MIDDLE EAST: Airlift for Allah

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The Koran orders all the faithful, except slaves, women without companions and those who cannot afford the journey, to make the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once in their lifetime. Last fortnight, as the season of the hajj drew near once again, more hajjis (pilgrims) than ever before—hajjis from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and most of the desert cities and oases of North Africa—followed the Koran's injunction and swarmed into the Lebanese city of Beirut,* the usual way-station on the road to Mecca. Each clutched in the voluminous folds of his ihram (the pilgrim's sheetlike uniform), an airline ticket to Jidda, the airport nearest the holy city.

There were good reasons for the unusually large turnout. For one thing, the ordained day of the pilgrimage's start this year fell on a Friday, and a pilgrim who makes the hajj on Friday (the Moslem sabbath) is seven times blessed and sure to achieve heaven. For another, Saudi Arabia's King Ibn Saud, whose oil-rich country includes Mecca, had lifted the usual tax of $52 per pilgrim. Agents of the three local airlines began selling tickets to Jidda like hot cakes. But when the holders turned up in Beirut, they found that there were not nearly enough planes to carry them. The hajjis began piling up in Beirut's streets, in the mosques and at the airport.

They didn't complain. They didn't protest. They just waited. Forbidden by Islamic law to wear hats on hajj, they sat huddled hour after hour under the broiling sun, certain that Allah, in his wisdom, would somehow get them to Mecca. Lebanese peddlers did a land-office business selling umbrellas against the fierce heat. "Yallah, hajji [Out of the way, pilgrim]!" cried airport attendants. The huddled groups moved aside, returned and continued to wait—for once on hajj, no pilgrim ever turns back.

Miracle in Washington. On Thursday, with the holy days just a week away, desperate airline officials appealed for help to Harold Minor, able U.S. Minister to Lebanon. Minor promptly dashed off a "night action" (most urgent) cable to Washington, pointing out that here was a real chance for the U.S. to make friends in the Arab world. Something of a miracle then happened: the State Department got the point. At Rhein-Main airport in Wiesbaden, Germany, at Wheelus Field in Tripoli, at Orly Field in Paris, U.S. airmen were suddenly alerted for special duty. Three days later, the first of 13 huge U.S. C-54s landed at Beirut's airport. Next morning Operation Hajj was under way.

Each clutching a box lunch (bread, olives, cheese, fruit) provided in haste by the American Friends of the Middle East (organized by. U.S. Columnist Dorothy Thompson), the hajjis were hustled aboard the big planes, 50 to a flight. All day long the transports shuttled back & forth to Jidda. One old man, deaf and blind at 85, was led aboard a plane by his son. "This is help sent by Allah," the son told the U.S. pilot. "We are linked together today by love and faith." Another passenger on the magic carpet provided by the U.S. was irascible old Mullah Kashani, Iran's bitterly anti-American religious leader. He rewarded dog-tired Pilots Captain Alfred Beasley of Atlanta and Lieut. Angelo Elmo of Washington with wet kisses on both cheeks.

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