(An excerpt from her book Lost From View)
I saw Mecca for the first time in 1977. We were driven there from Jeddah by a Pakistani bank official, with his wife and three young daughters. Jeddah at that time was in a state of transition and development, so that it made no impression other than of the debris of previous construction, immense foundations for the newer high-rises, and American cars speeding over uneven roads. It was almost dusk when we reached Mecca and got our first view of the Kaaba, gleaming like a jewel as it nestled in the looming dark hills and cliffs of Mecca.
Our Pakistani guides helped with the rituals of Umrah, but even though I was relatively unfamiliar with the process, it seemed to be a rushed business with an inordinate number of prayers at various spots. Eventually when our knees started buckling with the repeated movements, I discreetly asked the lady why we were saying the namaaz so often.
“Because we have three daughters,” she replied, “and we hope that the Almighty will bless us the next time with a son. For that reason we have promised him that we will say the namaaz a hundred times in Mecca, and again in Medina.” We decided that whatever pact our hosts had with the Almighty, it did not include us, and sat back while they continued to fulfil their promise.
It was only as I contemplated the Kaaba from a distance that I felt its awesome impact. It meant a supreme effort of concentrating on its historical perspective, and for a moving moment one became oblivious to the chattering groups of pilgrims, wailing babies, the acres of carpets and marble gleaming under vast chandeliers. There is a simplicity about the Kaaba’s cubic structure that is unique. With its pure, clean lines, it symbolises, as no other place does, the basic simplicity and purity of Islam itself.
Last year we went to Mecca again, and the span of twelve years had changed it so completely, that the Kaaba was almost the only familiar landmark left. The Meccan hills that formed such a dramatic enclosure for the Kaaba were now diminished to the point of invisibility with high-rise buildings, tunnels and squalid apartment blocks. The perimeters of the great mosque had been expanded to accommodate the swelling numbers of pilgrims to Mecca. The Kaaba stood there alone, unchanging and majestic, sustaining, as it always has, the faith and devotion of the millions that visit it.
For many of the pilgrims who visit Mecca and Medina, it is natural to visit also sites of early Islam that are historically significant. But I soon discovered that whereas Saudi Arabia may have a place in history, history seems to have no place in Saudi Arabia. In fact any attempt to search for sites associated with the Prophet or his family for example are regarded as shirq. That was a word I was to hear most frequently in the country.
We heard it first as we were going through customs at Jeddah airport. Our flight was singled out as it had arrived from Baghdad, the reason for this special attention was in case anyone coming from Iraq carried mementos from Kerbala and Najaf. It was the kind of welcome that surprised none of us. We had just left one totalitarian state and seemed to be entering another. For some reason, the atmosphere of both Jeddah and Baghdad airports was similar, oppressive and depressing. “Destroy any item which has the names of Hassan or Hussain on it,” the Saudi customs officer instructed his subordinates as they were checking our baggage. The passengers were then told that any mention of the Prophet’s grandsons was shirq in the land. No one argued with this, but then no one does in . a totalitarian state.
The word becomes familiar to all pilgrims. For women to visit a grave yard is shirq, to offer fateha at the Prophet’s tomb is shirq (at least it is if you do not face Mecca), to show one’s face is shirq and not to show one’s face is shirq. So constantly obsessed is everyone with what is wrong, that the act of worship becomes almost secondary. It requires a supreme belief in the faith for pilgrims to perform the rituals of worship despite the strictures imposed by the state appointed officials, who seem to be waiting to pounce on anybody violating whatever constitutes their idea of shirq.
Shirq I suppose is like all values subjective and prone to changing attitudes over time. For example, a century ago, it was obligatory during pilgrimage to offer two rakat namaz at the grave of Hazrat Ismail who with his mother was buried in the hateem adjacent to the Kaaba. I wonder how many of us realise as we circumambulate the Kaaba today that we are walking over the graves of Hazrat Ismail and his mother Bibi Hajira, and probably over several other graves in that area. The few graves that have been allowed to remain to this day, of illustrious figures of early Islamic history, are marked only by a circle of pebbles, anonymous and unnamed. You feel that it may perhaps be for the best to have erased all signs of the past rather than have such inadequate reminders.
The need for symbolism being what it is, most pilgrims go through their devotions in Mecca and Medina during which they are shown the historical landmarks of early Islam. As any long-term resident or regular pilgrims will confirm, most of the ones which were connected to the Prophet or his family have been razed and replaced by a traffic roundabout or shops, on the premise no doubt that any reminder of the him (other than his tomb) falls into the realm of shirq. In one startling instance, a date garden which according to tradition had been tended by the Prophet had been completely destroyed, its trees felled and it was put to use as a dumping ground in Medina.
The custodians of the holy places for some reason regard the whole Muslim Ummah as weak, fallible, susceptible creatures, who will succumb at the first opportunity to idolatry and therefore need to be protected from themselves. This perception they enforce with conviction and reveals an unfair lack of confidence in the maturity of the Ummah which can examine history without lapsing into idolatry.
I sometimes wonder whether the average Saudis, who are now educated, wealthy and fairly well-travelled, regard the whole process of civilisation as shirq? Do they feel that the huge shopping malls they have built and the gaudy palaces they have erected, with all the other accoutrements of an oil economy, justify an obliteration of their previous history? Or do they feel that their history need extend only up to the discovery of oil in their country?
Mecca and Medina will always evoke deep emotion and feelings of immense devotion in most of us Muslims, who regard the soil of Saudi Arabia as holy land and the shrines there with an almost proprietary interest (the passionate outbursts against the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia need to be viewed in this context). The same deep feelings exist towards our Islamic historical heritage which we share with the Saudis. History can be rewritten, or even forgotten; it should not be obliterated, for to do that is to erase part of oneself. (October 1990)
Postscript: It was fourteen years later that we went to Makkah and Medina again and the changes this time were astounding. I was so grateful for my first visit in the mid seventies as at least that initial impression of Makkhah remained a pristine memory. The unwritten convention that no building was to be higher than the Kaaba had been bypassed a long time ago but I was startled at seeing the royal palace, now rather like an overhang on the outer walls of the Kaaba. The vast squares beyond the walls had been diminished with the construction of plazas and towering hotels that overlooked the Great Mosque with brochures that advertised views of the Kaaba from their bedrooms. Another reason the squares were smaller was that the outer walls of the Haram had been extended to accommodate the increasing number of pilgrims that now thronged the mosque throughout the year. Gone are the myriad food shops mainly run by Pakistanis that were such a comfort on cold winter nights with their steaming vats of milky tea, parathas and fried eggs. However, when emerging after the Isha prayers in the Kaaba one night I had moment of epiphany at the sight of hundreds of little shops selling all kinds of goods and it seemed to me then that Makkah for all its development has remained a trading post throughout the centuries. So must have emerged the pilgrims of yore to be confronted with hawkers urging them to buy souvenirs from the Muslim world.
Fortunately the original Turkish arches are still there but the charming old Turkish fort outlined with fairy lights on the hill overlooking the Kaaba had gone as had the passage leading down to the blessed spring Zam Zam. Instead, the spring water was available in coolers throughout the mosque. This being July there were many Saudi pilgrims with families – one overwrought mother giving her progeny tight slaps as we circumambulated the Kaaba! The young maulvis in the Kaaba were very strict with women at prayer times I noticed. Half an hour before the azaan they would start rounding us up and directing us to the female enclosure. It occurred to me that it won’t be long before they have specific timing for women to enter the Haram. In the expanded, gleaming marble corridors between Safa and Marva I turned around to see my son trying to ignore a man importuning him for money claiming that he had lost his money and documents.
The historical sites in Makkah are changed beyond recognition. The last time we climbed up the arid Jabl e Nur to see the Cave of Hira where it all began. The mountain, some distance from the city of Makkah was isolated and majestic. Now the city had mushroomed in its direction and there were houses even creeping up the mountain itself. The other sites like the battle ground of Ohud where lies the grave of Hazrat Hamza is now within a stone enclosure with large billboards warning pilgrims that the worship of graves is Shirq – that word again! On the other hand, the sites of Mina and Muzdalfa had rows and rows of fibre glass tents to facilitate the pilgrams during Haj and one has to admire the Saudis for their handling of the largest pilgrimage in the world.
Medina seemed much greener with groves of date palms and the Prophet’s tomb almost the only recognizable feature. My daughter and I waited with a throng of women at the doorway into the enclosure. As it opened, a tidal wave of women spilled through the doors desperate to be the first to reach the tomb. We were literally pushed in the direction of the golden grill beyond which lies the tomb. As we reached the balustrade that surrounds the tomb I overhead the Irani woman in front of me whisper, ‘She is leaving. I can quickly jump up and touch the grill!’Her companion looked terrified. I looked up and saw that the Saudi policewoman on the balustrade was walking away from us. The Irani woman turned around and saw me smiling. ‘Don’t you think I can?’ she asked me conspiratorially. But it was too late. The policewoman, sinister in her black robes, her black eyes flashing through her black veil was walking towards us and the moment was gone.