Driving past Coventry travel agent London Prestige, you may not think it is at the centre of planning one of the most important Muslim pilgrimages for families in the city.
The family owned business on Coventry’s Stoney Stanton road looks fairly innocuous, sandwiched between bustling eateries, grocers and places of worship on a busy stretch.
But it is normally a flurry of activity at this time of year – helping hundreds of people from Coventry to fulfill their religious Hajj pilgrimage to the Kaabah (house of God) in the sacred city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
Covid has cancelled many people’s journeys this year – a journey which is seen as mandatory for all Muslims, and from vaccines to flights and accommodation the trip requires meticulous planning.
The average cost for an individual is an eye-watering £6,000 per person
You have to be guided on your health and fitness too as the trip is so demanding.
Most religions across the world encourage followers to make a pilgrimage at some point in their lives.
For Catholics it might be Lourdes, for Sikhs it might be the Golden Temple in India.
Booking Hajj trips is a booming business, and sees a joined up approach from local GPs, pharmacies and travel agents to ensure families can make the trip safely.
So what is it really like to go to Mecca?
The most popular time to make a Hajj trip is just after Eid al-Adha, which takes place in the later summer months.
It is vitally important to Muslims, as their Prophet Muhammad was born at the Kabbah and it is said that he received the first revelations from Allah there, which then became the Koran.
Muslims across the world, from Coventry to California, do their prayers facing the Kaabah, which looks like a black box, and is found within the Great Mosque of Mecca.
A die hard CCFC supporter, Mr Sulaimaan compared the atmosphere in the holy site, where people circle around the Kaabah, to a football game.
“Imagine you’re there with 5,000 fans and you’re stuck and impatient to get out to the car, but that’s nothing compared to what it is there, but the amazing thing is it just flows.
“To get two million people to do the same thing at the same time, there’s no event like it over the globe.”
And it is a punishing trip, with many getting into physical and spiritual shape before their trip.
Mr Sulaimaan added: “There is a lot of spiritual requirement and physical preparation too, the amount of kilometres you cover during the days of Hajj is a lot, we advise them on their diet, and fitness, we liaise with local GPs.
“Once you’re there in Saudi, the system works completely different to anything else in the world, there’s a lot of patience needed and people need to learn to adapt, you have to accept the rules of that country.
“The five days of the pilgrimage start, you spend three nights in a mina tent which are huge white tents, like a village of umbrellas, that is where families would reside for five days.”
The tents are not like the ones you might get from your local outdoors shop however, they are air conditioned and well kitted out.
Mr Sulaimaan added: “You do your prayers, the food is provided, once you’re there you do your individual prayers you usually have a scholar who speaks your language to inspire and motivate you.
“The day before Eid, the day of Arafat, is the most important day where your prayers are accepted. We have a huge family environment, you make friends for life there.”
The most recent census, due to be updated next year, recorded that 7.5% of Coventry residents are Muslim.
But such is the pull of reliable Hajj booking agents that operating in a city with a small Muslim community is no barrier.
“Our clientele have become very close over the years, our packages sell out on recommendation and I can’t remember the last time we had to advertise,” manager Jav Sulaimaan said.
“The booking process might take one year to allow for people to pay in monthly instalments.
“You hear about families who live on a week to week basis so they will have literally saved for a good 15-20 years, you hear some amazing and heartwarming stories, and then obviously the younger generation which may be more well settled and have a better income, but it’s still a substantial price.
“They say New York doesn’t sleep, but Mecca really doesn’t, you are surrounded by thousands of people all of the time. There’s no holiday package like it because of how expensive it is, for many it will be their life savings.”
But for London Prestige, it has been a summer of cancellations and refunds as severe restrictions were placed on the numbers of visitors allowed.
“There’s no way in the current climate that people can do Hajj.” Mr Sulaimaan said.
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“There’s no-one booking anything at the moment, the majority of our business has been cancellation and refund processing.
“It’s a hard one to see if the industry will pick back up, a lot of people do want to travel but currently you can’t.
“You do have a lot of people that have had to have their Hajj cancelled but are on the waiting list for next year pending Government guidelines.”