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Rich and Poor Pilgrims Fill Makkah During Ramadan

Muslims making tawaaf around the Ka'bah just before Maghreb prayer

By Souhail Karam
BBC News Online
Wed Oct 18, 2006, 12:01 PM ET

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - To many pilgrims, sleeping and eating on the cool white-marbled floor of the Grand Mosque in Mecca is a heavenly luxury. For others, the luxury hotels overlooking the mosque are the place to be.

Muslims flock to Mecca in the last 10 days of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, a favorite time for the lesser pilgrimage, called 'Umra, two months before the Hajj pilgrimage which is a duty for every able-bodied Muslim who can afford it.

'Umra attracts up to 2 million Muslims in this period from 80 countries, including some of the world's poorest, as well as many Saudis.

Sleeping in the Mosque

"Why would I spend 1,000 riyals ($267) for a room when I can sleep in the mosque in front of the Kaaba? This is God's house," said Abdullah Faraghani from Yemen, referring to the black structure at the center of the Grand Mosque which Muslims throughout the world turn to in prayer.

"Besides, I came in Ramadan to meditate, pray and repent -- not to use the remote control," he said, while sharing a meal of rice and chicken with other pilgrims.

The majority of those who cannot afford the five-star accommodation around the mosque come with packages for a month-long stay costing them up to $1,500.

Real Estate Boom

Mecca is currently witnessing a real estate boom as exclusive hotels, apartments and malls rise around the mosque.

"Those who can afford it come for just the last ten days of Ramadan, pay $10,000 for the stay in the hotel and the flights. But they can pray from their room and just look at the Kaaba," a Saudi travel agent said.

Nayla Bennani, a woman from Morocco, is one of them.

"First I'm alone, so I can't stay anywhere," she said, sipping a cup of Turkish coffee. "Pilgrimage can be very tiring, the long prayers, circling the Kaaba, staying up all night to read the Quran -- so you need somewhere comfortable to stay."

The central idea of pilgrimage in Islam is that all Muslims are equals, regardless of social status or race. Men wear only two pieces of white cloth, while women avoid perfumes.

Sometimes Saudi guards make an effort to clear away the squatters inside the mosque. Occasionally they will allow a foreign dignitary to move unhindered through the crowds in order to touch the Kaaba and its famed black stone.

Social Disparities

Outside the mosque, Mecca offers a clearer snapshot of the social disparities. Pilgrims who cannot find a place to sleep near the mosque look for the nearest shopping mall, where they are less harassed by security.

In their robes, they stroll past shops offering famed brands such as Givenchy and Dior. But few buy.

"Just like in Monaco or Saint-Tropez, the Muslim jet-set has its haunts in Mecca," the Saudi travel agent said.

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