Thursday, January 28, 2021

MY UMRAH 2021 EXPERIENCE (2)


                              Mobile Zamzam





The first part of this piece elicited some questions from readers. What is the best visa to use - Umrah or entry - for a Mu’tamir? After performing Umrah will I be allowed to observe my five daily prayers in the Haram?  Now that the number of pilgrims is lessened due to COVID-19 and thus necessitating low demand in accommodation, what is the effect of this on the cost of board and lodging in Makkah and Madeenah? Someone even pleaded with me to state ‘how much is the fine for not using’ surgical mask ‘properly?’. I will provide answers to these questions and more in this second and final part of my narration. 


I will start with the hotels; many are closed and those that open hardly operate a floor or two of the entire building. I and Malama Hauwa stayed in The Oberoi Madina, where, of course, Comerel keeps its pilgrims during the Hajj and Umrah seasons. “Oberoi is the only five-star hotel in Madeenah”, according to a travel-agent-friend of mine from the UK. Of course, there are many five-star hotels in Madeenah, but the services at The Oberoi are exceptional, top-of-the-range.  Gorgeous as this place is, and bubbling with the multitude of pilgrims at peak periods to such an extent that you scarce can get a room or even a vacant seat around the reception area, it is now eerily quiet. Struck by the apparent desertion of this magnificent hotel, I became emotional. Seeing the Haram sealed off during the total lockdown of Madeenah was indeed a hard test for the inhabitants of the City of the Prophet, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam and for the entire Ummah that saw the images on their screens! 


Whatever the Saudi authorities dictate as precautionary measures against COVID-19, we hear and we obey, as such measures are of vital importance towards protecting the lives and enhancing the welfare of Mu’tamireen, residents and Saudi nationals. 


Unfortunately, room rates have not fallen because of the low patronage caused by COVID-19. Many hotels, especially the five-star, maintained what they charged around the same period last year or increased it a little. Intercontinental Daral Taqwa and The Oberoi, for example, go for SAR 750 (N97,500) to 850 (N110,500) per room on a bed and breakfast basis (BB). In Makkah, Daral Tauhid Intercontinental charges SAR 850 to SAR 1,075 (N139,750) per room on BB basis. When there was no COVID, the hotels operated at about 96% of their capacity. Now, with COVID restrictions in place, there are virtually no pilgrims around to enjoy any discounts or low rates that they may offer. Some hotels with 300 to 500 rooms may, on a good day, have 10 to 15 rooms occupied. The big brands - Hilton, Marriot, Fairmont, Raffles, etc. therefore, I learnt, chose to safeguard their reputation and standard in prosperity and in adversity, rather than advertise rates that are likely to imperil their business in the future. Does this make any economic sense? I am not certain. 


The choice of where to stay while in Saudia is only for holders of my type of visa. If you have an Umrah visa, your package has been determined by the choices you must have made with your agent from Nigeria. The era of just getting the visa and arranging your accommodation in Saudia is over. Everything is now online and strictly controlled by the Saudi Hajj and Umrah Ministry on the Maqam portal that provides Umrah services through the platforms of approved Online Travel Agency (OTA) in the Saudi Global Distribution System (SGDS). Hotel rates are advertised by the OTA where your agent in Nigeria, otherwise known as External Agent (EA), having satisfied all conditions stipulated by Saudi Hajj authorities and is licensed by the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), will book and pay for the Umrah services that you and other members of your group will enjoy. That done, the system will generate a twenty-digit Booking Reservation Number (BRN) which shall be used in securing your visa and other logistics within the holy cities. Visa only arrangement is dead for good! You are intricately tied to the BRN and every type of service attached to it. All the agencies listed here add various levels of profit margins to the original rate of the hotel, transport services, etc. plus 15% VAT which will be added to the cost of your Umrah package. I will leave further details here on this for another article, suffice it to say that Umrah is now monitored strictly, more than any time in the past, by three Saudi Ministries - Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  


The eatamarna app, as mentioned last week, has segmentalized the Masjid an-Nabawy into three parts - prayers could be observed without clearance, but for Ziyaarah and Raudah you must have a permit which has distinct date and time with a barcode on the righthand corner of the page. It is very easy to get the tawakkalna clearance once your self-isolation period has elapsed. That is your first step on a long ladder. Your problem starts when you commence the online application on the eatamarna platform even at the end of the isolation period and you are denied every time you try. The system automatically regulates the number of worshipers at every given time in these prime places within the Masjid an-Nabawy. Many could not get the permit however much they tried. There is no way one can beat the security personnel at the gates to the Haram in Madeenah to conduct Ziyaarah or pray at the Raudah. Those with a permit cannot go before the time allotted to them; the ever-vigilant eyes of the men at the gates will spot the anomaly and send you back. Do not jubilate yet, in case the men at the first checkpoint allow you in by mistake; the second checkpoint is manned by people who will scan the barcode on the permit with their phones to ascertain the veracity of the details you claim. If any inaccuracies are detected they will send you back, and they are deaf to entreaties, so, just leave and do not waste your time otherwise the shurtah (police) are there to disperse the obdurate.    


Lack of access to Raudah or Ziyaarah is only an introduction to your problems. Well, some people have actually done their Ziyaarah from outside the Masjid an-Nabawy, making the Green Dome their guide. But the real dilemma is leaving Madeenah, donning Ihraam and making intention for Umrah at the Meeqaat without the Umrah permit. 


Whatever you have so far read about how well-guarded the Masjid an-Nabawy is in this article especially for the Raudah and the Ziyaarah area, know that the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah is more so. The entire surrounding of the Haram is barricaded with various checkpoints. If in Madeenah, as stated in the first part of this piece, you could observe the five obligatory prayers in the Mosque without a permit, in Makkah you must be cleared for each prayer and for performing the Umrah. Just as the distinction in the permits for praying at the Raudah and that of making Ziyaarah in Masjid an-Nabawy, the permit for Umrah is different from that of daily prayers. You cannot use that of daily prayers to perform Umrah. There are different entrances for daily prayers and for performing the Umrah. 


One may say, for instance, if I go into the Haram with my prayer permit, can’t I evade the security personnel and perform Tawaaf? That is not possible as the barricades from the façade extend into the Haram and segmentalise the Mataaf (where Tawaaf is made) from the rest of the Haram. Only those with the Umrah permit can access the Mataaf. That is why you see the people praying around the Ka'bah or making Tawaaf are the ones in Ihraam, at least for the men, since women can use their normal apparel as their Ihraam. The prayer permit allows you into the Haram but only through the elevators leading to the first or last floor in that you can hardly even see the Ka’bah as further barriers are placed, in line with COVID guidelines, to prevent people from touching the glass walls overlooking the Ka’bah. Can I perform Tawaaf then from the first or second floor of the Haram as we used to do when the ground Mataaf was full? No, you cannot, because there are many temporary walls blocking these floors that it is impossible to go round for Tawaaf. You can also pray at the basement where all roads to the Ka’bah are as well blocked. One can confidently assert that aside from the officials maintaining low and order, everyone around the Ka’bah is a Mu’tamir. No other person can approach the Mataaf or even perform Tawaaf!


During our Tawaaf for Umrah I noticed that there were not more than 500 Mu’tamireen in the Mataaf. There are dotted lines of diverse hues - red, blue, orange, black, etc., with a distance of more than two metres between each of these lines, and every Mu’tamir moves around the Ka’bah on a designated line assigned to him by the officials of the Haram, maintaining social distancing. They are all around the place; whithersoever you turn, there is one of them gently reminding you to remain on the designated line on which you have started your Tawaaf. In the circumambulation around the Ka’bah, it is not for one Mu’tamir to overtake or outstrip another; they float each in an orbit. (Yaaseen: 40)






The Saudi authorities have ensured strict observance of COVID-19 protocols in every inch of the al-Haram al-Makky. Places that people are likely to touch have all been screened off. There are no Zamzam points here anymore. All have been removed and the taps sealed off; you find in place thereof Mobile Zamzam - people carrying a container of Zamzam on their backs dispensing the water to Mu’tamireen in disposal cups.  After you finish your Tawaaf, you cannot offer the two Raka’ah prayers behind the Maqaam Ibraheem within the Mataaf. You have to move towards the upper Mas’aa (the Sa’yi area) where a place is assigned for that Naafilah  (supererogatory prayer) with officials monitoring the maintenance of social distancing and directing people to the only Mas’aa access (around the first green lights from as-Safaa) as all other entry points are closed.





In the Mas’aa, the wheelchair-pushers are conspicuously absent. I trust you remember these people who throng the Mas’aa, making brisk business, charging from SAR 100 to more than SAR 200 for a complete Sa’yi. COVID-19 has blighted this business. If you are in need of a wheelchair for the Sa’yi you can now pay cash or by debit/credit card for a self-drive Electric Cart at SAR 57.5 or, if you are with another person, then a bigger cart for SAR 115. You are only given a few seconds of instruction on how to drive and make the cart to stop; your Sa’yi starts. 






There is also one exit after your Umrah. Every movement of Mu’tamireen has been carefully organised in line with social distancing guidelines. And lest I forget; I have not seen barbers or their agents beckoning those who finish Umrah to follow them to their salon. All shops under the King Abdulaziz Endowment building are closed. Most of the hotels within the Clock Tower, including Fairmont itself (confirmed bookings are upgraded to Raffles which is under the same management), are closed.


On the last question: the penalty of not using surgical masks properly in public places here was SAR 1000 which has now been raised to SAR 2000 the equivalent of N260,000. Once the law enforcement officer scans your Saudi residence permit or Saudi national identity card on his official phone you will instantly receive an alert on the penalty and instruction for immediate payment of same with the relevant authority. 


Everything I stated here is part of what I have seen and observed during this Umrah trip to the Haramyn. Things are beginning to change for the better gradually - more hotels are opening, more successful applications on the eatamarna platform are granted and the age limit for Umrah is lightened. Now, for the Mu’tamireen coming from Indonesia, the age limit for Umrah is extended to the 60-year-olds. May such concession be extended for Mu’tamireen from Nigeria and other countries also.  





 




Thursday, January 21, 2021

MY UMRAH 2021 EXPERIENCE (1)







I purpose to relate how travel for umrah is during this period of COVID-19, what every intending pilgrim needs to know and do at every point of his journey. 


Let me state on the onset that I and my wife used multiple entry/business visas for this trip. Ours was not the Umrah visa, therefore, we were free from many conditions that may affect a normal Umrah pilgrim.  In my case, for instance, I fall within the over-50-year range which could have prevented me from obtaining an Umrah visa. My wife could have qualified for the visa as she is below 50 years, but would not have got it without me, her Mahram. Alhamdu Lillaah for her business visa which grants her total independence from her Mahram since she can travel alone, in and out of the Kingdom - no questions asked. Also, both of us could travel together or singly, but the holder of an Umrah visa can only do so in a group of at least 50 Mu’tamireen (Umrah pilgrims) with a guide under a unified package (travelling on the same flight, staying in the same hotel and using the same transportation arrangement within Saudia).


I hope the reader will appreciate the style of narration I’m adopting in this writing. My aim is not a comparison between multiple entry/business visas and that of the Umrah or the advantages of one over the other. I only want to highlight what a Mu’tamir (Umrah pilgrim) should know before undertaking this journey even though the narrator, a travel agent himself, did not use an Umrah visa during this trip. 


I will write a separate piece, inshaa Allah, on how Umrah operations have evolved into something else. Every segment is digitised, from payment for hotel bookings to issuance of airline tickets; from payment for visa application to local transportation. Hajj and Umrah agents like myself should realise that the cheese has been moved; we have to move with it and with the time otherwise if we remain analogue, we become extinct. Thank you, COVID-19.


We left Nigeria on January 10, 2021, with Emirates Airline. Before then, doubtless, you must have got your negative PCR test certificate issued by PTF approved laboratory as a condition for travel and proof that you are free of COVID-19 72 hours from the time of sample-collection until the time of departure to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If you are travelling with an Umrah visa (we were not), your PCR test certificate must be accompanied by that of insurance which is included in the package you paid for with your agent. 


A friend once said that COVID-19 has changed the world forever; the new normal will be with us for a long time. That was evident aboard our Emirates flight to Jeddah via Dubai for transit. The ebullient cabin crew on Emirates now approach you with the utmost caution in serving the in-flight meals, their masks shielding the smile on their faces. You need more minutes than usual to unwrap the meals they serve you as almost everything is covered in layers of polythene. Passengers are, every now and then, reminded of COVID-19 guidelines within the in-flight entertainment system.


In Dubai, we stayed within the airport even though we had 16 hours to connect with the Jeddah flight and thus we could have enjoyed free accommodation and transit visa. We decided it was better to restrict contact with the crowd as much as possible. 


The check-in process for the Emirates flight to Jeddah was not like any other; checks for the validity of visas and PCR test certificates were more stringent. 


I have always landed at Madeenah either when I travelled alone or with a group for a number of reasons - having my Niyyah from the Zul Hulaifah Miqaat, and whatnot. But on this trip, we were told that Emirates is restricted to landing at the Jeddah Airport only. So, we landed at Jeddah. Every passenger must pass through the COVID verification desk where additional checks were conducted on the PCR certificates and a clearance sticker attached on each before you could proceed to Passport Control. Is it necessary to mention that all the immigration officers attending to arriving passengers at the time we arrived at the airport were all females? Well, this is the first time I witnessed this in the Kingdom, thanks to the boldness of the Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Many people such as I may take exception to certain aspects of his reform agenda, but on making women who are educated mostly abroad and are qualified to serve the Kingdom in various capacities, I  have enormous respect for his foresight in that respect. What is the essence of educating women if they would only be kept far removed from where that knowledge will have an impact on societal life and national development? I have seen many women behind the wheel also, outside the airport of course. Thank you Prince Muhammad bin Salman!


We did not think that our arrival formalities will be so easy especially with the rumours making the rounds in Nigeria about what awaits one upon their arrival into the Kingdom. 


A staff of my company was already waiting at the airport parking area with the vehicle that later conveyed us to Madeenah. One thing I observed in Saudi Arabia is that everybody wears the mask, from security personnel in charge of enforcing compliance to any other person. I have not seen anyone without a mask, either walking, sitting in a store or office, observing Sallah in the Haramyn or even driving a car. And where a law enforcement agent sees that you let your mask to drop a little bit exposing your nose in a public place - may Allah help you! I will not mention the fine or chastisement because revealing the naira equivalent will not allow you to read this piece to the end. If you are searching for total compliance of COVID protocols, come to Saudia! Doubting Thomases and conspiracy theorists on the existence of COVID-19 are either non-existent here or they have kept that belief to themselves and willy-nilly complied to Saudi COVID regulations. In the Haramyn social distancing is strictly adhered to by all worshippers.


As soon as you come to Madeenah you are expected to download two Apps: tawakkalna (we put our trust in Allah) and eatamarna (we perform Umrah) on your phone. Tawakkalna grants you access to public places like malls, supermarkets and hotels. You must show the page on the screen of your phone before you are allowed in.   Eatamarna gives you access to the Raudah, Ziyaarah in the Masjid an-Nabawy in Madeenah and to perform Umrah in the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah. It is important to know that every prayer in the Haram in Makkah requires a separate permit through eatamarna. The permit for Umrah is distinct from that of five daily prayers with the date and the specific prayer for which the permit can only be used. The security personnel at the Haram entrances will not allow you go into the Haram to pray Zuhr, for example, if your permit is for Asr prayer. And do not even entertain the hope of performing multiple Umrahs since everything is controlled through the app. I will revert to this fully in the second part. 


During the download of each of the apps, you enter your passport and arrival details which shall be used in processing your application in line with the PCR test certificate that admitted you into the Kingdom. One important information is this: you will not start the application process until the end of your isolation period which was initially 3 days but now extended to 7 days. You can try a million times to get permission for all the activities I mentioned earlier, but unless that period elapses you will not get any. The system will reject your application every time you try. In Madeenah you may go into the Masjid an-Nabawy for the five daily prayers, but do not even think about approaching the Raudah area or Ziyaarah territory if you are not cleared yet by the eatamarna app, for every access is filled with strong warders and meteors (Jinn 72:8). This I will also explain fully next week inshaa Allah. 



Thursday, January 14, 2021

A LETTER TO SHEIKH HUSEYIN BAYDAR










Assalaamu Alaykum Yaa Sheikh Huseyin,


Today I prefer to use the Turkish spelling of your name as a token of reverence. I have never had occasion to use it in our interactions during your sojournment in the world since we conversed in Arabic in which case the variance between the two pronunciations of Huseyin and Hussein was blurred. 


Even though I do not perceive the nature of the life you are now in, I do not also think of you as ‘dead’. I am certain you are living and have provision with your Lord. (al-Baqarah 154 and Aali Imraan 169). That reassurance will not, however, obliterate the pain in our hearts of your departure; it will only grant grief abatement. 


I know you were not immortal since Allah has appointed immortality to no mortal. I believe that all of us - one by one - shall pass through that inevitable exit, and when our time comes, we can neither put it off an hour nor yet advance it; certainly, everything will perish save Allah’s Countenance. His is the command, and we shall all be brought back to Him.





Call to mind, Yaa Sheikh, our conversation on the phone after I learnt you had been ailing for some time. That was after Dr Taufiq Abubakar of Bayaro University, Kano posted the sad news on our platform. Our last correspondence with you was on WhatsApp when you updated me on your condition, stressing that you were still under intensive care. I also spoke to the Chief Medical Director of the Hospital, Dr Servet Gülerman


Brother Muhammet Emin Yildiz later told me that they had to distance all communication devices away from you to give you respite from distraction and persistent in-coming calls. From that moment onwards, Muhammet Emin Yildiz remained my only source of information and communication to you - now the news about your condition was benign, lifting our low mood, and in another we felt despondent, making us intensify our du’aa. He requested me to make a video recording of my best wishes and prayers for you to serve as an assuagement, that the doctors will permit that to be shown to you. I did. 


I had to travel to Saudi Arabia for a meeting. I called brother Muhammet after arriving at Madeenah. He was very distraught. ‘Pray for Sheikh Huseyin, please'; he said amidst sobs, ‘the people around him are making him repeat the kalimah. The doctors said he’s not likely to make it.’ 





The blast came 24 hours later in a WhatsApp chat from brother Muhammet Emin Yildiz to confirm our worst fears; overtaken by my own sob of despair I confoundedly took refuge in the Prophet’s Mosque, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam. Yes, the eyes will overflow with tears; the heart will grieve, but we will never utter what is displeasing unto our Lord. We are indeed grieved by your departure, Yaa Sheikh Huseyin. But I found solace in retiring to the vicinity of the Prophet’s Raudah, supplicating Allah for you and rehearsing your Hasanaat (good works) in the advancement of this Deen.  I remembered the 120 television programmes you supervised to be recorded in the Hausa language - ‘Dawwamammen Haske’ - on the lessons in the life of the Prophet, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam and which will be broadcast soon on many stations. Also, I remembered the quiz competition Nusret would be organising on the same subject matter based on the original book, an-Nurul Khaalid written by Sheikh Fethullah Gülen


I recalled all that we ever did, both of us or in a group, from the time Allah brought us together to the last three outings to some Turkish companies in Nigeria - within Abuja - just last December. You insisted on continuing with the window-shopping even when I and my wife showed concern about how stressful the visits to the showrooms were on you, as if you were trying to finish an assignment. Your aim was to please whoever met with you even at the expense of your comfort. You visited me in my residence or office for more than 30 times either alone or in the company of guests from Turkey but there was not a single time that you came without a gift either in the form of special chocolates for the children or a book on Islam. Since you were known to all, my entire family, the staff at home and the office needed no detailed description to recognise and pray for Sheikh Huseyin Baydar. 





You sacrificed, Yaa Sheikh, everything - your country, your comfort, your security, your life, your time and your family for the Khidmah (service), from where the organisation you headed took its appellation. You spared no effort in serving humanity; you were the leader yet you acted as if you were the servant of the recipients of your beneficence. If, as mentioned by the Prophet, sallallaahu alaihi wa sallam, feeding a fasting Muslim gives one equal reward without diminishing anything of the recipient’s reward, who can fathom the recompense of the flock you shepherded in its Ramadan feeding programmes where hundreds of thousands are provided not only with Iftaar (what to break their fast) but many more get foodstuffs that sustain them for the greater part of the fasting period? How can loneliness affect you in your grave when you had consistently put a smile on the faces of indigent people by slaughtering hundreds of cattle and distributing the meat to them every Eidul Adhaa


Why do we have to grieve the departure of one who spearheaded the distribution of millions of copies of the Glorious Qur’an to Muslims? Why do the tears keep flowing from our eyes in quick succession for one who exerted his utmost in conveying Allah’s messages unto the people? We weep because that is the only way of release to us, a mercy that Allah places within the bosom of believers. So, let the tears wet our faces as we supplicate and mourn the loss of a dear friend. 


If acts of political expediency in the current leadership of Turkey have made Nusret and its promoters under your superintendence to be Muhajireen in Nigeria, then we, the Nigerians, should have assumed the position of the Ansaar by assisting you and facilitating your mission among us. But our tardiness in that regard made you take up the role of both the Muhajireen and the Ansaar, taking us in and providing succour. Allah shall not cause the recompense of the good to be wasted! 





As the head of Nusret, under which are many establishments - Nizamiye Hospital, Nile University, NTIC schools in many states of Nigeria, Ufuk Dialogue, etc. you personified Khidmah in every meaning of the word, following in the footsteps of the scholar of Islam, Sheikh Fethullah Gülen; you were his worthy emissary and knight of Da’wah.  The motto of the Ufuk Dialogue Foundation, for instance, reads: ‘Reserve in your heart a seat for everyone’, an imperishable signpost in our intra- and inter-religious engagements either as Muslims or as Christians. This fostering of mutual respect and understanding among followers of different creeds was manifest in Nusret institutions and about 100 conferences, seminars, webinars (and counting) through the length and breadth of this country. Da’wah expeditions under your leadership had no red lines on the basis of security concerns, distance or safety of the path. When we travelled to Gombe and later Gashua, Kano, etc you showed no sign of fear and weariness did not hamper you. The certitude was apparent in the commitment you exhibited that Allah will record a good deed in your favour for any thirst, hunger, toil or distress that afflicted you in His cause as well as for any commission on your part that angered His foes. (Taubah 120).







I will end by this: Sheikh Jamal Alsafarti from Albania sobbingly sent this WhatsApp voice note to the Nusret Nigeria platform the summary of which is: “Salaam Alaykum, Innaa lillaahi wa innaa ilaihi raaji’uun. There is no strength save in Allah! In this calamity that has befallen us, we won’t say anything except what will please our Lord. May Allah have mercy on our brother, Ustaz Hussein who doesn't need someone like me to praise him. He detested praise in his life. We pray Allah to honour his arrival, be hospitable to him and raise him with those unto whom Allah has shown favour, of the Prophets and the saints and the martyrs and the righteous. The best of company are they!


“Congratulations to a group in which Hussein was a member. That group is prosperous which had among its members Ustaz, Sheikh, Islamic propagator Hussein. Also, congratulations to these honoured and generous brethren who cuddled and accommodated him in their midst. 


“It is my belief, dear brethren, Allah destined al-Khair for the African continent in general and for Nigeria in particular that a man like Sheikh Hussein Baydar would live in it, and Allah, moreover, honoured you that this man passed on and was buried in your country. Congratulations to your country that encased within its earth bodies of saints like Hussein Baydar; I deem him, in the sight of Allah, of the saints. 


“I beseech Allah to bestow fortitude to his family not least his steadfast, illustrious wife, and to those who love him in Turkey, Nigeria and anywhere around the world. We have deposited Sheikh Hussein in the custody of One with Whom deposits are not lost. May He have mercy on him!”



Salaam Alaykum,