Every year since the fall of communism Muslims have driven leased, battered, barely operable city buses on a haj, or holy pilgrimage, from their homeland on the Caspian Sea all the way to the Muslim holy city of Mecca, located in Saudi Arabia. In insecure times in an insecure region, they must cross the borders of Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Jordan.
The Dajestanis finance their odyssey by selling rugs as well as an astounding array of other merchandise. Nearly 30 buses park at Amman's fairgrounds. When the Dagestanis are not facing Mecca to recite one of five daily prayers, they preside over a marketplace of carpets by the acre, savory honey from the Caucasus and state-of-the-art night-vision goggles that probably saw service on some battlefront.
If not flawless, Abdullah's English learned in Russian schools was certainly communicative. He seemed happy to tell me about his travels. Pointing to the frayed green flags that fly from the outside rear-view mirrors of the buses, Abdullah explained that these centuries-old symbolic banners of the haj insure that the Dagestanis will have no trouble from authorities in the predominately Muslim countries they cross. “Customs inspectors are the big problem,” he grimaced. “We cross 11 borders. The customs men are not so religious as the police.”
Abdullah brings with him perhaps 20 rugs patterned in dark shades, most of them woven by relatives. On a good trip, he will sell half his carpets at an average price of $125 each. His rugs and others are stored atop the bus for travel, nearly doubling its height. The vehicles sway like burdened camels when they leave Amman. Jordanians buy honey and bargain for a carpet, obviously prized even in a region awash with floor coverings from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and even Kashmir.
“The only place we can really sell our rugs are Jordan and Syria,” said Abdullah, kicking off his sandals to stroll in stocking feet across the pile. “That is why we return through Syria, even though it means traveling into Turkey later.” The thought caused him to shudder.
Muslims in the old Soviet Union were not allowed to make the pilgrimage, but since the fall of communism their numbers on the haj have increased yearly. The women cook and oversee the marketplace while the men put the bus engines in order. Dagestani women do not wear the veil, but they dress heavily in shades of brown and they keep their heads covered. One woman wore a festive, multicolored umbrella hat that contrasted stylishly with her somber scarf.
The Dagestanis will spend 10 days in Mecca after traveling about the same amount of time en route.
Abdullah smiled and waved as we walked away from his woolen garden, laid on the bare asphalt of the parking lot. “See you next year,” he said. “I will have many new rugs. I will make you many a bargain.”