Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghanistan's Competitive Pilgrims

After the spiritual experience of visiting Mecca, returning pilgrims are expected to host festivities for friends and relatives.
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.

In recent 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 6,000 US dollars on entertaining.

"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 tradition.

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 dollars, 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."

Zainaba, a pupil at Bibi Hawa High School in the provincial centre Jalalabad, recalled what happened when a hajji returned to her neighbourhood.

“Dishes of food were cooked in the alley for several days, and people would come for lunch. It created problems for all the neighbours – 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."

Families 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 explained. “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 these convoys.

“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.

There are other risks too, given Afghanistan’s dangerous security environment. On November 29, a roadside bomb killed ten 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.

Nabi 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.

Abdul Qayum 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 customs."

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 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 among them.

"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."

Hijratullah Ekhtyar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Nangarhar, Afghanistan.