MAKKAH – A handful of old Makkah families manage the muttawif or Haj guide business here. Organized into six companies, each taking care of pilgrims from a specific part of the world, they make sure the people who have waited a lifetime to perform the Haj get through it safely.
“We take control of the pilgrim from when he first puts his foot on the soil of Makkah,” said Imad Abdullah, waiting for a busload of Indonesians arriving in the Muslim holy city for the annual pilgrimage.
“We organize the shelter, food, transport, the rituals, and try to resolve any problems that come up,” said Abdullah, who specializes in pilgrims from Southeast Asia.
In what is a lucrative trade, the families deploy their members for the few weeks a year to manage pilgrim groups for all the time they are in Makkah: holding onto their travel documents, organizing visits to important sites, and at the end, shopping trips so they can return home laden with gifts and souvenirs.
It is a grueling job, having to be on call day and night for a few weeks, but thousands of young men and women, seek the job and its good salary.
For several days’ work they earn from SR 3,000 to more than SR15,000 each, depending on their experience.
Knowing foreign languages is a particular asset for a muttawif guide, and some excel in the tongues of the region they handle.
It is an ancient business, helping foreigners unable to speak Arabic to navigate through the lengthy Haj ritual.
Families have long controlled it, but before the 1930s it was not very disciplined.
Then King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, organized the families into six companies, each with rights to handle pilgrims from a specific region.
Abdullah’s family – in the business for 150 years, is part of one of the companies, and he has been a muttawif for 30 years.
“Our sons will inherit the job,” he said.
He has seen nearly everything, funny and difficult situations, during his long years.
He tells the story of a pilgrim who was mentally unbalanced.
“But under the effect of the intense heat in Makkah and the spirituality of the place, he ended up recovering his senses.”
He has also seen a number of pregnant women give birth during the Haj.
“It’s magnificent, but it makes the job complicated, because we have to take them to hospital,” he said.
The faithful coming from Indonesia give him a hard time about Saudi cuisine, which they do not seem to appreciate.
“We help them find the food they like, but that often depends on how much they can pay,” he said. – AFP (SAUDI GAZETTE)