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Travails Of Dagestan's Pilgrim Traders

The annual pilgrimage to Mecca this February brought big money to some Dagestanis, and a lot of trouble to others.
By Musa Musayev

Embarking on their holy pilgrimage to Mecca at the beginning of February, middle-aged Dagestani couple Ibragim and Aishat Magomedov made do on a very modest budget. They paid 1300 US dollars for the trip, and teamed up with 25 other pilgrims in a shabby old bus. The driver charged very little, but each of the pilgrims also chipped in for food.

The trip south through Azerbaijan was easy, but then the bus got a flat tire and the brakes broke. It took the driver four days to fix the vehicle. The engine broke in Iran, and they had to hire a tow truck to get to the Iraqi border. In Iraq, the engine completely gave out, so they had to hire a tractor.

“We wouldn’t have made it all, but then drivers of three KAMAZ trucks from Dagestan that just happened to be driving by agreed to take us the rest of the way. So we got to Mecca on the very first day of the Hajj,” Ibragim told IWPR.

The annual pilgrimage to Mecca, or Hajj, is one of the five pillars of Islam and something every practicing Muslim tries to do once in his lifetime. Every February, about two million Muslims from all over the world flock to Mecca.

For Russian Muslims, who have been allowed to make the trip since 1993, the journey is often prohibitively expensive and many try to make back their money while they are in Saudi Arabia.

Fourteen thousand pilgrims from Russia made the journey in 1995, but since then the number has fallen to around 5,000 a year, almost all travelling overland. Up to 80 per cent come from impoverished Dagestan. The Hajj costs at least 800-1000 dollars to make, while the average monthly wage in the republic is only 30-40 dollars.

When on the Hajj, every Muslim is required to forget about his daily worries and cleanse himself from impure thoughts and desires through a succession of religious rites. Ibragim and Aishat, however, could not abandon worldly concerns. “We would have returned without a penny if we hadn’t brought some rugs hand-woven by our daughters. We carried them around even during the rites, until we eventually sold them,” recalled Ibragim.

It didn’t take long to sell the rugs, as Saudis expect to buy merchandise from the Russian pilgrims.

To cut expenses, Russian pilgrims used to travel in KAMAZ heavy-duty trucks, which fitted with side shelves for the pilgrims, while the luggage stayed on the bottom. In 1999, Saudi Arabia banned the vehicles, branding them “uncivilized”, and ordering all pilgrims travelling overland to use cars or buses instead – although the ban has not been strictly enforced.

University professor Murad Kaziev, who went to Mecca this February, met some fellow Dagestanis in Saudi Arabia riding a bus chock-full of merchandise. “I also saw some KAMAZ trucks where people were sitting on the makeshift shelves in the back, and the rest of the space was filled with goods. They were all headed straight for the Jeddah port without stopping in Mecca,” he recalled.

Kaziev said he knows Dagestani pilgrims who have made a fortune shuttling hand-woven rugs from Dagestan, where they cost next to nothing, to buyers in Saudi Arabia. On their way back, these streetwise pilgrims usually stock up on audiovisual equipment, clothes and other consumer goods to sell back home in the northern Caucasus.

Several Dagestani pilgrims reported that one enterprising Makhachkala resident is renting out a warehouse somewhere along the pilgrimage route, making enormous amounts of money by handling Hajj pilgrims’ goods. This year, reportedly, the travellers hawked large quantities of electric drills, tanned hides and woollen socks, which were eagerly snapped up in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“The Koran does not expressly forbid mercantile transactions, but pilgrims are advised to focus on their purification rites during the Hajj,” Kaziev told IWPR. “The trouble is, many of the so-called pilgrims become so involved in commerce they never actually complete their pilgrimage. The traders make money on the Hajj, but religious leaders choose to turn a blind eye to it.”

Big-time entrepreneurs are setting up business alongside the small-time traders. They hire entire fleets of buses or trucks to ship traditional hand-made artefacts out of Dagestan, such as hand-woven woollen rugs or honey.

“In the last few years, especially from 1997 to 1999, about 37 per cent of Dagestani pilgrims were too busy doing business in Saudi Arabia to attend to their religious rites. About 15 per cent never actually made it to Holy Mecca or even Saudi Arabia. They completed their business and returned,” Bikmurza Bikmurzayev of the Dagestani office of the Russian Foreign Ministry, told IWPR.

“There is another problem. Having no knowledge of the local laws in the countries they travel through or in Saudi Arabia, Russian citizens frequently get in trouble there.”

In 2002 alone, foreign ministry officials helped Russian pilgrims win 273 court cases in the countries along the route. All the pilgrims were arrested for selling forbidden goods or otherwise violating trading rules.

Countries along the route have seized hundreds of tons of merchandise - for instance, 30 tons of Dagestani honey is being held in Syria. Dozens of vehicles, which ran out of spare parts, have been abandoned. Several Russian pilgrims are serving time in prison.

Despite their adversities, the Magomedovs are happy they went on the Hajj. On their way back, they joined a group of other pilgrims, who got home much more quickly: their drivers drove non-stop.

Their broken down bus is still in Iraq, and so is the driver. He cannot leave his bus, which is the only source of livelihood for him and his family.

Musa Musaev is a correspondent for Dagestanskaya Pravda newspaper in Makhachkala, Dagestan.

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