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Heat killed hundreds of Muslims in Saudi Arabia for this year's hajj pilgrimage

DON GONYEA, HOST:

The Hajj is an obligatory, once-in-a-lifetime journey for Muslims if they can go. With Islam following a lunar calendar, it doesn't always happen in the summer, but it did this year. And temperatures rose close to 120 degrees around Mecca. Hundreds died, and thousands sought treatment for heat exhaustion. NPR's Aya Batrawy has more.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Saudi Arabia hasn't offered a death toll for the Hajj, but a list leaked from a hospital shows the names of 550 deceased pilgrims. This list, which was first reported by the Associated Press and seen by NPR, isn't complete, but it offers a glimpse into the death toll this year as temperatures soared in Mecca under the scorching sun. Saudi Arabia, which provides free healthcare for pilgrims, says nearly 3,000 people sought treatment for heat during the Hajj, which took place this week. One of them was Taha Assayid from Egypt.

TAHA ASSAYID: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: He suspects the heat killed a lot of people. He says he was hospitalized last weekend after spending a few hours in the sun trying to make it into the mosque where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon nearly 1,400 years ago. Assayid, who's 40, says, just imagine that heat for pilgrims in their 60s and 70s.

People push themselves during the Hajj, often beyond what's required. They've saved up their entire lives for the coveted chance to experience these ancient rites.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Praying in non-English language).

BATRAWY: In social media posts like this one, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj shows pilgrims opening umbrellas. They advise people to drink lots of water and avoid going outside at certain hours of the day. And crucially, Islam doesn't require people to sacrifice their lives for the Hajj.

ATHER HUSSAIN: There is provision. Our Sharia is very flexible.

BATRAWY: British imam and Hajj guide Ather Hussain helped lead a group of 140 pilgrims this year. He says some of the older people in the group were insistent on walking long distances to perform some of the rituals, but he had this advice for them.

HUSSAIN: You can always delegate it. You can give that responsibility to someone else.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Praying in non-English language).

BATRAWY: Prayers at the Kaaba offer moments of calm amid the hustle and bustle of Hajj. The ruling Al Saud family earns prestige and stature from hosting the Hajj and managing Islam's holiest site. They've taken steps to prevent stampedes and other manmade disasters of past years. But how do you control the heat? Temperatures are soaring around the world, most of that caused by the burning of oil and gas. Saudi Arabia is a major exporter of both.

A study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine found that during a hot summer in 1987, around a thousand people died during the Hajj. But it also found that increasing temperatures in Mecca have outpaced other parts of the world since then. Another study says temperatures in Saudi Arabia have increased 50% faster than the rest of the Northern Hemisphere.

IBRAHIM OMRAN: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: Egyptian pilgrim Ibrahim Omran has been to Mecca more than 20 times. This was the hottest he's ever seen it. And he says a lot of the people who died appear to be Egyptians who came on tourist visas instead of Hajj visas. They suffered without hotels to cool off in and walked everywhere. A consequence, he says, of Hajj operators raising their prices in Egypt after the currency plummeted.

The Saudi government is planting more trees around Hajj sites and has coated the ground in heat-reflective pavement.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Non-English language spoken).

BATRAWY: Volunteers hand out water, juice and umbrellas to pilgrims who walk under misting systems to keep cool. The Hajj is challenging and takes weeks of travel. But Hussain says it's an experience like no other.

HUSSAIN: You know, I saw adversity, but I also saw the best of humanity, I think. And I think that is the message of the Hajj, to help one another, you know, look after one another. That has left the biggest memory, how far people went to help others. And it was unbelievable.

BATRAWY: Standing shoulder to shoulder with 2 million people repenting and praying is a test in patience and humility and, with the heat, increasingly of endurance. Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.
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