The flea is a tiny creature. It can be crushed between finger and thumb. But when its bite carries Yersinia Pestis, this little pest changes roles. It morphs into a monumental foe and potent human threat. The flea becomes a weapon of mass destruction called bubonic plague. The flea has shown us that God can put the biggest bang in the smallest package. Our greatest fear should be for what can march along on the backs of rodents or, for that matter, be carried by humans. The tiny flea had a complementary role in the destruction of the golden age of the Byzantine Empire. When the bubonic plague had finally run its course, 25 million corpses lay strewn across what remained of Emperor Justinian’s far-flung domain. Saudi Arabia was largely spared this tragedy. The desert terrain hindered the creatures’ own nomadic adventurism.
The flea is a tiny little thing and bubonic plague is a bacterium. Human beings are larger creatures and Ebola is a virus. You get the picture. I worry about Hajj 2014. The holy sites might soon present as the world’s largest petri dish. This would be a tragedy.
As a Christian, I take comfort in looking at God’s arc in the sky. It is a reminder that those who came out of the Ark would never again have to worry about a worldwide torrential deluge. This is the Biblical account of Noah and his children. But God is creative and the angel of death is really a clown. Jumping further along into the Pentateuch text, the 10 plagues of Egypt come to mind.
The plague with lice or gnats is found in Exodus 8:6 (the Quran also mentions this plague). But, after the gnats and lice, God smote the Egyptians with flies. This was followed by what appears to be escalating punishment: “Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain,” Exodus 9:3. There are scientists who believe that the fifth plague that decimated the livestock was accomplished with anthrax. The excruciating gauntlet of punishment ended with the mother of all punishments, the death of the firstborn children of the Egyptians. The branch was cut off and thrown to the ground. What the Bible calls the first sign of a man’s strength was also hit with a sign. That sign added up to a massive death count. Journalist’s note: the word used for plague in the Quran is rijzan. This word can be found in Quran 2:59 in context of a plague decreed from heaven.
I cannot sort out the metaphysical aspects of text. Only a fool would presume to know the mind of God. We are merely privy to the stories of our faith. But neither would I look a grieving person in the eye and spout that their suffering is due to a wretched human condition. I do not want my words to come back and bite me. But, while I am pondering plagues past and plagues present, one thought rattles around in my head. Do you plan on taking the mad dash to Hajj this year? This might be the opportunity to participate in the world’s largest petri dish event.
Muslims wait for the expected visibility of the hilal (a waxing crescent moon that follows a new moon). Based on current estimates, the pilgrimage to Mecca this year will take place between October 2 and 7. The average number of pilgrims who partake of this obligatory duty bounces around the two million mark, with the Saudi population contributing their own robust representation. Last year, the numbers took quite a dip because of fear of the MERS virus but the astounding little known fact is that the number of foreign nationals attending Hajj has increased by 2,824 percent since 1920. In 1920, 58,584 of the pilgrims were foreign nationals. Care to guess how many foreign nationals attended Hajj in 2012? The number is a whopping 1,712,962.
While of the opinion that only a half-wit or a courageous person would dash off to Hajj this year, forces stronger than faith drive those who manage the travel junket expenses from point of departure to return home. Gulf News released an extremely interesting piece of journalism on November 29, 2009. It is ‘Haj vital to Saudi Economy’ by Dr Jasim Ali. Let me quote a bit from the text. This is fascinating stuff:
“According to a field study, the monetary value of activities related to the Haj and Umrah exceeds $ 30 billion (Dh 110.2 billion)...The average cost of sacrificed animals amounts to about $ 130 per pilgrim...To be sure, the statistics reflect the multiplier effect on the economy, as every riyal spent brings about four additional riyals. Undoubtedly, this is a sizeable amount by virtue of making up around seven percent of the kingdom’s gross domestic product...Four cities in western Saudi Arabia benefit substantially from the Haj, namely Makkah, Madinah, Jeddah and Taif...The Haj season provides employment opportunities for thousands of Saudi nationals...In February 2008, China Rail Construction Company won a $ 1.8 billion contract to construct an 18 kilometre metro line linking Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah...The plan calls for carrying a maximum of 72,000 pilgrims per hour in one direction during the Haj of 2011.”
Religious devotion that begins in the heart invigorates regional economies. Whether it is Muslims heading to Hajj or Catholics rushing off to Rome, there is money to be made from religious tourism practices. Devotion dovetails neatly into a financial instrument that generates healthy profit margins. But with the recent announcements by the Centres for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation regarding the Ebola crisis, this may not be the best year to make the pilgrimage. The Spanish priest who contracted Ebola has perished. He died with faith. But Ebola is a disease. Its faith is in a viable host.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of the novel Arsenal. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org