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A Muslim pilgrim's progress
2006-12-19 00:00

A Muslim pilgrim's progress

By Wu Chen & Yang Jing, China Features

On a cold winter afternoon, 74-year-old Ma Xiulan sat among some 200 white-hatted men and women on the floor of a hall in Beijing, listening attentively to a man standing on a platform.

The small, thin woman from North China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region appeared calm, even though 48 hours later she would climb into a plane for the first time in her life to take a 12-hour flight and have her lifelong wish fulfilled.

She was receiving training about China's religious and foreign affairs policies before beginning her hajj to Mecca.

Her son Ma Wenhua stood outside the hall, peering anxiously at his mother from time to time. He couldn't help worrying about her.

"She is weak. I hope she can get through the 38 days safely," Ma, 51, said.

But he was resolved not to stand in her way. Every Muslim hopes to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime and his mother had been dreaming of the trip for several years.

Initially, the big obstacle was money.

Then last year, the whole family, Ma Xiulan and her husband, three sons and a daughter pooled their resources to raise the 30,000 yuan (3,750 U.S. dollars) she needs for the trip. The trip organizer, the local Islamic association, will receive 24,170 yuan for the charter flight, passport and visa application and other main pilgrimage expenses and the rest will cover ancillary expenses, such as food in Mecca and the train ticket from Inner Mongolia to Beijing.

"My parents' sole income is my father's pension of 800 yuan per month, so the pilgrimage will devour almost all their savings," said Ma Wenhua.

Ma Xiulan applied to the local religious affairs bureau last year but was turned down because the quota had already been filled.

Bai Zhihui, vice-chairman of the Islamic Association of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said the Saudi Arabian government sets a quota each year which determines how many Chinese pilgrims can go to Mecca. This year, the autonomous region has a quota of 233, 20 percent up on last year.

In November, Ma Xiulan was overjoyed to learn that she had been accepted for this year's pilgrimage and immediately began to prepare for the trip.

To save money, Ma is carrying five kilograms of rice, three kilos of flour, three kilos of fine dried noodles, eight kilos of solid food and some dried vegetables and mutton.

She plans to cook for herself in the lodging rented by the Islamic Association of China in Mecca, where the pilgrims will stay during the trip.

Unlike Ma Xiulan, You Zhanxian, 77, and his wife Ma Lanying, 75, are taking some 2,000 U.S. dollars to buy food in Saudi Arabia.

"I have earned some money from my small real estate business, so I am going with my wife and our five children are all here to see us off," You said. You has a partial hearing loss and other people have to talk loudly to him.

He said he had read a lot about the pilgrimage and learnt that the trip might be tough for old people like him and his wife.

"The weather is hot and there are huge crowds of people but we are well-prepared for the hardship," You said with a smile.

Bai Zhihui, vice-chairman of the Islamic Association of Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said that economic and physical factors count a lot for those contemplating a hajj and that it is also important to have a pious heart.

However, many Chinese Muslims, especially those living in rural areas, cannot save up enough money until they are old, when their physical health may have started to deteriorate, Bai said.

"We usually let old people go provided they are not seriously ill because it may be the only opportunity they have in their whole life," Bai said.

Seventy percent of the people in the Inner Mongolia group are above 60 years of age.

Medical service will be available to the pilgrims as two Muslim doctors are flying with them.

According to official statistics, more than 9,600 Chinese Muslims will travel to Mecca by charter flight at the end of the year for the traditional annual pilgrimage.

Yang Zhibo, vice chairman of the Islamic Association of China (IAC), said more than 9,600 Chinese Muslims from eight provinces and autonomous regions -- Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, Ningxia, Yunnan, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia and Henan -- will make a pilgrimage to Mecca this year.

"Applicants are better off these days and the Saudi Arabia government has increased its quota, so there are more pilgrims going to Mecca this year than at any time in the country's history," said Yang.

In May 2006, to ensure pilgrims' safety, the IAC signed an agreement with the Saudi Arabia government which stipulated that Chinese Muslims could only make a pilgrimage to Mecca in groups organized by the IAC. The Saudi Arabia government does not issue visas to pilgrims applying through other channels, for example, people who want to go to Mecca as tourists.

A group of Chinese pilgrims that had paid a travel agency 8,000 yuan found themselves stranded in Pakistan last August, unable to enter Saudi Arabia.

After the incident, the Saudi Arabia government increased China's quota.

Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern airlines will arrange a total of 31 non-stop charter flights for pilgrims this year. The pilgrims will be provided with transportation, medical and accommodation services. Special Muslim food will be provided on the charter flights, Yang said.

On Nov. 29, the first pilgrimage charter flight took off from Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, and arrived at Medinah, Saudi Arabia, after a flight lasting eight to ten hours. The last batch of pilgrims will depart Beijing on Dec. 17.

Despite the daunting trip ahead, the old woman from Inner Mongolia said she is glad that she can finally make the trip and is not expecting to feel tired at all.

She said she is grateful to her husband, who is two years older than her, for giving her the opportunity.

"He said he is stronger than me and can wait a few more years. I hope he can also make the pilgrimage one day," she said.

Watching her board the flight, her son Ma Wenhua said he would go home and then make a 30-hour bus trip to return to Beijing on Jan. 22 to meet his mother off the plane back from the hajj.

"I hope everything will be OK when she gets back," said the dutiful son.


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