A record number of Cambodian Muslims are undertaking the expensive – and arduous – journey to Mecca to take part in the hajj this weekend
In the days before she set off for the holy city of Mecca, 57-year-old Moe Vansi busily prepared a supply of rice and vegetables, home comforts in a foreign land. She brushed up on her Islamic law and endured rounds of vaccinations.
“She almost cried when she got on the plane,” said her son Meas Sokeo, a smartly dressed NGO worker who paid for her trip, one of the five pillars of Islam that all Muslims must complete, after saving up for seven years.
More than 1,000 Cambodian Muslims are among the crowds in Saudi Arabia this weekend to perform the hajj, walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah, kissing the Black Stone and drinking from the Zamzam Well.
Some 2 million faithful from all over the world converge on Mecca each year for the ancient pilgrimage, which began on Thursday and will last until the sighting of a new moon.
“Hajj” means “effort” in Arabic. And it is, as well as a spiritual effort, a physical one. Navigating crowds hundreds of thousands strong in baking heat, perils range from heatstroke to injury from pebbles hurled at towers symbolising the devil.
For Cambodian pilgrims, most of who speak neither Arabic nor English, and many of who are in their old age, the experience can be fraught.
“Last year, we lost two. They have not been found,” said Nazy Saleh, president of the Cambodian Muslim Media Center. The elderly pair are believed to have wandered away from their group and gone missing. At least two more elderly participants died.
Each year, Saleh goes to Phnom Penh airport, where crowds of Cham Muslims gather to see off friends and family. “When they fly they might feel sick – sometimes it is their first time to board a flight,” he said. “They are very surprised.”
But despite the risks and expense, the number of Cambodians making the pilgrimage is on the rise. “There are around 1,000 hajjis this year; if [some] were not stuck, maybe more than ever,” said Saleh, referring to a group of more than 100 who were stranded in Kuala Lumpur last week.
“There are some problems with visas because of the new regulations,” said Saleh. “[Saudi Arabia] plans to have a quota. Next time, there will be 1,000 people from Cambodia only. Because in Mecca, if you open to everyone, there are too many.”
Sokeo’s mother was among the stranded group, though she has now made it to Mecca. She was lucky. “Some of them already spent $3,200, but they could not get a visa,” Sokeo said. “If Allah blesses us, we can go.”
Muslims who want to complete the hajj have two options: apply for sponsorship or cough up the money to pay for the trip, usually as part of a package tour lasting 40 days and costing upwards of $3,000 a head.
Saudi Arabia, one of the Arab states that exert a strong influence on Cambodia’s 500,000-strong Cham Muslim community, funds some 40 hajjis each year. Not only are the air tickets paid for but, the government issues free passports.
Selections are made by the local authorities, and most of those awarded are to government and NGO employees, according to Saleh.
“Nepotism is there, but it is small,” said Farina So, head of the Cham Oral History project at the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
As incomes rise, many are choosing to pay for a private trip, she continued. “The increased need for spirituality; the negative effect of globalisation – with development, people commit a lot of sins, and they want to get it off,” she said.
Dozens of Facebook photos posted from last year’s hajj showed Cambodians in the ancient city: groups of men dressed in white, holding signs in Arabic. “In the past, maybe six years ago, you could not see the real hajj, but now it’s everywhere [online] encouraging people to go,” So said.
For those who do not make the trip, there is consolation in the celebrations that will take place this weekend in Cham communities to mark the festival of Eid-al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice, which coincides with the end of hajj.
On Tuesday morning, in Veal Khmom village, Tboung Khmom province, a crowd of hundreds of villagers gathered as Malaysian donors handed over a stack of foam cut-out cattle to symbolise the gift of 184 sacrificial cows.
“If they were real cows, it would have been a bit dangerous,” Chea Sopgara, minister for Rural Development, who presided over the ceremony, told the crowd.
Tomorrow flesh and blood counterparts will be sacrificed as Muslims commemorate Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son on God’s command.
San Nary, 27, said she hoped one day to make it to Mecca.
“I saw many people in my village going to hajj, and they came back and brought good deeds. However, Muslims need to have much money to go there. If they don’t have money, they are not allowed.”
Reflecting on her own trip, 55-year-old Sos Thai Chaol said: “I will never forget what I did there. I’ll always remember what I did inside the buildings of Mecca with so many good people.”