a clean slate of renewed piousness and then go back home to pick up life from where they left it.

And why not? After all, that clock tower looming majestically over the Kaaba isn’t going to pay for itself, right?

With so many wanting to seek forgiveness and perform this important fareeza, the whole pilgrimage is an affair of millions – in terms of people and money.

Pilgrim count for 2015 is reported to be approximately 2.5 million. By 2025, it is estimated to rise up to 17 million. According to Jakarta Post, the waiting period for hajj visa for Indonesia is 12 years. It is reported that for 2015, the Saudi Kingdom further slashed hajj visa quota by 20%.

In order to accommodate these many bodies and to help the Kingdom make this holy journey better for their holy guests, Saudi Arabia has extended a $227 billion contract to be completed over a period of 30 years to a Toronto architectural firm, Moriyama and Teshima and engineering company MMM Group.

They have a special airport terminal that is used only a few weeks a year exclusively for Hajj where 22,500 health workers screen 100,000 daily arrivals for tuberculosis, meningitis and flu symptoms. Nurses give vaccine drops to people arriving from countries deemed high health risks. These figures date back to 2006, hence, in 2015, these must have increased.

So yes, we agree, the Kingdom is indeed very in step with this mammoth responsibility that it has to shoulder every year. Also, the hajjis who return safe and sound and alive obviously bring happy news of how well organized everything was for their comfort. We are happy to hear that, too.

However, it gets a tad difficult to ignore the 100-200 killed every two years in stampedes, fires, building collapses, heavy unfriendly equipment falling from the sky, blockades, royal pilgrim intervention…

Year 2015, the crane crash that claimed a 111 lives was soon followed by the infamous Mina stampede that left 1,300 hundred dead officially and over 4,000 unofficially. We’ve heard the figure of 6,000 being tossed around as well but seriously, that many? We’re not even counting the injured, and neither are the Saudis, because that’s a separate toll. According to the Kingdom’s reports, the dead are only a little above 900. In fact, let’s just close at 900 and everybody wins. Except the ones who died, or were injured, or are still missing.

One of the significant advances made in algebra were by Arabs, and now apparently Saudi officials don’t even know how to count.

Anyhoo.

Our question is that despite the massive construction plans underway and the trillion facilities handed out for the benefit of the pilgrims, the death toll should’ve been less this year compared to the previous stampedes of 1994 (270 died), 1998 (118 died), 2004 (251 died), 2006 (346 died) and 2008 (250 died). But, somehow, 2015 has sufficiently managed to shame them all!

How come? And why?

Apparently, one must not ask these unholy questions to begin with. And if you’re a TV channel, PEMRA will put you in time-out for uttering the same. Daily Mail recently reported that the Kingdom has also issued angry orders to imprison, lash and behead (not necessarily in that order) anyone asking these questions even if they’re on social media. We have no way of knowing if the Daily Mail was the one cracking this joke or was it the Kingdom itself. WalahuAlamBis-Sawab.

So, first of all, death to whosoever shall ask questions.

Secondly, since many already have asked, there are two narratives being dished out.

The first narrative comes straight from the host country itself and is aptly swallowed and regurgitated by blind followers. They blame the dead pilgrims for their own death.

We quote the country’s health Minister Khaed-al-Falik, “The pilgrims had moved without respecting the time tables of Hajj, and if they followed instructions, this type of accident could have been avoided.”

Minister Falik’s words are understandable as we are known to go a little overboard especially when we ‘stone Shaytan.’ We stone him as if he really is standing there accountable for every sin we committed ourselves. Some even squish the ones in front of them in fervor, trying the get the Devil good with the perfect aim. The shoulder-to-shoulder density of that crowd causes suffocation. People may faint, too, under the circumstances. So, his words do make sense; if the 2 million had only continued walking in one direction in all the given paths, there would be no accidents.

Then, there is the issue of ill-mannered, illiterate pilgrims camping out in make-shift tents in every nook and cranny and pathway they can find. Seriously, why can they not just stay inside their air-conditioned pavilions like they’re supposed to?

Lastly, since Islam is not a regional thing, Muslims come in every shape, size and language, and many fail to understand simple instructions like ‘Exit fil here’ to ‘Enter minalyahan’ or even ‘Le danger fil kabir al detour YA RAFIQ!!!’.

Yes, outrageous.

Of late, the Kingdom has made it quite clear to the ones desirous of Hajj visas to get their itinerary planned by a professional travel agent who has been pre-approved by the Kingdom itself. There is a list of agents for every interested country who can plan and sell these packages so they can co-ordinate Hajj activates better with the host government. For instance, UK has about 80 Saudi-approved agents who can handle Hajj travel for British Muslims, and arrangements made by only these 80 are acknowledged by and allowed entry into KSA.

On an average, the Hajj travel packages cost about $6,000 to $10,500 per person. The amount of money determines the number of stars of the pilgrim’s hotel and the condition of his tent at Mina.

Since it is now mandatory, no non-Saudi can travel sans a planned out Hajj package pre-approved by the Saudi government. These packages include visa processing, hotel stay, a guided tour through Hajj and visitation of holy sites (yes, some have survived). So, who are these uncouth pathway campers, we wonder? Perhaps the ones who don’t need a visa nor a travel agent to guide them through unfamiliar territory. Now, who on earth could possibly fit that description...

Go figure.

And when you have figured it out, do enlighten us as to how these sidewalk tents can be blamed on visiting pilgrims who have paid handsomely to perform Hajj? We’re still looking for a Pakistani who didn’t go through a travel agent; and an agency, no matter how low-star, will never set up its tents in pathways, especially, if it isn’t allowed by the Saudi government. And if the tents were set up in places that caused problems later, then, surely, the host government had known as well as permitted that.

There is an entire cheerleading squad on a perpetual high, praising the grand constructions in and around Mecca that are supposedly being done to accommodate the Hajjis.

Right.

It costs approximately $5,000 to $7,000 a night to stay in any of the hotels closer to the Grand Mosque. The ones farther away get cheaper but not like $60-100 a night cheap. So, how exactly is a common man supposed to afford this accommodation? Besides, the details of the travel packages say much about how expensive Hajj is. One can’t be cleansed off sins without spending a good buck for it and yet the pilgrim count rises every year. And with more Hajjis pouring in, risk of accidents increase.

Hajj is a very lucrative business; earnings from this religious tourism put about $10 billion in 2011 and $18.6 billion in 2014 in the Saudi treasury. It is also no secret that monetary divisions are made in the name of VIP Hajj, VVIP Hajj, and people are just stuffed in there as if the land was infinite.

Returning Hajjis have often narrated tales of how they ‘shuffled’ all the way to Jamarat and back since the crowd was so massive. Obviously, with the space so tight and heat so high, air runs out quickly and the pilgrims are left to battle with suffocation, fatigue, fainting, falling, tripping, causing a domino effect of all this that results in stampedes and deaths.

So, basically, the place is overcrowded, right? Saudis must do more for crowd control.

Say those words and you’ll be booked for blasphemy against the Kingdom. Haven’t they established it enough that they control everything from visas issuance to travel packages to entry in their land to where the pilgrims will stay to the expansion plans of the Harmain and Hajj sites, and the organization of it all is impeccable?

Agreed.

So, why the stampedes then?

You can either see it this way that, in fact, the space the Saudis have is just enough for, say, a 100 people but they invite a 1,000 people, out of the goodness of their hearts of course, knowing that they can only manage about 200 at a stretch but never a 1,000 – which basically means inadequate crowd control and plainly puts the blame on the host government. They really shouldn’t invite so many people as they cannot handle.

We find it very hard to believe that the accidents are always caused because the pilgrims didn’t behave. This brings us to our second, more plausible, narrative for the recent stampede: when everything is so immaculately controlled by the Kingdom, then how exactly is it possible for the crowd to be responsible for so many deaths almost every other Hajj? Particularly, Hajj of 2015 that has proved the bloodiest thus far.

Stampede survivors and eyewitnesses have talked about a blockade at Mina and a royal convoy.

In one version, a Saudi prince decided that he also wanted to cleanse himself of his sins and for that, obviously, he had to come to the same overcrowded area with an entourage of over 300. However, there had to be a difference between when a commoner, lesser Muslim performs Hajj and when a royal does. All exits except one, leading to and from Mina were blocked because it was essential to keep the lesser mortals away from him while he perfumed his duties. Besides, who knows, the 2 million pilgrims present there just might’ve stoned him instead of the Devil.

In another version, it wasn’t the prince coming for Jamarat but dignitaries seeking clear passage to one of King’s castles in the area.

Whatever the truth behind the blockades, the fact remains that exits were sealed off and the guards on duty forced one block of people to move against the other and that is what caused the stampede.

Soon after the horrific incident, videos of a Saudi Royal stoning the devil from his luxury car, and of another (or the same person) doing tawaf while surrounded by a wall of policemen and army men separating him from the rest of the pilgrims, started circulating all over the social media.

We thought this was the place where all stood equal in front of God. Clearly, the Saudi royals do not agree.

Let’s assume that the other hajjis were ALL illiterate, aggressive and regressive, but please do enlighten us, if the prince had not been there blocking everyone so his hajj could be facilitated, or the dignitaries weren’t given preference to a clear passage, would this accident have happened? No!

This accident would have taken place regardless of the number of pilgrims present because the one to blame is the host government that got its priorities all messed up.

The Saudis, in the stampede aftermath, keen to clear up their mess started picking up bodies of the dead, piling them on the side and on top of each other. In haste, they even picked up the bodies of those who had simply fainted or were too weak to move. Bodies piled on top of bodies, killed those even breathing. If that wasn’t enough, they were all sprayed with scalding hot water, killing even more buried underneath.

We do wonder how they sleep at night.

In the latest news, still not allowed to ask questions, the Pakistani opposition, headed by PPP Senator Aitizaz Ahsan staged a walk-out from Senate last week saying that the government has failed miserably in giving a satisfactory reply regarding the stampede and has once again, like numerous other times, left Pakistani pilgrims stranded and alone. Is it any wonder there is virtually no information about the 300 missing Pakistanis in Mina. Numbers from 4 to a 90 dead are being thrown about with no one daring to ask which one is the accurate one.

Like we said, ‘death to all whosoever shall ask questions.’