Film: Taxi to the Darkside

From the Apple Movie Trailers’ website:

Taxi to the Dark SideThe latest prize-winning documentary from Oscar-nominee Alex Gibney, confirms his standing as one of the foremost non-fiction filmmakers working today. A stunning inquiry into the suspicious death of an Afghani taxi driver at Bagram air base in 2002, the film is a fastidiously assembled, uncommonly well-researched examination of how an innocent civilian was apprehended, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately murdered by the greatest democracy on earth. Intermingling documents and records of the incident with candid testimony from eyewitnesses and participants, the film uncovers an inescapable link between the tragic incidents that unfolded in Bagram and the policies made at the very highest level of the United States government in Washington, D.C. Combining the cool detachment of a forensic expert with the heated indignation of a proud American who holds his country to a high standard, Gibney?s film reveals how the Bush administration has systematically betrayed the very ideals it professes to uphold.

The official movie site: http://www.taxitothedarkside.com/?

Hajj: Hajj Tour Operators

Many of you have read about my Hajj experience and without a doubt it was amazing and I have no complaints about Hajj, how can you have a complaint about the Hajj itself when you are the guest of Allah? Having said that, when you pay for a service you have to demand what you pay for and you expect that those from whom you have purchased the service from give you what you have paid for. This is true in secular law and it is equally true in the fiqh (jurisprudence) of trade. People invest a substantial amount of money and an immense amount of emotion to make this trip and those providing the service should not take this lightly.

People are correct when they say that Hajj is not a holiday and people should not consider it as such and people are correct to say that as a hajji you have to put up with hardship and discomfort for Hajj is difficult and physically demanding and things don’t always go to plan. However, this should not be seen as a license for Hajj Tour Operators (HTOs) to take advantage of the situation in order to maximise their profits. Let’s face it, most HTOs are in it to earn money and to make a profit, they are businesses not charities. This is a lucrative business, my guess is that most HTOs earn upwards of £500 per hajji in most cases, if you have 200 hajjis in your group that is a cool £100,000 on a turnover of about £400,000 (if the average is £2000 per haji). Now, no one begrudges a businessman his fair dues, I don’t care if they earn £500 per hajji or £1000 per hajji, what I do have a problem with is cutting corners to maximise profits and this is an activity most HTOs indulge in. The biggest cost for the Hajj is the accommodation since you need between two and four if not five weeks of accommodation depending on which package you take and this is where HTOs can manipulate the situation to their advantage. The trick here is that when they block book a hotel the HTO pays a flat rate but the more people the HTO can squeeze in the more money he makes, the maths is simple. A room costs £50 per night (and I seriously doubt it is that much) and £600 for 14 days. If the HTO can get 5 hajjis in there the affective cost is £10 per hajji per day and £140 for the 14 days. Flight cost is no more than £600 probably cheaper since these are chartered flights and accommodation in Madina is probably no more than £300 at the most for a week. Most HTOs don’t include food or Qurbani.

I knocked up a little spreadsheet to give me an idea of how they save money, this is based on an “economy” package as HTOs like to call it but with some of them you get the same package no matter how much you paid (as was the case in our group).

My spreadsheet is based on 1 to 5 people sharing a room, that’s right 5 people sharing a room, sometimes you get 6 sharing a room. The way it works is that a room that is normally a single occupancy they will get three people in and try and squeeze in a fourth, in a double room they will squeeze from 4 up to 6 people and these rooms are not big by any stretch of the imagination:

Economies of scale
Item £ per person 2 people 4 people 5 people
Flight 600 1200 2400 3000
Accommodation Madina (7 days) 280 140 70 56
Accommodation Makkah (14 days) 350 140 87.5 70
Excursions 60 60 60 60
Costs Totals 1290 1575 2617.50 3186
Price of Trip to hajji 2000 4000 8000 10000
Gross Profit 710 2425 5382.50 6814

Ok, I know it is over simplified, I know it is probably inaccurate and I know there are other expenses HTOs have but it is just to give you an idea of the economies of scale these guys are working with. I am overestimating some of the figures particularly the accommodation, since based on my experience the accommodation that my family got (in Makkah) was barely even third world standards and there is no way that it would cost anything more than £15 per night at best (and I am being really generous).

I know that a good deal of effort goes into organising the Hajj trips and there are good HTOs out there but this whole industry needs a good shake up and regulation. There should be some kind of accreditation scheme and some auditing and review of services every few years. Like with most things the bad ones always give the good ones a bad name.

As I said before, so much emotion is invested in Hajj and the HTOs will use emotional blackmail to keep you quiet saying things like “Hajji sabr”, “Hajj is supposed to be difficult”, “Don’t spoil your Hajj by complaining”, “you are not on holiday what do you expect?” and other choice phrases that is designed deflect any challenge to them.

There are two issues here and don’t be fooled by a HTO trying to blur them. Firstly there is the Hajj itself and secondly there is the service you purchase to get you there, the two are not the same, you do not buy a Hajj and the HTO does not sell you a Hajj. The HTO wants you to believe that it is one and the same so they can shirk their duties and obligations towards you under the “Hajj is difficult/these things happen in Hajj” catch all phrase. Don’t be fooled. If they run a business then they should be responsible for the service they provide or fail to provide. Under UK law they are no different to a holiday package tour operator, the service expectation is the same.

If you have been to Hajj whether it is this year or in previous years and you feel you have been dealt a poor service or didn’t get what you paid for, or were placed in accommodation that put your health, well being and safety at risk, then you should make a report to your local trading standards authority.

We spoke to a representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who was in Makkah about our predicament and he told us that every year they get 100s of complaints from Hajjis in Saudi but when they return to the UK hardly anyone pursues the matter further and this makes matters worse for future Hajjis because nothing gets done and standards don’t improve.

Interestingly there was a programme aired today on BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours Programme about this very issue, they had Gareth Thomas Consumer Minister on who was discuss, ing the problems with rogue operators, you can here today’s programme on the You and Yours micro site on the BBC website.

Hajj: Emotion

Hajj is a journey and an act of worship in which you have invested so much emotion. From an early age Muslims see photos and images of the Ka’aba, the Green Dome of the Prophet’s mosque, each prayer we intend “…facing the Ka’aba…” every year we are treated to the barakah of returning hujjaj and their supply of Zam-Zam and the stories of their own experiences. The Hajj is indelibly etched into our soul and psyche. It is little wonder that one’s emotions are unleashed when we are called to make that sacred of journies.

My own emotional experiences were many but three places in particular reduced me to inconsolable tears.

Let me preface my comments and contextualise my emotions with the fact that this is the first time I have ever been to the Haramain, I have never performed Hajj or even Umra before so first time experiences are always more intense.

Madina

When we first arrived in Madina and on our first visit to the Prophet’s Mosque, I sat in the courtyard waiting for salat al-Zuhr and totally in awe of where I was. The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was a few hundred yards from me in his rawdah, I really felt the moment. The yearning that Muslims have to meet the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) increases (at least for me) when in close proximity to his tomb, your mind and heart races with thoughts of being in his presence and you realise how fortunate those people were who saw him, met him, touched him, felt him, smelled him, spoke to him, heard him and breathed the same air as him.

I had with me a copy of Dal’ail al-Khayrat which I had intended to complete a recitation of in Madina whilst I was there. The copy I had was the one commissioned by Shaykh Nuh Keller and the first part of it contains collected hadith on sending salutations and prayers on the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the book is in Arabic. I read the hadiths for the barakah. I have a rudimentary understanding of Arabic that enabled me to get the gist of the hadith texts, the hadiths in question were, on the whole, quite well known so it made it easier to understand them. One particular hadith opened the flood gates of tears in me. The hadith in question mentions the dua that is done after the completion of the adhan. Reading it just left me in tears, particularly the parts “Ati sayyidina muhammadanil wasilata wal fadeela, wa darajatul-rafi’a wa’bathu maqamal-mahmudanil-azi wa atha, warzuqna shafa’atahu yawm al-qiyama, inaka la tukhliful miyaad” (forgive the shoddy transliteration). Whilst I have read this many times, and am acquainted with the meaning, something just clicked inside me because of the place and the proximity to the one whom this dua mentions, I came to the realisation that all our amal (good works) amount to nothing and what will save us is the Mercy of Allah and the intercession of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and the good people of this Ummah. Tears were rolling down my cheeks and I was desperately trying to bring myself under control but to no avail, there was a deep, deep yearning inside of me for the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and when the iqama was recited I managed to bring some semblance of control and stood for prayer. Standing before the Raudah (the tomb) of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) had the same affect, you just can’t believe that you are a few yards away from the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace). Because of the rush, and the guards moving people along, it was quite difficult for me to collect my thoughts and the emotional outpouring is short lived as you are ejected out through Bab al-Baqi by the sea of people behind you.

Mecca

One would have expected to be in tears at the first sight of the Ka’aba, but no. When I saw the Ka’aba for the first time, I was in awe, the hair on the back of my head stood up and the experience felt “surreal” but the words “hyper real” describes it perfectly. As I said before, all through your life you see pictures and hear about this place, you turn to it 5 times a day and when you are there it just leaves you standing speechless and agog but I was not moved to tears. Even doing the tawaf didn’t move me to tears, I was in a sombre mood during my tawaf of Umra and in awe of where I was.

We had our 3 year old daughter with us as we performed the rites of Umra (and Hajj) with her. I carried her on my shoulders during the Sa’iy (Safa/Marwa) and suddenly the pain and despair of Hagar the wife of Abraham (upon them be peace) dawned on me. We have all read the story of Hagar and the infant Ismail in the wilderness of Bacca (now Mecca) and desperately trying to search for water for her thirsty child. How she ran between the hills of Safa and Marwa in utter despair in scorching heat looking for water here and there but to no avail and then at her lowest moment the Angel Gabriel descended and beat his wings (in some tradtions) on the ground and the Well of Zam Zam sprang forth.

The thought of Hagar and her pain reduced me to tears, for a moment I really felt her pain and anguish, what she must have gone through in this ordeal, not knowing where the water would come from or if it would come at all, the prospect of watching her child suffering and dying from thirst. Having my daughter with me added to this experience of what a parent goes through for their child. We were lucky, we were in a nice air conditioned corridor, shaded from the sun, walking on smooth marble floors and we knew our ordeal was over after the seven lengths, she didn’t know if it would be seven or seven hundred, what shaded her from the burning sun and what cooled her from the heat? How smooth was the floor under her feet? Even writing this brings the emotion back. For the first three or four lengths of the Sa’iy I was sobbing, my wife asked me what I was feeling and I said “I really feel the pain of mai-Hajara (mother Hagar), and I feel a deep sadness in my heart for what she went through”.

Arafat

Arafat is the day that you are alone with God and you ask Him for whatever you need. This is not a time for requests but for demands, you demand that God grants you what you ask for whether your demand is worldly or other-worldly is entirely up to you, you are given a free license to demand whatever you need from God on this day.

In my mind Arafat was the day when you are in solitude and those around you would be in silent contemplation and prayer. Unfortunately, in the distance, there was some chap making a duah on loudspeaker, it didn’t sound like Urdu or Arabic, so I am not sure what language it was but it totally ruined the serenity and ambience of Arafat, his duah lasted for what seemed an age and it was very distracting and almost ruined the day for me. Thankfully he stopped and some peace and quiet descended on the camp. I decided to find a quiet spot somewhere away from people I knew so I could be alone. Everywhere I went there was chattering and idle conversation and then I found a spot with other Hajis engaged in quiet contemplation and stood and as I was about to start my duahs I heard two familiar voices around the corner. I decided to move again. I found a spot and managed to get into the mood of things and offered my duahs. At the end I realised that I could in actual fact leave here empty handed and that set my tears off. My final demand to Allah was “Ya Allah don’t let me leave empty handed”, all I could say over and over again was “don’t let me leave empty handed, don’t let me leave empty handed”. I was really concerned that my Hajj may not have beeen accepted, who knows for what reason it is not accepted and who knows for what reason it is accepted?

As sunset approached I wandered back to the main tent to my family and my fellow hajjis and we all stood together, watching the sunset and making duah. The sun set and we all hugged and congratulated one another for the completion of Hajj. Everyone had tears in their eyes and many tears were shed that day, for Hajj is Arafah.