16611912411_5c6c6fdfca_Hajj-2015Photo by حدائق الرحمن

A week ago, returning home from Mumbai via Dubai, the signs of the Hajj pilgrimage were all around us. (Hajj is one of the pillars of Islam and therefore a sacred duty for Muslims to perform once in their lives.)

There was a special filter for pilgrims at Mumbai airport and all around me people were dressed in simple pure white robes – shawls and sarongs – on their way to Mecca.

As you know I enjoy studying the people while killing time between flights at Dubai airport, this modern crossroads of humanity. In among the tourists and honeymooners; the middle-aged people breaking their journey half way across the world to see their children, there are often pilgrims, monks and nuns of all sorts of religious denominations.

Last week, however, there was a multitude, a profusion of pilgrims at Dubai. The women’s attire made some concessions to the cultural norms of their home countries but the men were all dressed the same. From Nigeria, Indonesia, the US, India, Australia, Europe all of them were identical except, if you looked closely, the quality of the fabric used to make their pilgrims’ garb.

It was an odd juxtaposition: these men, stripped to the bare minimum, in the business class lounge. I even spotted one man wearing a upper garment of pure white tweed. That day in those couple of hours there was a really sense of the multitude of people using Dubai as a staging post before converging on Mecca. Apparently two million people perform the Hajj every year.

So, as the news came in the morning that over 700 pilgrims had been killed in a crush I wondered whether the people I saw last week were among them. How do you even identify people among the throng there? How will news filter back to friends and families at home? It’s poignant, I think.