Thursday, November 26, 2009

VIP services for wealthy pilgrims

I went for haj in year 2000 by bus from Riyadh. It was an awesome experience with several buses loaded with Indonesian workers in Riyadh.

The first time haj journey through the main highways amidst the heavy traffic and so many police road-blocks to Makkah was memorable indeed as I was on 'illegal' basis. Illegal due to the permission by Haj Ministry was only stamped on a piece of paper, not on my passport. I was on business visa under a company sponsorship and the official in charge at the ministry could not turn me away, as 'a guest of Allah', as my application was one week after the deadline.

After considering my appeal, he smiled and stamped the approval on a piece of paper, inserted into my passport and told me, "Ya lah, go to haj and tawakkal, you are the guest of Allah my brother!"

I could get caught by not having official permit, however, as a guest of Allah, I made it through passages of doubts and insecurity.

The haj experience with Indonesian pilgrims, mostly young men and women working as drivers and maids, somehow blessed. I enjoyed their companions and friendship especially I knew them only after boarding the bus. Indonesian pilgrims are big in numbers, more than 200,000 this year.

We had slept on the hostel roof top, shared a same bath room with women (to save time), slept on the road sides if not in Haram, daily shortage of water in the hostel, walked for kms and was in the awkward, strange, crazy situation when some women was hysteria in Arafah.....

The statistics reported that at average RM11 billion spent by the pilgrims in Makkah during haj alone. By breakdown, RM7 billion to the hotels, RM2 billion each to food/restaurant and transportation, shopping sprees.

Then there is a service for wealthy pilgrims whereby charge for providing tent in arafah alone is SR800,000 ($213,000) for five days only including five-star transportation and meals.

I guess, haj is a lucrative business after all for Saudi and haj operators all over the world!

Wealthy pilgrims offered VIP services
Anwar Al-Sayed | Arab News

Some affluent pilgrims choose to perform the Haj in the comfort of luxurious tents offered to them in Mina and Arafat. (AN photo)

MAKKAH: Pilgrims looking for distinguished service can find what they want in luxurious tents in Mina and Arafat. A number of local and foreign companies have introduced the VIP service to lure wealthy pilgrims.

“The VIP service is primarily based on ensuring the pilgrim the privacy he is looking for amid an atmosphere of calm and serenity that will enable him or her concentrate on worship,” said Zaki Kamal Hussein, a mutawif (a Haj tour guide).

He said the domestic and foreign Haj companies and tourist offices usually target this category of people because they represent a good source of income.

“Though they are few in number, yet we must give them much emphasis because they can add to our gains,” Hussein said. He did not specify how much a VIP Haj would cost.

Asked about the difference between the ordinary and the VIP service, the mutawif explained that the later is a professional service that is characterized by distinction and privacy.

“It means transporting them in luxurious buses, providing them with hotel services, giving them special meals that are suitable to their tastes and health condition and accommodating them in spacious tents with luxurious furniture,” he said.

Hussein said the VIP pilgrims would have clean toilets that are both cozy and hygienic in addition to medical doctors and nurses to look after their health. “There are special playgrounds for children with amusement games and educational programs conducted by specialized female educationalists to keep them busy while their rich parents perform their duties,” he added.

Thamir Abdul Rahman Muallim, who is heading an office providing VIP services, said he and his team were keen to provide the atmosphere for the pilgrims to spend their time in spirituality and serenity away from the incessant occupations of daily life.

“We provide them with top hotel service and ensure their families with the privacy they are looking for,” he said.

Mustapha Rajab, an Egyptian investor living in Britain, said he chose the VIP pilgrimage to ensure himself with the comfort necessary for the performance of Haj and to have an atmosphere of privacy away from the noise and air pollution especially with the swine flu pandemic.

He said his mutawif has provided him with a velvet bag containing cleaned and sterilized stones with which to pebble the pillars symbolizing Satan.

“The mutawif has spared me the trouble of collecting these stones from Muzdalifah,” he added.

Sheikh Muhammad Owais, an imam of a mosque in Kent and the chairman of a welfare organization in Britain, said he has chosen the VIP service because it allows him to concentrate on the performance of the Haj and keep him away from the crowds in addition to the hotel service in food, accommodation and transport.

“The VIP service enables me to feel more the sanctity of the place and protects me against anything that might violate my pilgrimage,” he said.

Some critics of luxury Haj services say renting special accommodations by wealthier pilgrims is antithetical to the spirit of the pilgrimage.

One of the purposes of wearing the ihram, for example, is to eliminate distinctions among the pilgrims.

Zunar as Top Malaysia's Political Cartoonist

One day in 1988 or so when I walked into Creative Enterprise office, the publisher of Gila-Gila magazine in Jalan Pantai Baharu that I met a young nervous and shy guy. I was new in the scene as a part time writer, directly working under the then chief Editor, Adi Al Hadi.

I was, well, jobless after returning from New Zealand as a computer science graduate. The economy was still in crisis and I had to work in several places in KL on part-time basis to support my young & restless life.

My 'humorous & satirical' writing talent was spotted by Adi Al Hadi and I started as a part-time writer for editorial, 'Serkop', Cerita-Ceriti'. I went (sometimes by walking to save some 50 sen) to Balai Berita (NST) in the morning for some assignments and Gila-Gila in the afternoon before 'lecturing' on 'English for communication' at Chow Kit.

Looking back, it was indeed good experience that shaped up certain outlooks and perspectives in life.

That young and nervous guy befriended me and we somehow clicked. Over the years, he became one of the most popular cartoonists in Malaysia and even more popular with his political stand which reflected in his cartoons that have crossed the racial boundary (like master Lat).

And then came, Gedung Kartun, a magazine that 'sold out' (or seized or confiscated) before even getting distributed. A huge publicity for Zunar.

As we speak, he is already a legacy as a political cartoonist. Every cartoon he sketches, Zunar stressed, comes from the heart. We are thankful for having Zunar for his sketches as we laugh (at our leaders and ourselves) and think, with his subtle and sometimes, provocative messages.

Long live ZUNAR!!!

Don’t blame cartoonist; we only transform it onto paper.
By: Zunar

CARTOONING in Malaysia started back in 1940s. Cartoonist like Peng started to draw editorial cartoons for local newspapers. In the 60’s, Lat, Mishar, Rejabhad and Nan started the new era in cartooning and were considered as the pioneers in the Malaysian cartoon landscape.

But only in the late 70’s did the cartoon industry in Malaysia started to blossom when a humor magazine, Gila-Gila, a local version of the ‘Mad Magazine’, was formed in 1978. That created a space for great cartoonists like Jaafar Taib, Zainal Buang Hussien, Tazidi, Don, Kerengge, Ujang, Reggie Lee, Fatah, Rossem, CW Kee, to name a few.

Their cartoons became hits, not only because they were funny, but they also reflected Malaysian life.
Their works covered topics such as kampung life, school time, market scene, youths & childhood life, love, etc, etc. Since then, Malaysian cartoons continue to develop and bloom till this day.

I estimate, currently there are more than 200 active professional cartoonists in this country -- a good number for a relatively small country like Malaysia.

But, strangely from this number you can say almost all of them steer clear of being political cartoonists.
Since 1998 until now, Malaysia has been facing a never-ending political crisis that leads to the erosion of public confidence of the ruling government.

Writers such as Shahnon Ahmad, A Samad Said, Hishamuddin Rais, Lutfi, Steven Gan, poet and theater activist Dinsman, film director Nasir Jani, singers Ito and Meor, express the injustice of the authority through their works.

But where are the cartoonists? May be they are still doctrinated by the popular saying:
“In Malaysia we may have freedom of speech; what we do not have is freedom after speech.”

The fact is, some of the cartoonists are fettered by the culture of fear and some of them prefer to play safe and maintain neutrality. This is absurd! To this I would always say, "How can I be neutral, even my pen has a stand!"

Cuban revolutionist icon, Ernesto Che Guevara said in his popular quote, "When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty". Modern journalism figure, Joseph Pulitzer had outlined clear ethics in his declaration on journalism.

He, among others, stressed that: "Always fight for reform and never tolerate injustice or corruption".

Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet in his famous poem, “Inferno” in the 14th century said “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality”.

I totally agree with Dante and personally think that Malaysian political cartoonists somehow fail to carry their duty to relay the voices of people and to convey strong messages to the authority where it matters most.

Very few senior cartoonists really touch fundamental issues such as human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of media, independence of judiciary and professionalism of the police force in their works.

I believe cartoonists have important roles, not only to make people laugh but also to highlight important issues. Cartoonists should criticize, educate, and open up readers’ minds in their own ways.

In September this year, I with several young emerging cartoonists namely Jonos, Ronasina, Enot, Haili and a few others started a new satirical humor magazine, “Gedung Kartun”. This is the first and only humor magazine which tackles current issues -- political, economic, human rights, judiciary, corruption and the misuse of power in the police force.

Immediately after the magazine hit the street, my office in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur was raided by eight officers from the Home Ministry [Kementerian Dalam Negeri or KDN] and 408 copies of “Gedung Kartun” were seized. On the next day, the printing factory was also raided and printing plates of the magazine were confiscated. The ground?

They claimed the magazine does not have a publication license.They are going to charge me soon under Section 5(2)(b) of the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984. According to the Act, those found guilty can be jailed up to three years and fined up to RM20,000, or both.

But for me, government's action was politically motivated to block alternative views and critical voices. It is also a form of intimidation against me and my team of cartoonists.

The “Gedung Kartun” cover shows top Malaysian leader holding a Mongolian flag. That was what cartoonists think of the hottest issue in Malaysia now. So, why does that irate the authority?

What is so wrong for the cartoonists to highlight this kind of issue? As mentioned above, Malaysia is facing political crisis and every political episode is cartoon material. Don’t blame us cartoonist; we only transform it onto paper.

Despite the hurdles, I can confirm that Gedung Kartun will continue to meet the readers, and I will continue to draw alternative political cartoons and train young cartoonists. The government should encourage this kind of cartoons to grow for the betterment of Malaysian cartooning industry.

ASIAPAC Conference, UIAM Kuala Lumpur