Travelling to Mecca as a child, I would shut my eyes as we would approach the boundaries of Masjid al Haram just so I may be able to capture the sense of awe upon arrival. Perhaps it was my heart singing with anticipation, but I always felt something distinct about the air, too, as if infused all of sudden with a kind of sanctity. And then came the first glance of the marbled minarets, and the Grand Mosque, lit up in all its glory, lay before our eyes.
During the last few trips for Umrah (minor pilgrimage), the journey to Mecca has been poignant for all its spiritual significance — the only aberration in sight is now posed by the glittering Abraj al Bait (Royal Hotel Clock Tower), visible to the eye from a distance of a good 30 kilometers. Looming above what was once a desert landscape now transformed into matrix of hotels and plazas for pilgrims, the Mecca Clock Tower is the second tallest building in the world, modeled on Dubai’s Burj Khalifa and London’s Big Ben, and hosting an array of luxury apartments and outlets. For some it has been a sign of modernization; for others a source for great distaste.
As the tower looms into focus, I interrupt my prayers for a moment. Much has been written on the controversial towers which stand on top a demolished Ottoman fortress and the values of equality and simplicity enjoined by Islam. Even more has been written on puritan Wahhabism promoting the destruction of historical sites. But I am eager to engage with local perceptions. I turn to the driver, an Egyptian settled in Saudi Arabia for the past ten years, and voice my reservations.
" Kalaam Madhboot (Strong Point) ", he responds promptly, as if he was waiting for this conversation. It is clear that there is much he hasn’t been able to voice before with abandon. But for him, it is not merely the excessive capitalism exhibited by the structures or the disparities of wealth that are troublesome, as they are for me. The construction has been taking toil over something far more sacred: the Zamzam.
"God promised that the flow of Zamzam would never ebb—until the Day of Judgment," he says solemnly. "This construction has been affecting the flow of Zamzam."
The ongoing project to extend Masjid al Haram has pushed back all hotels in the vicinity of the mosque, with the exception of Abraj al Bait. It stands overbearingly as pilgrims traverse several kilometers and back for each prayer, five times a day. From the old Mecca that I remember, I am grateful for a small strip of land they have retained to feed the pigeons in dozens — more pigeons than were ever sighted even in Trafalgar Square. But each trip from and back to the hotel is marked by a solemn reminder of all that the Saudi government could achieve — and has not — for welfare of the poor. As we step out of Masjid al Haram, we arrive at the side entrance of Abraj al Bait, lined with handicapped beggars, or as I learn later, with asylum seekers and refugees from Somalia and Sudan.
How do frequenting pilgrims and residents reconcile with this, only minutes after praying shoulder to shoulder in the Mosque, all distinctions vanished? Three words in Arabic emblazoned across Abraj al Bait seem to be justifying the towering existence: Waqf lil-Haramain Sharefain (Endowment for Haramain Sharefain, i.e. the Two Holy Mosques). For the lay person in Mecca, the Clock tower is sold as capitalism with a cause. Many even view it as part and parcel of the project to extend the Mosque so that more pilgrims may be accommodated for Hajj. The land has been sold to the Saudi Bin Laden Group, the Kingdom’s wealthiest construction company, for a designated period of time. Some say twenty years, others thirty or even forty; it is unclear. At the end of this period, the company is expected to pay an installment sum to the government for the Mosque extension. For many Meccans, it is a version of Robin Hood. The only exception, of course, is that the money does not go into the pockets of the poor, but back to businessmen and petromonarchs churning out thousands of petrol dollars by the hour.
This inconsistency is hardly new for Saudi Arabia, a country that has been under the scrutiny of many intellectuals for endorsing an Islam that is strangely compatible with hard core capitalism. It is also unheeded by many Saudis who seem to take inequalities of wealth and distinctions of rank as a norm, and not a privilege or an active responsibility. Mecca, the cradle of Islam, still retains its character as a hub of business and trading activity. But it is in the same streets now prowling with high rise luxury hotels where the revolutionary message of Islam once dismantled all economic and political hierarchies. Now, for all its moral policing and emphasis on an Islamic society, Saudi Islam lacks the vigour of social justice.
But not all things have changed in Mecca. The government may be demolishing historical sites, but the Meccans are fiercely passionate about their city and their history. Equally passionate are they of the Grand Mosque. Each house has a picture of the latest model of Haram, as projected to be in 2020. Over dinner tables, the new face of the Mosque is a frequent topic of discussion.
At the end of our five prayers, my father’s old friend, a schoolteacher of Mathematics, awaits in his car to give us a tour of Mecca. Al-Hamdi* is standing in his white Saudi thobe and checkered headdress tucked in on the sides, and his smiling face has not changed much in the years since I last visited.
Our first stop is the plain of Arafat. On the way, he pauses at a street, like every other in Mecca: "here was the residence of Khadija al kubra, blessings be upon her," he says respectfully. A non-native would never be able to tell. There is no sign or indication. As we near the plain of Arafat, passing by stretches of barren land, al-Hamdi suddenly speeds up his car. A moment later, he explains: "That was the location where God unleashed his wrath: hordes of Ababil to defeat the army of Abraha. We try to drive past this area as quickly as possible." I am amazed at his knowledge, and at once, reminded of the oral culture of pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia. Back then, stories and histories were transmitted by word of mouth. Even the Qur’an was recorded in the memory of thousands before being officially transcribed. For many Meccans, history speaks in every street and is passed on from generation to generation.
When we finally arrive at the plain of Arafat, where millions of pilgrims gather for what is considered the pinnacle of Hajj, the area has been transformed into a bustling picnic spot. Saudi families are seated with their cushions and picnic baskets, kahwa and dates; soon we find our own spot under Jabal al-Rahma, where the Prophet gave his last sermon. Miniature jeeps with blinking lights and decorated camels cruise around for the entertainment of young children. I am struck by the ease with which the Arafat turns from a sacred ground to a picnic spot, and back again, with little identity crisis.
On the way back to our hotel, we pass by a residential district of Bengali, Pakistani and Afghani immigrants. This land, too, will be bought by the government to accommodate new hotels. Since most Saudis are reluctant to criticize their government, I ask my question differently."Are the people happy with these changes in the city?" Al-Hamdi shrugs. "These people will be compensated by the government; but with rising property costs there is probably little that can be done with the lump-sum amount."
I turn once again to Abraj al Bait’s towering existence. "Is it not contradictory to the Islamic values of equality and simplicity," I ask, a last time.
Hamdi pauses. "Rizq (sustenance) is from God" is the characteristic response."What matters," he adds as an afterthought, "is that no party steals from the other: rich or poor."
*This name has been changed to protect anonymity