What am I doing here? Flying the Hajji Skies – From Cairo to Morocco

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?
Sefrou, Morocco
14 November 2012

I’m just back home from the World Travel Market in London.  The  WTM itslef was like taking a trip around the world and I’ll be writing about it next week – but at the moment, I’m honestly still gathering my thoughts and materials. It’s been a wild few weeks in Marseilles, France, London, England, Bristol, England, Aix-en-Province, France and now back to Sefrou.  Day before yesterday,  as I flew on a RyanAir flight from Marseille to Fez, I was once again in a plane full of Moroccans coming from abroad. For some reason there is almost nothing more stressful and there are always arguements with customs agents, some woman crying because she can’t bring her purchases or her bag weighs too much, and the crush of Moroccans forced in a queue when the Moroccan mentality simply doesn’t understand the nature of  a queue and so it becomes a massive squeeze, usually with me in the middle.  In any event, I’m home now and reminded of another recent flight on a plane filled with Moroccans…

Fly the Hajji Skies

fly the hajji skies with plenty of baggageAs usually happens when I catch any flight to Morocco, and I can only assume as happens whenever you mix Moroccans and airplanes – chaos ensued. Add to that, the fact that most of the passengers were pilgrims returning from the Hajj (the sacred trip to Mecca that all Muslims are to conduct – if possible- at least one time in their lives) and hilarity quickly becomes a part of the equation.

The hilarity is a result of the fact that most of these pilgrims are old, taking the one trip of their lifetime, and all very proud and happy that they have fulfilled their life’s mission. The waiting room at the airport rang with the calls of Ya Hajj and Ya Hajja (loosely translated as “Hey honored person who has completed your sacred duty (both male and female)). Once you have completed the Hajj, you are called Hajj or Hajja. It is a great honor and you can see it as these old Moroccans call each other Hajj, yell out the name to call their friends and loved ones, and every other oldster who is now a Hajj or Hajja turns to look.

Still, these are Moroccans and so regardless of respect, Hajj or not, when it comes time to form a queue and move forward, they press into a tight wedge shape and everyone begins shoving. I stood back out of respect for their age and their new status, but the other Moroccans I saw let the dynamic of the line push them forward.

The Moroccan line is a living and pulsing thing of awfulness and if I didn’t need to sometimes get somewhere, I would refuse to take part. But, I need to get in the wedges to get a taxi, to buy food, to get government work done, and more. So, I am forced to be a wedgii as well. I managed to hold back until the second shuttle bus and then I was among the last to get on the plane, but this was a mistake because my seat was all the way in the rear.

hajjis on a planeMost Moroccans don’t know much about assigned seating or the protocols that go with bag stowage, first class, economy class, or anything else that is fairly standard knowledge in the orderly western travel world. So, there was complete and total chaos as all the Hajj and Hajja tried to stow their pilgrim baggage anywhere they could, got told to go to their assigned seats, and made a muck of things.

The young Lebanese guy in the seat next to me laughed himself silly. So did I. The poor flight crew came out of the cockpit and tried to order things, but it was next to impossible until the Captain of the aircraft– came out and started yelling and screaming about things. I’m glad it’s not just me that loses his patience with this stuff.

flight of the hajjiFinally they had all been seated and stowed their bags and then the constant trips to the bathroom began. The flight was, after all, delayed and these are old people with most likely weak bladders and swollen prostates. I decided to wait until the tide ebbed – but it was a near constant stream (haha).

Finally I took my turn and was very glad I didn’t have to make #2 because I forgot that Moroccans, especially the old and the untraveled, don’t do well with no bucket to wash with.

The western toilet is a strange phenomenon to these folks and they soon had the spotless EgyptAir toilet looking like a toilet on a Moroccan train. The sink was filled with water of almost certain washing the bum provenience, water was all over the floor, the seat, and everywhere. Later I began to see old folks trekking into the bathroom with empty water bottles to use to wash. This is life – and it’s actually pretty funny from a outsider perspective – at least until you have to take a dump.

They were sweet, nice people. The girl next to me had sweet, dreamy eyes behind a flowered scarf that covered all but her eyes. She was traveling with her husband and the henna on her hands plus their youth made me think they were perhaps on their honeymoon. I’m fairly certain her husband was not Moroccan, but she was for sure. In any event, I tried not to look at her out of respect for her veil and her husband, but it was a bit hard because those eyes kept looking at me over the veil.

Elsewhere on the plane, the flight crew was struggling to deal with the demands of the Hajj and Hajja but failing pretty badly. There was one European woman who ended up carrying her and her husband’s meal trays back for them. I can imagine that for anyone unfamiliar with the chaos of Moroccan travel, it must be completely insane and probably unbearable. Actually, even if you are familiar with it,  it’s insane and unbearable.

Many of the old people smelled like slightly stale pee. I suppose that’s normal for just about any old people. Of course, there was more chaos to come when we arrived in Morocco but the Lebanese man next to me and I took desperate action. Upon the plane touching down, we both unbuckled our seat belts,  grabbed our bags and rushed to the front of the plane.  Our signal was when the first of the Hajjas began to do the same, even though the plane was still moving rapidly and had touched down just seconds before.

The flight attendants yelled at us but I swear their eyes were sympathetic and they smiled and wished us a pleasant journey as we got of f the plane. We did manage to beat the hajjis to the customs and immigration but there was one last surprise as I got my bag. One of the customs of the Hajj is to bring back 5-gallon buckets of ‘Zamzam’ water which is the holy water from the well where God saved Hagar and Ishmael (the wife and son of the Prophet Ibrahim) in the desert.

One of the jugs had apparently leaked and so my bag was soaked with holy water. I felt like I’d been given a blessing. It was nice to be home.  And so it is now.

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Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook