Flight 5908

The world's largest mosque, Al-Masjid al-Harām, at Mecca

It is 11pm at Damascus International Airport, and any casual observer might think Real Madrid were in town.

The crowds are at least 200 strong as the giddy masses await the return of flight 5908.

Every now and then pockets of people hold their hands aloft and clap, as if applauding the encore at a sweat-drenched rock concert, while rippling whoops echo around the building like an American Indian war cry.

For most of those here this moment is bigger than any football clash at Madrid’s Bernabéu stadiumSyria’s hajjis are coming home.

And given that the hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims – marks the completion of one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it is no surprise that they are welcomed back by hundreds of family members like a winning World Cup side.

As the passengers from the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight make their way through the throng, cries of “Hajji! Hajji!” fill the air and ecstatic children shower them with boiled sweets.

An old man in a white jalabiya kisses his family while girls prance around him like Maypole dancers, clapping and chanting in delight.

As he falters his way through the crowds a young man tracks his emotional return with a shoulder-mounted video camera. He could just as well be working for Al Jazeera – and this is definitely his scoop of the year.

Another elderly woman, all dressed in black, receives kisses from family members as she is pushed through the bustling crowd. Again the cameras are on-hand; a female relative weeps with joy.

The moment is rudely interrupted as airport workers barge through the crowds to catch a man frantically fleeing man out of the arrivals hall.

An opportunist thief perhaps? It doesn’t matter. The hajjis of Syria don’t want anything to spoil the party.

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