With Saudi ties restored, Syrians fulfil haj dreams

Masses of pilgrims have embarked on a symbolic stoning of the devil in Saudi Arabia, marking the final days of Haj pilgrimage and the start of the Id al-Adha celebrations for Muslims around the world

Updated - June 19, 2024 02:38 pm IST

Published - June 17, 2024 05:13 am IST - MINA, Saudi Arabia

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, during the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, June 16, 2024. Masses of pilgrims on Sunday embarked on a symbolic stoning of the devil in Saudi Arabia. The ritual marks the final days of the Haj, or Islamic pilgrimage, and the start of the Id al-Adha celebrations for Muslims around the world.

Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, during the annual Haj pilgrimage in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, June 16, 2024. Masses of pilgrims on Sunday embarked on a symbolic stoning of the devil in Saudi Arabia. The ritual marks the final days of the Haj, or Islamic pilgrimage, and the start of the Id al-Adha celebrations for Muslims around the world. | Photo Credit: AP

By taking one of the first direct pilgrimage flights between Syria and Saudi Arabia in over a decade, Osama Kabbara realised two dreams: performing haj and reuniting with his son.

“For me, it’s a double joy,” said the emotional 70-year-old, who had not seen Maher, his eldest son, since 2015.

Also read: Haj 2024: At least 550 haj pilgrims died, mostly due to heat, say Arab diplomats

One of the five pillars of Islam, the haj pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia must be performed by all Muslims with the means to do so at least once in their lives.

Muslim pilgrims cast stones at pillars in the symbolic stoning of the devil, the last rite of the annual haj, in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 16, 2024.

Muslim pilgrims cast stones at pillars in the symbolic stoning of the devil, the last rite of the annual haj, in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 16, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

But for Syrians living in government-controlled areas, it has long been out of reach.

In 2012, Saudi Arabia severed ties with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and championed his ouster, backing Syrian rebels early in the country’s civil war, which broke out following violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrations.

The following year, Saudi Arabia granted a committee from the Syrian opposition coalition -- instead of Damascus -- the right to process applications for Syrians wishing to perform the haj.

Syrians living in government-controlled areas had to travel to neighbouring Lebanon and then perform haj with Lebanese pilgrimage groups. Those living in areas outside government control had to travel to Saudi Arabia via rebel-backer Turkey.

As the war dragged on, Kabbara, a resident of the Syrian capital Damascus, gave up not just on the idea of visiting Mecca and the second holy city of Medina, but also on seeing Maher, who works as a computer engineer in Saudi Arabia.

With fighting raging, embassies closed and flights made more expensive because of roundabout itineraries, 45-year-old Maher was unable to return to Syria.

Muslim pilgrims rest in Muzdalifah, on the second day of the annual haj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 15, 2024.

Muslim pilgrims rest in Muzdalifah, on the second day of the annual haj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 15, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

“My mother died without me being able to go see her,” Maher said.

The conditions for the two men’s tearful reunion began to take shape last year, when after a long stretch of isolation, Syria agreed to rejoin the Arab League and Assad’s government restored ties with Saudi Arabia, which has pursued a more conciliatory foreign policy in the region in recent years.

The two countries reopened diplomatic missions and announced the resumption of pilgrimage travel from Damascus.

“I immediately called my father to tell him that he had to do (the haj), that we had to do it together, and thank God it worked,” Maher said.

- ‘Indescribable feeling’ -

Some 50,000 Syrians attempted to secure a haj permit this year, 17,500 of whom were able to make the long-awaited trip, according to Badreddine Mansour, director of a local agency specialising in pilgrimages.

“You saw people crying at the airport... it was extraordinary,” he said, describing the scenes in Jeddah, the gateway to Mecca for most pilgrims.

The Kabbaras finally met and embraced last week in the Grand Mosque of Mecca.

“Being in the holiest site on earth and seeing the person dearest to your heart -- it’s an indescribable feeling,” Maher said.

Ghada Rifai, who was on the same flight as Osama Kabbara, had hoped her haj trip would also involve a reunion with her son, who lives in Denmark and has been kept apart from her for 11 years due to logistical hurdles.

Ultimately, though, he was unable to complete the necessary paperwork to get a haj permit in time, Rifai said.

The pilgrimage is nevertheless “a dream come true”, said the 60-year-old retired teacher.

“I waited to stop teaching to do the haj, and then I was deprived of it for 13 years,” she said, describing how, stranded in Damascus, she cried every year as she watched the rituals on television.

When she entered the mosque this year and saw the Kaaba, the large black cubic structure towards which all Muslims pray, she cried again -- but said this time it was “with joy”.

For Rifai and other Syrian pilgrims, improved ties between Syria and Saudi Arabia are a source of hope.

“The faithful who were unable to come to the haj this year know that they can try again next year,” she said.

Water is sprayed on Muslim pilgrims at the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual Haj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabi, on June 15, 2024.

Water is sprayed on Muslim pilgrims at the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat, during the annual Haj pilgrimage, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabi, on June 15, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

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