Christian Science Monitor

April 12, 2000

A caravan of battered Soviet-era buses and trucks - each flying the green flag of the Islamic pilgrimage - grinds to a halt. Even before the dust settles, pilgrims from the Russian republic of Dagestan begin to lay out dozens of deep-hued and intricately woven carpets, tarnished Czarist samovars, and tins of caviar.

The bazaar is open for business.

At this time of the year, when the weary pilgrim heads home after completing the hajj to the holy city of Mecca - a sacred obligation every able-bodied Muslim must perform - the fairgrounds here transform into an exotic emporium. And in this marketplace, the pilgrim's path intersects with profits, and funds this religious odyssey for cash-strapped Dagestanis.

"The way is hard, with so many days in the buses and body fatigue," says Mohamed Ali, a driver and eight-time hajj veteran, flashing his gold and silver teeth. "But when you arrive [in Mecca], it is like a weight off your shoulders."

Propelled by religious fervor that was kept in check for more than seven decades of communist rule, Dagestanis today make the 3,000-mile journey with relish. En route, Jordan is a treasured land for making cash - especially after grueling travel through Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey or Iraq, and Syria.

"Many people go for business only, but for me it is such a beautiful feeling to be in the holiest place," says Mohamed Amin, a laborer in charge of this group. He keeps a bundle of $100 bills - the take from this trip - in a small white pouch hidden beneath the folds of a thick sweater.

The hajj ritual peaked in late March, but Mr. Amin's group of 13 stayed on to pray at Medina, at the tomb of the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The journey lasts for 40 days and 40 nights.

Dagestanis are the most religious people and "the first people to have Islam" in the Caucasus, Amin says, noting that there are 36 mosques in his village of Gubden.

"Our grandfathers used to walk to the hajj, and it would take six months," says Amin, a smile spreading across his sun-burned face as a customer stops to look at one expansive rug.

But even the modern-day journey is wrenching. Buses are stripped of seats and transformed into U-Hauls and piled high with rugs and other goods, that during the journey are replaced with soft drinks, religious trinkets, toys, and mementos from holy sites - including jugs of water from holy wells at Zamzam in Mecca.

The back of Amin's airless container truck underscores an existence as Spartan as any old-style Mideast caravan or Wild West wagon train. Mattresses are laid out for sleeping, and stacked with purchased goods - including countless tins of condensed milk and plastic pump-action toy shotguns "for the kids."

Sheets hung from the grimy ceiling make a separate area for traveling wives.

The truck was rented for $1,000, a cost shared among the pilgrims.

The journey and its fruits are a family affair. "Selling this stuff on the way makes it easier to travel and buy gifts from the holy sites for the family," says Mr. Ali. "When I go on the hajj, my family, sisters and nephew all give me things to sell, to take back the money or hajj gifts - whatever they ask for." Few of the Dagestanis speak Arabic, but they know all the numbers by heart and so conduct their business with confidence in Jordan.

"If we could afford not to do all this business, we wouldn't carry all this stuff around," says Mohamed Rassoul, a bespectacled pilgrim who normally works at a supermarket for $30 a month. "But since the war in Chechnya and Dagestan last year, there is no money at home. I borrowed money from a friend to buy rugs, and took things from my house to sell. Thank goodness, I am doing well so far."

Mr. Rassoul offers antique deep-blue and orange bowls, with a Czarist symbol on the porcelain, that he took from his own cupboard. If a Christian chances by, he pulls out a turquoise silk cloth woven with blue and purple crowns, each with a little cross.

The Dagestani bazaar offers rich pickings for Jordanians. Muslims from all over Central Asia and Afghanistan "bring what they are famous for," explains Ali. Tajiks, for example, bring vats of honey. Afghans bring tablecloths and woolen shawls; those from the Indian subcontinent bring spicy pickled foods. Many from former Soviet Republics bring cameras and binoculars.

"We met them on the way, and their situation at home is bad," Ali says. "After the fall of the Soviet Union, life is hard everywhere."

Cotton traders in Uzbekistan, for example, used to sell their bales during the Soviet era to textile factories in Latvia. But now those two former Soviet republics are independent countries, and the supply system has broken down. Uzbek farmers must sell bales of raw cotton anywhere they can.

This year more than 2 million of the faithful - out of 1 billion Muslims worldwide - performed the hajj. The Saudi Arabian authorities discourage transactions in the holy cities themselves, so many do their business en route. Wearing cheap white plastic sandals from Iran - each pair marked with the initials of the owner, in blue indelible marker - the pilgrims here sit on sheep skin rugs waiting for clients to make their pilgrimage dreams come true. "There is no work in Dagestan," says Amin, while re-hanging the $700 rug that was refused by a Jordanian buyer. "You have to make your own."

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