By Marwa Awad – Cairo
Abu Mazen, a 63-year-old farmer and father of six in Gaza, has been waiting his entire life to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, a journey Muslims are required to make once in their life. This year he won the visa lottery and was to leave for Saudi Arabia this weekend.
"I have been dreaming of performing hajj for four years. Every year I enter the draw and my name does not come up. This year I was selected," he told AlArabiya.net. He sold his wife’s gold to collect enough money to make the trip.
Yet despite his luck it is unlikely he will be able to go.
You cannot believe how happy I was. The news of being selected this year was a miracle for me. This may be my only chance to go to Mecca and visit the Prophet. Now they have taken the only dream I have," he said unable to hold back tears of distress.
As Muslims around the world flock to Mecca to perform the holy pilgrimage, Palestinians in Gaza remain trapped, caught between a Fatah-Hamas registration dispute and Saudi Arabia’s visa regulations.
Mazen is one of 3,000 Palestinians in Gaza who were selected by Hamas to get one of the coveted visas to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. But after years of waiting for his chance to go on the holy journey that he must, as a Muslim, perform once in his lifetime, a political spat stands in his way.
The ongoing pilgrim crisis broke out last week over disagreements between the de facto Hamas government and the Fatah government over who had authority to allocate visas through the official lottery. Both governments simultaneously registered pilgrims and announced their own selections.
Saudi Arabia allocates each country a specific amount of hajj visas each year and Palestinians got 3000, according to Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj. But since both Fatah and Hamas allocated visas the result was double the amount, with some 6000 pilgrims with hajj slots but no visas to travel, delaying all departures for the time being.
But Abu Mazen cares little about either faction, he just wants to make the pilgrimage before he dies.
"My wife and I have been saving to go on pilgrimage for about 5 years now. My work as a farmer does not yield much. My income is 20 shekels ($5). I have cut the family’s spending to half to save for this trip." He said.
Total costs for pilgrimage to Mecca are $2,200 per person including plane tickets, local transportation within Saudi Arabia, and accommodations. Pocket money and the purchase of a sacrificial animal to feed the poor come to $800 per person. Additional preliminary costs for registering in the lottery, issuing a passport and a visa trip costs usually come up to $200.
Adel Abu Muhammad, a 50-year-old high school teacher, faced many financial hurdles to save for his and his wife’s pilgrimage this year, a burden that has become heavier in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis and continuing Israeli blockade of Gaza.
"As soon as the draw results came out in June, going to hajj this year has been the talk of Gaza," recalls Abu Muhammad.
Abu Muhammad and his wife managed to save $6,000 for the hajj trip by selling some of their furniture, some of the wife’s jewelry, and cutting back on dispensable school fees, like transportation and stationeries.
"When you have been under siege for a long time, any chance to get out is welcome. And what a blessed chance it would be if the people of Gaza can go to hajj this year," he told AlArabiya.net.
Despite the passing of the hajj season, Abu Muhammad remains hopeful.
"I am hopeful because I put my faith in Allah. We still have tomorrow to find out. After that there may be next year. But at least we and the Palestinians of Gaza have made the intention to go on hajj," he said.
Hajj Tops Politics
Awad Abu Madqur, Head of the Federation of Hajj travel agencies, said those who paid their fees and cannot go this year because of internal political quibbles and external regulations will have their slots saved for next year.
"We have taken Pilgrims’ money to get them to Mecca, if not this year then definitely the next," he told AlArabiya.net.
Saudi Arabia’s refusal to overlook registration regulations has compounded the tug-of-war between the Gaza government and the Palestinian Authority.
Muhammad Said, another Gaza Palestinian who won the hajj lottery this year, pleaded for the Saudi government and governments of Hamas and Fatah to put religious duty and Palestinians before political disagreements.
"On behalf of all Palestinians in Gaza, I urge Saudi Arabia and our governments to put the people of Palestine first. This is a humanitarian dilemma and hajj is a spiritual duty. Please don’t let Palestinians of Gaza down," he said to AlArabiya.net.