Hajj goes virtual for families of lucky pilgrims

Published August 1, 2020, 7:45 AM

by Agence France-Presse

KHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — Faridah Bakti Yahra travelled alone to Mecca when she won the lottery of a lifetime to join this year’s hajj, the smallest in living memory, but her family is relishing the experience virtually. 

Members of the family of Faridah Bakti Yahra get in contact with her through a tablet from their home in the Saudi coastal city of Khobar, as she performs the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, on July 29, 2020. (Photo by STR / AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Thanks to her smartphone, and the 5G towers that loom over the holy city, the Indonesian housewife is sharing every step of the pilgrimage with her husband and three daughters back home in the Saudi coastal city of Khobar.

“I am so happy he joined me virtually, spiritually, with my daughters also. May my dear husband come here together with me again for hajj – inshallah (God willing),” the 39- year-old told AFP. 

In the first days of the pilgrimage, many of the faithful were seen holding their phones aloft to snap selfies and livestream their progress to friends and family back home. 

Super high-speed 5G technology was rolled out in Mecca last year, allowing pilgrims to transfer data at breakneck speeds, and the network is now prevalent across much of Saudi Arabia. 

But this year the shared religious experience has even greater resonance, with the gathering scaled down from more than two million people to just a few thousand, and at a time when many prayers are being offered for a world gripped by the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Tears of joy

 Yahra opened a video call on the first day of the hajj at Mecca’s Grand Mosque when she approached the Kaaba, a large cubic structure draped in gold-embroidered black cloth, towards which Muslims around the world pray. 

“When my wife entered the Kaaba area and she showed me the Kaaba, I felt very, very cheerful, joyful, with tears,” her husband Hendra Samosir said. 

“It was very truly a holy journey I would say, even though I wasn’t there, but looking at my wife attending this hajj, it feels like I was there.” 

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians usually take part in the hajj, many waiting and saving for years before their turn comes up. This year, there are believed to be hardly more than a dozen in Mecca. 

Yahra was selected in a process that for the first time excluded pilgrims from outside the kingdom. Muslims worldwide were disappointed, even though most accepted that a hajj on the usual scale was out of the question. 

Foreign residents make up 70 percent of the group and Saudi citizens make up the remainder, drawn from medical professionals and security personnel who have recovered from the virus. 

There were grumbles over what was seen as an opaque system, and those who missed out swamped the hajj ministry’s Twitter account with anguished queries.