- The Hajj Mission of Russia is marking its 15-year anniversary. Have you seen any changes in the number of pilgrims?
 
2002 saw the Council on Hajj established under the intergovernmental commission on religious associations to coordinate the activities of Muslim Boards related to hajj. The first meeting ruled to set up the Hajj Mission of Russia to liaise with the tour operators that arrange trips to Mecca. In 2002, we had some 7,000 pilgrims from 11 regions, fast forward to 2014 when their number had grown to more than 20,000 from 69 Russian regions. 
 
- On July 14, the capital of Russia’s Republic of Dagestan, Makhachkala, hosted a session on the Hajj Mission of Russia. Could you share the details of the meeting with us?
 
We decided to hold the anniversary session in Makhachkala because historically – since the times of the Russian Empire – most of Russian pilgrims have come from Dagestan. It was through Dagestan that Islam began spreading across the territory of modern Russia. 
 
The session was attended by head of Dagestan Mr Abdulatipov, head of the Russian Tourism Agency Mr. Safonov, the staff of the Executive Office of the Russian President, MPs and members of the Federation Council, muftis who chairmen of the leading religions boards, representatives from tourist companies and the executive branch, in essence all the stakeholders who help arrange hajj. The meeting was also attended by a delegation of Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Moscow headed by H.E. Ambassador to Russia Abdulrahman Ibrahim Al Rassi.
 
The local government’s committee on religious freedom and religious organizations, the Muslim Religion Authority and personally head of the Republic of Dagestan Ramazan Abdulatipov helped us a lot to prepare the anniversary events. We appreciated the presence of Russia’s Consul General in Jeddah Mr. Aliev.
 
We awarded diplomas, certificates of recognition and gifts to those who contributed to the development of state and religious ties. 
 
I would like to thank all those who helped us set up the Hajj Mission of Russia, those who made an invaluable contribution to the establishment and development of a framework that makes it
possible for all Russian pilgrims to visit Mecca, specifically muftis of leading religious boards of Russia. 
 
- Saudi Arabia praised Russia’s Hajj Mission saying it is one of the best. How did you manage to get recognized for your work from the authorities? 
 
The Council of Hajj and the Hajj Mission of Russia have resolved many administrative issues. Now, I am going to explain our work in greater detail to you. 
 
Every year a delegation of the Hajj Mission of Russia visits Saudi Arabia upon the invitation of the Saudi Arabian Minister of Hajj and Umrah where we hold negotiations and sign a Memorandum on rendering services to Russian pilgrims during hajj.
 
As head of Russia’s Hajj Mission, I take part in all the negotiations because along with the tour operators we would have to comply with all the terms spelled out in the Memorandum. 
 
Later the extended session of the Council on Hajj in Moscow distributes the national quota among leading religious boards and, upon the recommendation of religious boards, approves the list of tour operators. Based on the Russian-Saudi Memorandum, the session members put together a timeline with an activity plan for hajj, and all the activities to prepare and arrange for hajj take place in line with this schedule.
 
We build a team of 200 people for each hajj season featuring representatives of religious boards and travel companies, experienced guides, interpreters and medics. During hajj we have an HQ and medical center working 27/7 in Saudi Arabia.
 
We hold regular sessions, discuss logistics and accommodation for pilgrims in tents in the valley of Mina, in Muzdalifah and near Mount Arafat. 
 
All Russian pilgrims enjoy a very good welcome, they are transported via a high-speed ring road and accommodated within the historical border of the valley of Mina. All our pilgrims have a uniform, individual IDs showing they are from Russia. Medical and other types of services have greatly improved in recent years.
 
This was confirmed by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah that recognized Russia’s Hajj Mission as one of the best over the past couple of years. 
 
The Hajj Mission’s main job is to coordinate the activities of accredited travel companies, monitor compliance with the terms and the timeline of the Russia-Saudi Memorandum, compliance with the decisions of the Council on Hajj, recommendations issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Tourism Agency. 
 
Close collaboration between the Hajj Mission of Russia, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, and Russia’s Consular General in Jeddah has helped to take the hajj experience to a whole new level. 
 
More than 300,000 Russian Muslims have made their pilgrimage over the past 15 years, according to our data.
 
They come from every Russian region, from Kamchatka in the east to Kaliningrad in the west. Muslims from Crimea began doing hajj as part of Russia’s Hajj Mission since 2014. 
 
- How has the hajj experience changed over these years?
 
Back in the early 2000s, the Saudi embassy constantly delayed visas and it was a major issue. Later in 2010 ombudsman for hajj Mr. Umakhanov signed a memorandum with the Saudi ambassador that defined the rules for our cooperation. We set up a joint working group that was instrumental in streamlining the process of apply for and issuing visas. 
 
We have taken notice of the turbulence in the Middle East and the recommendations issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Tourist Agency. We now fully rely on air flights.
 
Every year around 8,000 pilgrims arrive in Saudi airports, and the remaining 12,000 first take a flight to Jordan or the UAE and then take a bus to Mecca and Medina. Most of the Russian pilgrims, some 65 percent to be precise, come from the North Caucasus.
 
Vim Avia and UTair have been the key airlines that arrange charter flights from the airports of Makhachkala, Grozny, Magas, Mineralnye Vody, Moscow, and Kazan. Some Russian pilgrims traditionally take foreign flights. Due to changes in pricing, there’s been a sharp rise in the number of flights via Aqaba, Jordan and Dubai, UAE. 
 
The Russian Tourism Agency has assisted us in handling hajj-accredited travel companies. All hajj operators are members of the Association for Tourism Abroad. Amid an ever present terrorist threat we feel it is important to engage religious boards and mufti councils in arranging hajj for pilgrims from Russian regions.
 
Three years ago the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah switched to e-visas. As a result, there have been changes to the accommodations procedures, payments for services, and so on.
 
It is to be noted that Saudi authorities have been making the stay for pilgrims ever more convenient, they have expanded the mosques in Mecca and Medina, built a huge five-level bridge in an area used for the stoning of the devil, the ritual called jamaraat so that even an elderly pilgrim can safely exercise the ritual without fear of stampede. 
 
I would also like to praise the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah and the Saudi embassy in Moscow for their assistance. On behalf of all Russian pilgrims I would like to express sincere gratitude to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, HM King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Minister for Hajj and Umrah Mr. Dr. Mohammad Saleh bin Taher Benten, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Russian Federation Abdulrahman Al-Rassi and Saudi consul in Russia Talal Abdullah al-Humaidi. 
 
- How many pilgrims will perform hajj this year? Will a hike in prices have an effect on the number of pilgrims?
 
This year, 20,500 pilgrims are ready to exercise their sacred duty but the number of those willing to do hajj is some 24,000. Upon the request of the muftis Mr. Umakhanov sent an official petition to the Saudi Minister for Hajj and Umrah to allow an extra 3,000 Russian Muslims to visit Mecca in 2017. Due to the new fee worth around 2,000 Saudi riyals for those who do hajj for a second time the number of budding pilgrims has gone up, not down.
 
- You have been awarded with a medal of Russian Muslims for merit. The ceremony took place as part of the event to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Hajj Mission of Russia. How do you feel about such kind of recognition?
 
To be honest, I do what I have to do as head of the Hajj Mission of Russia. I do my best to perform my duty before God and pilgrims. But like any human I am pleased that my efforts have been recognized by religious boards. This gives me hope that the years I spent on organizing hajj for Russian Muslims were not wasted.
 
- Tell us about your first pilgrimage.
 
Like any devout Muslim I always dreamed of visiting the holy places of Mecca and Medina. But I could never have imagined that I would have the honor of helping other people in performing hajj. 
 
Thanks to the support of my friends I did my first hajj in 1993. I was extremely happy. It was the most important event in my life. I was so impressed with the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. I tried to visit all the historical places in those cities. Back then I worked as a reporter for the newspaper called Truth in Dagestan. As a journalist I penned several pieces on how pilgrimage is organized, on the life and habits of Arabs and shared my impressions. Here are the lines that come to my mind:
 
Roaming across the Arabian desert I saw the light of life,
My mind and heart embraced the holy Mecca,
And the heavenly relic of the Black Stone, 
Here’s when I realized our life is but a fleeting moment.
 
It was a minute of repentance.
May God forgive my evil deeds.
I reached out for him in silence,
And felt redemption, 
And light entered my heart.
 
It felt like in a dream. I was always interested in the history of Islam, Arab East. I began learning my first words in Arabic.
 
- Is it difficult to split your time between diplomatic mission and poetry? Do you go on tours with readings across Russia?
 
I was trained to be a philologist, and then I worked as a reporter for 10 years. My dream was to become a diplomat, and in 1997 I became a student of the Re-Training Faculty of the Diplomatic Academy under the Russian Foreign Ministry. Following my studies I worked hard to join the Ministry. But I failed and went to work at Russia’s trade representative office in Iraq. I spent almost a year in Baghdad and came back to Russia. Later in 2002 I was asked to set up and manage the Hajj Mission of Russia. I did not have any prior experience for this kind of job.
 
We basically started from scratch. The Saudi authorities complained a lot about our mission in the first couple of years of its operation. But he learned our lessons and improved on our discipline.
 
As for my creative streak, well, I started to compose verses early and had some of the works published when I was still at school. Whenever I have spare time, I take a pen and start writing. It is a tradition for me to present my books at Makhachkala’s central library. Last year, when I turned 50, I did the first recital in Makhachkala and the second in the Shamilsky district of Dagestan where I was born.
 
- What is the status of literature in Dagestan today? Do you see a lot of translations made of works by modern writers and poets into Russian?
 
Dagestan has been famous for its poets, and literature has always been in focus there. Its capital Makhachkala has been home to Russia’s only Poetry Theater. It was established upon the initiative of Dagestan’s leader Ramazan Abdulatipov. It has become a place where poets come to recite their verses or debate with their peers at seminars.
 
Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was hard to find translators into Russian for Dagestani poets. Over the past years we managed to revive the translation school. Poets and translators from Moscow sometimes visit Dagestan to take part in festivities or recitals.
 
I was lucky to get brilliant translators work on my books. My verses were translated into Russian by renowned poets Yakov Kozlovsky, Yury Kuznetsov, Vladimir Boyarinov, Gennady Ivanov, and others. I did some translation in the Avar language, too, including verses by Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Blok, Omar Hayyam, Abul Ala Al-Maarri, Jalaluddin Rumi and other well-known poets.