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Hajj pilgrimage is expected to be the biggest since COVID pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly 2 million Muslims are gathering in Mecca for the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. It's the largest Hajj since COVID-19 restrictions dramatically curbed the spiritual journey. NPR's Aya Batrawy has this report.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: It's dawn in Mecca, and a livestream from there shows men in seamless, white terrycloth robes and women in head coverings standing shoulder to shoulder in prayer, facing towards the cube-shaped, black Kaaba, Islam's holiest site. For Muslims, it's known as Bayt Allah, the metaphorical house of God. Temperatures in Mecca could reach 115 degrees or more. The Hajj is physically and spiritually demanding. It's a journey of sacrifice and repentance. Egyptian pilgrim Ramadan Shafie arrived with his wife to Mecca over a month ago, saving up for years for the Hajj. I ask him over the phone what it feels like to see the Kaaba and pray there.

RAMADAN SHAFIE: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: He says each time he lays eyes on the Kaaba, it's like seeing it for the first time. He says he feels an inner peace and close to God. Shafie is among nearly 2 million pilgrims performing the Hajj this week, following the path the Prophet Muhammad once walked over 1,400 years ago. During the Hajj, men and women, their hands cupped open to the sky in prayer, weep for forgiveness, healing and mercy. Shafie's wife, Safaa Abdel-Halim, tells me it's hard to put into words how she feels, but her excitement is palpable.

SAFAA ABDEL-HALIM: (Speaking Arabic).

BATRAWY: And there are so many things she's praying for - her five kids, her siblings, her country, Egypt, and still so much to thank God for, too, she says. The Hajj is one of the largest and most logistically challenging gatherings of people on Earth, and it consistently poses a challenge for Saudi authorities as they host people and manage crowds from nearly every country in the world. But the Hajj, it's not just an obligation to perform once in a lifetime, if possible. For so many, these next few days are a chance to forgo worldly desires and surrender to God. Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Dubai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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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.