Babylon & Beyond

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SAUDI ARABIA: This month is worth a year

December 18, 2007 |  2:20 pm

The cries of the hawkers started up as soon as midday prayers finished at Medina’s Mosque of the Prophet.

“Fifteen riyals! Fifteen riyals!” shouted a young man named Badr, switching between Arabic, Farsi and Urdu.

A crowd of women descended on his box of black and red abaya gowns, rifling through the contents and initiating polyglot negotiations.

Ten feet away, a man who identified himself only as Abdul Rahman sold multicolored scarfs for 5 riyals (about $1.50) each. The crowd nearly engulfed him, pulling fresh packages out of his hands before he could unwrap them.

Always keeping one eye peeled for the baladeya — the local police — the hawkers were doing a roaring business. Inside the more legitimate Medina storefronts, business was equally brisk.

“This month is worth the rest of the year for me,” said Ahmed Ali, an Afghan merchant who owns a clothing store.

Ali speaks Arabic, Farsi, English and Urdu and says he knows enough Malay and Bosnian to talk sizes, colors and prices.

Hajj season is big business for the merchants of Mecca and Medina. It's been that way for as long as the hajj has existed. Long before the prophet Muhammad brought monotheism to the Arabian Peninsula more than 1,400 years ago, the hajj was a combination trade fair and religious festival for the idol worshipers who then lived here.

Now there are shopping malls right next to Mecca’s Grand Mosque, and bottles of water from the holy well of Zam Zam are available in the duty-free shops of Jidda Airport.

“Sometimes it gets overwhelming,” said Imam Moustafa Al Qazwini. “Sometimes the pilgrims spend more time in the malls than in the mosques.”

Some pilgrims grumble that the Saudi merchants ruthlessly take advantage of the fact that they aren’t allowed to lose their temper during the hajj. But the pilgrims don’t really have a choice. A souvenir brought back from the holy cities has special significance, and pilgrims are expected to bring home trinkets for all their relatives.

Raef Hajjali of Altadena recently returned from a Mecca shopping trip laden with souvenirs. He bought a traditional red-checked Saudi headscarf for his son, several pairs of handmade sandals and dozens of sets of prayer beads made from olive pits.

“I went to Anaheim. It’s full of this stuff,” he said. “But it’s different when it’s from here.”

Blog Mapper: Tracking the hajj

— Ashraf Khalil in Mecca, Saudi Arabia