pilgrims By Hijratullah Ekhtyar
In Afghanistan, as in other Muslim
countries, pilgrims returning from the annual Hajj
are greeted with open arms, but here they are
expected to reciprocate with lavish entertainment
that some view as inappropriate.
weeks, Afghans have been arriving home after
joining the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi
Arabia, which this year took place in October.
Performing the Hajj is one of five central duties
for Muslims who are able and can afford to go.
About 30,000 Afghans make the trip in the
course of a year, and for many the expense makes
it a once-in-a-lifetime experience. On their
return, the pilgrims or “hajjis” are met by
friends and relatives, but custom dictates that
they spend the next few weeks receiving guests,
hosting feasts and handing out gifts. Some
people regret that
instead of marking an act of piety, the
celebrations have become a form of ostentation.
Hajji Mohammad Yaqub, 60, says that since
returning to his home in Nangarhar province in
eastern Afghanistan, he has spent US$6,000 on
"I had to do it," he said.
"I would have spent the money whether I liked it
or not because it's a matter of your cousins and
the village. People would laugh at you if you
didn't bring them presents, arrange free lunches,
and play host to people for a month. It's
Yaqub acknowledged that the
costs of putting on a good show mounted up. "The
cost of the Hajj plus the gifts, lunches, and
hospitality can add up to $12,000 or $13,000, and
it's very hard for poor people like us to earn
that amount of money," he said. "But what else can
we do? We have to find it."
pupil at Bibi Hawa High School in the provincial
centre Jalalabad, recalled what happened when a
hajji returned to her neighborhood.
"Dishes of food were cooked in the alley
for several days, and people would come for lunch.
It created problems for all the neighbors - women
and children weren't able to get through," she
said. "Going on the Hajj is an obligation, but
people have turned tradition into an obligation
that they place on themselves."
try to outdo one another when they go to meet the
returning pilgrims, with as large a convoy of
highly-decorated cars as they can get hold of. Lal
Mir, a resident of Nangarhar's Batikot district,
has lined up eight cars to welcome his father
back, twice as many as were there for his cousin
last year. As he decked out his Toyota Corolla
with plastic flowers, he said the convoy was a
matter of pride.
"It's a great source of
happiness," he said. "This is what people earn
money for. This is what people work for, so that
they can walk tall among cousins and friends."
On their way back with the hajji,
the cars often race each other, and accidents are
not uncommon. Shawali, a student of law and
political science at Jalalabad's Ariana
University, recalled a trip he took in one of
"There were seven or eight
cars, and they kept overtaking each other along
the way. Suddenly there was a car in front of us -
our driver tried to swerve but he had an accident
and the car crashed. My head and leg were injured.
There were five passengers in our car and all of
us were as good as dead," he said.
are other risks too, given Afghanistan's dangerous
security environment. On November 29, a roadside
bomb killed 10 civilians, including a woman and
five children, in Uruzgan province. The party was
travelling to visit recently-returned Hajjis.
The head of the Shariah law faculty at
Nangarhar University, Sayed Ahmad Fatemi, said the
competitive show of wealth was contrary to the
spirit of Islam.
"In the next world,
people will be asked about how they earned their
money and how they spent it. Man is not free to
make and spend money [at will] - people should
spend neither so little nor so much that it harms
themselves and society," he said.
Basirat, who lectures in law and political science
at Nangarhar university, said it was certainly
permissible to bring back gifts for friends, but
other customs like the feasts and convoys of
decorated cars were not in keeping with Islam, as
well as being bad for Afghan society given the
state of the economy.
Mashwani, a member of Afghanistan's Academy of
Sciences, interviewed while attending a lunch laid
on by a hajji, said, "These negative
traditions place an economic burden on people, and
prevent them from performing the central
obligation [Hajj]. I know many people who have
failed to perform the Hajj because of these
Mashwani said that if he went on
the Hajj himself, he would not say anything, and
would just tell friends he was going on a trip.
Nangarhar resident Fatema agreed that the
post-Hajj festivities were not grounded in
religion. "A friend of mine returned from the Hajj
a few days ago, but I haven't been to see her yet
- it would take up her time and be a bother for
me," she said.
People who are in a
position to get the money together for the Hajj
journey are often put off by the thought of the
costs they would have to bear afterwards. Moalem
Mohammad Ghani, a shopkeeper in Mehtarlam, a town
in Laghman province just north of Nangarhar, is
"I can afford to carry out the
Hajj obligation, but I can't afford the other
things that people have made into obligations,
like bringing back gifts, prayer cloths and
clothing, and hosting lunches," he said. "More
money is spent on these things than on the Hajj
itself. And if you don't do them, people will
speak ill of you."
Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in