By Fadzli Ramli
MADINAH: The 2019 Haj season got off the ground with the first group of 483 Malaysian pilgrims arriving at the Prince Mohammad Bin Abdulaziz International Airport here at 11.50 am local time (4.50 pm Malaysian time) on July 4.
This year, a total of 30,200 Malaysian pilgrims will fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam, which is performing the Haj pilgrimage, and they will be assisted by 640 Lembaga Tabung Haji (TH) staff who will be at hand to ensure the smooth running of the Hijrah 1440 Haj season.
For this year’s Haj season, TH has arranged 62 chartered flights for the pilgrims until Aug 4.
The day of ‘wuquf’ (ninth day of Zulhijjah) or the Day of Arafah is expected to fall on Aug 10.
The first group of 13 TH technical staff left for Saudi Arabia on June 23, followed by the second group of 151 staff on June 27. The rest of the staff will leave for the Holy Land in stages.
Convenient route to Makkah
In order to facilitate the pilgrims’ journey to the Holy Land, the ‘Makkah Route’ initiative — a Haj pre-departure system introduced by the Saudi Arabian government in 2017— once again came into play, starting at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Sepang.
The Saudi Arabian government decided to continue implementing the pre-departure programme for Malaysian pilgrims after it proved effective in reducing the time spent by the pilgrims at the airport.
Through this initiative, the pilgrims need not go through the immigration process in Saudi Arabia as the procedures are completed in KLIA itself.
TH Haj delegation deputy head (Welfare) Nurrinanuwar Shamsuddin said the Makkah Route enabled the immigration process to be completed within 45 to 60 minutes, compared with three to four hours before the programme was introduced.
“We would like to thank the Saudi Arabian government for continuing this initiative,” he said, adding that TH has arranged five hotels in Madinah for the pilgrims to stay. The hotels are Hotel Al-Haram, Hotel Anwar Al-Madinah Movenpick, Hotel Saja Al-Madinah, Hotel As Saha and Hotel Rawda Al-Aqiq, which are located about 100 to 300 metres from the An-Nabawi Mosque.
Nurrinanuwar said the pilgrims have been advised to abide by the regulations and to take care of their health, especially in the hot weather with the temperature reaching 47 degrees Celsius.
TH Madinah operations director Affandi Abdullah said the pilgrims have also been advised to be physically and mentally prepared in view of the various challenges this time, including the hot weather, compared with the previous Haj season.
“TH hopes that the pilgrims will start taking care of their health whilst they are still in their homeland. They must bring with them their supply of medicines and take them as prescribed,” he said.
He said TH’s operations were ready and all set to serve the pilgrims who would only have to focus on their worship.
A group of experienced chefs are also accompanying the Haj delegation to ensure that the pilgrims and TH staff get to enjoy balanced meals during their stay there.
The team is headed by Chef Ismail Hamid, 48, who has more than 20 years of experience preparing meals for pilgrims in the Holy Land during the Haj season.
He is assisted by Chef Bakri Ahmad, 41, and Chef Yusairi Mustafa, 40. They will prepare the meals at TH’s headquarters at the Abraj Al-Janadriah building.
Ismail said he is fulfilling the trust placed on him to cook halal and clean meals by complying with the standard operating procedures on food handling determined by TH, the Malaysian Health Ministry and Saudi Arabia.
“I regard my work as a form of worship. This is what I look forward to, especially when preparing food for the (TH) staff who are helping the pilgrims,” said Ismail, who has been involved in the culinary field for 23 years.
Recalling his experience in 2008, he said he had to cook using a charcoal stove whilst dressed in his pilgrim attire (‘ihram’) because he was also performing the ‘wuquf’ in Arafah.
“An experience like that is invaluable. We want to ensure that our pilgrims have food to eat so that they can worship without any disruption,” he said.
TH director of operations for Information Technology Za’aba Arpan, meanwhile, said several improvements have been made to the information technology infrastructure and facilities to ensure the smooth running of Haj operations.
Among the improvements are the Internet network at the TH Hospital in Makkah which has been upgraded with fibre optics. The Health Information System (SIHAT) has also been upgraded, and another system has also been developed to enable more systematic monitoring of the location of the pilgrims’ rooms.
TH has also tested the applications for the Haj and Deposit systems; SIHAT which involves the medical team; Integrated System which will provide Haj pilgrim statistics for operational purposes; and the Hajj Mobility System which records pilgrim movements.
“We are currently busy carrying out maintenance work on over 800 computers and also ensuring that all our Internet infrastructure and main networks are functioning properly at the three main operational sectors in Makkah, Madinah and Jeddah,” Za’aba explained.
TH also showed its commitment to providing the best telecommunications facilities to the Malaysian pilgrims by collaborating with Mobily, a Saudi Arabian telecommunications company.
Under the collaboration, each Haj pilgrim is given a SIM prepaid card to make it easier for them to stay in touch with their families while they are in the Holy Land.
The SIM card can only be activated in Makkah and Madinah. To activate the card, all the pilgrim has to do is bring the card together with their identification badge to the Mobily counter at their hotel and get their fingerprint scanned.
For pilgrims who do not have a mobile phone, Telekom Malaysia Berhad will continue providing the i-Talk service which will enable them to make phone calls to their homeland at SR (Saudi Riyal) 1 (RM1.10) a minute. – Bernama