Monday 2nd April
It’s 9.40 here in Jeddah, and guess what – I have found a Costa! There are big windows to my right that go from floor to ceiling and beyond them are the bright lights of this oil rich country. The orange lights shimmer illuminating the night and its darkness. Inside the air conditioning belies the heat even this late in the evening. It has been more than eight years since I came to this land and I feel a quiet excitement being here. I anticipate seeing one of the things I have the earliest memories of: the Ka’bah. But I’d be confessing only part of the truth were I not to say: I am also scared for what the introspection in the house of God may compel me to confront about myself.
Thursday 5th April
It has been four days since I came to Medinah, city of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and I have been eager to write. But like Mecca this is a city of worship; a place dedicated to prayer, where the pace of life is set by the call of the mu’adhin, whose sweet melody echoes past the minarets and towering hotels. It awakens the city and animates it to life, drawing the faithful towards the shimmering golden doors of the mosque that dominates the city and sits majestic in the middle surrounded by worshippers, pilgrims and residents. And yet the mosque sits quiet, a mere building; beautiful and grand but ultimately brick and glorious marble. This is not to say it doesn’t have a presence or that it lacks something: quite the opposite. Its sheer scale; the breathtaking openness of its spaces – both inside and outside – the maze like expanse stretching (seemingly) endlessly, mesmerising the onlooker with the exactitude of its marble columns and arches, designed in perfect unison and symmetry, so that one may feel (if one were to stand and stare) that they were looking into some kind of kaleidoscope.
Yet despite its grandeur the mosque sits silent, resplendent, and this quietude neither boasts nor oppresses but merely stands in confidence neither demanding attention nor requiring it. Those who come offer of themselves awe of it.
The building then is only a building, its honour and status comes from the prophet with whom it is related. And so this air of softness that even the hard marble acquires owes something to the man that draws so many people here. His gentleness and aloofness from the pomp and glory of the world lends a supple scent to the air here where children play and people laugh; where prayers are offered and lazy strolls are had; where the division between the secular and the sacred dissolves and writing becomes worship.
Friday 6th April
I sit waiting for jum’ah (the Friday prayer). The carpet beneath me is soft but in the process of being worn down by the hoard of feet that traverse across it. Its colours are muted in places though its design is old and classic; a spread of leaves and flowers on a lush red and dark blue background. The illusion is one of a garden as rug upon rug repeats the pattern and stretches as far as the eye can see. This elysian imagery is as old as Islam and has become part of the backdrop of the Muslim/Islamicate psyche, so much so that the dozens of people that shuffle past me are perhaps unaware of that upon which they walk: the garden beneath their feet. Indeed people in their hundreds are pouring into the mosque – they keep coming like the waves of a sea rushing towards some invisible point, driven by invisible forces of faith and duty. People of all backgrounds are here; I pick up accents and dialects and the sound of foreign tongues; someone speaks in the drawl accent of the Deep South while someone else utters what sounds like Mandarin. There are people from across the globe, of all shapes and sizes, of all hues and complexions. They are a walking testament to the miracle of Islam: a strange unity in an otherwise endless fragmenting diversity. This mosque therefore is not simply a place of worship but a space that represents the wonderful demography of this ummah of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who prayed to have the largest most diverse ummah. His prayer, it can be seen here, has been granted. The people of Islam, then, are its miracle too; one of its strengths even as they are its weakness as well. Wherever such a multitude of people gather, one can see both the greatness of the human spirit and some of its many faults. Yet their devotion cannot be faulted. On the lips of those around me hang quiet prayers; a hum of Arabic rogations fills the air and the birds that tweet above seem to join in. All this activity vivifies the open/empty spaces of this mosque and so, I come to realise, without the people and their devotion this place would be but one more space amongst many. Here’s the thought that strikes me then: if the history and personality of the Prophet marks the importance and significance of this mosque, the people’s devotion continues its existence. Such then are the faithful who give life to that which they believe in. This dialectic is the dialectic of all faiths; this is the phenomenological insight I infer from the crowd of people before me – a crowd that has swelled in number since I started writing. The world it seems is before me.
Saturday 7th April
I close my eyes and think back to this morning. Where should I begin? The early morning light on the polished liquid floor of the Prophet’s mosque; that is where I will start.
The time was a little past seven in the morning, the sun only an hour or so old; its light a- daffodil-glow falling gently on and over everything; bathing everything in its yellow warmth. That was the beginning: the air cool as if it had drifted down from some mountain top where the winds blew soft clouds across swathes of blue sky. Bashir was taking us on the ziyarah to see the history of this land of Islam. We drove on the plain and smooth network of roads that constitute part of Saudi Arabia’s modernity – a country of roads and motorcars which have all but erased the past and with it the slow gait of the dromedary. Asad was right in his sense that what he was witnessing was the demise of an Arab way of life that had withstood the test of centuries. Yet despite that, a certain magic unfolded on our morning trip – a sense of a past trying desperately to be heard beyond the mirage that is spread far and wide across this land. We visited masjid-ul-Quba, the first mosque of Islam. To stand in the place where the Prophet (saw) lay the first stone of Islam’s first place of worship was a powerful experience. There we prayed two rakah nafil (units of supererogatory prayer) and this too became a pattern of our morning tour. This is the land of mosques, more so than even Istanbul, which is another place where mosques abound. But unlike Istanbul where many masajid sit empty (reminders of a past that has passed on), in Saudi Arabia there is nothing but mosques because there is nothing but the form and formality of religion. Or so it seems, and then again perhaps it seems more to me because I am in Medinah, on ummrah and have gone on a religious tour. Be that as it may though, the history of Islam’s past – its key personalities and key battles were all drawn to our attention by Bashir – stand now as oral tales of times gone by. The material history that accompanies them is all but gone…all but the mountains of Ohud. Their bleak beauty stands in defiance of time. Their rocky expanse spreads across the land with many peaks and craggy slopes. The stories told about it echo through its many hidden clefts and form a fabric more evocative than the modern mosques and buildings that stand where the old ones did. Perhaps it is because there is something ultimately primal, ancient and timeless about those arid rocky mountains that makes it is easier to picture the Prophet and his companions traversing its uneven surface. Lacking a material past, Saudi Arabia lacks a ‘picturability’. But then perhaps that is apt for this austere culture that is fiercely iconoclastic. Still it seems a shame to silence history by erasing its presence…
So, what to take from this tour? The contemporary structures that have replaced the old? The stories? Neither. Only the sense of walking on the land where once the Beloved walked. That earth, that sky and that sunshine (which grew so hot, as the tour progressed), perhaps they remember better than any historian or relic the glorious past of this land.
Thursday 12th May
I can feel curious glances on me as I write. Puzzled looks melt into smiles as our eyes meet. Can they read me? Can they understand my feelings? Is their smile and gentle nod a recognition of my excitement; a loving concede that says, we know, we understand; please, continue.
I have been wanting to write since I arrived in Mecca three days ago, but a strange feeling overtook me, a sort of writer’s block. My desire to write was strong and always pushing me to put pen to paper, but equally I knew it wasn’t time yet. I remember speaking to a friend about writing and they compared it to cricket (he is an avid player of the game). Like a batsman who watches an oncoming ball and waits, poised for the right time to strike the ball with his bat in order to achieve that perfect stroke, so I too could feel in those days since arriving in this city that the time was not quite right. But now, as the day of our departure from Mecca approaches, I am gripped by the need to say something. No. Not say but reflect. And what better place to reflect than the house of God – the Haram.
I have come to the roof and stand at the edge by the railings erected all around. The Ka’bah stands below, grand and majestic, and around it swarm pilgrims and worshippers alike; round and round they go. From this height the movement seems slow and graceful, as if may be the people below were one mass churning their faith, mixing into their body and soul the atmosphere of this sanctuary that feels as old as time – at least the Ka’bah in its silence does. A relic of Abraham’s time and even then, older still. The sky that is spread above it is of course timeless and so may be it is that which, together with the narrative that makes it meaningful for Muslims, lends it a profound otherworldliness in spite of it being but brick and stone. Thus, while the Haram feels and is modern (in certain aspects it is ultramodern), the Ka’bah itself negates modernity and tradition. It breaks that binary and stands in defiance of human temporality. This defiance comes from its silence for there are some silences that say so much. So, O Ka’bah, what do you ‘say’? It won’t answer me but I am intrigued and cannot help my nature which is wont to infer – maybe I too am defiant and seek continual pardon for my temerity.
In pondering that silence, in this strange dialogue I insist on having, I ask O Ka’bah, are you austere? Is that what your silence represents? Then a thought strikes me. No, austere isn’t the right word. It isn’t austerity that you project but an immense, profound and galactic dignity. Your deafening silence neither demands nor requests the humble awe which these swarming pilgrims feel. Rather, your dignified silence commands it such that the awe of worshippers across the globe is automatic.
The call to prayer stops me. It rings loudly into the air and hangs their echoing hauntingly as if first the praise: “God is great”, and then the testification: “There is no God but God the One” was coming from the sky itself. As if the furthest galaxies and planets had found tongues and called the faithful to bear witness to a truth that animates everything.
Upon my return…
I stand in the courtyard of my local mosque, under a mature tree that hasn’t been cut down and of that I am glad. It rises from the ground almost as high as the clock tower which acts as the minaret of this church-turned-mosque. The natural identity of the tree, that organic essence which marks it as belonging to this earth and that contrast which it bears with its green leaves on those explosions of brown spindly protrusions and in the soil that roots it and in the trunk that points to its robust strength – all of it helps contribute to the contrast it has with the buildings that have arisen around it. What must this tree have seen over the years? From the moment some kind person planted it here to now, when I stand beneath it. I am struck by a thought as I await the call for salah: The world is a marvel; the sacred and the secular live in a funny sort of embrace. Is the tree secular and the mosque sacred? Is the mosque secular – man made – and the tree sacred? It is the hubris of disbelief to claim the slow vanquishing of mystery from this world and the conceitedness of those who profess belief to claim knowledge of this mystery. Neither ‘know’, for know-ing is precisely the wrong verb. It is to lose oneself in an experience that is as pure as the first light of dawn, as fresh as the dew that hangs on a blade of grass and as loud as the fluttering wings of a moth – for it is experience that is the mode of being and not knowledge alone, and reflections are where the two meet. That is what reflections represent: being alive in the moment, and in that moment suffering the secular and the sacred – sensing the world and the ‘more’ which it testifies to in a million ways: from the depths of space and sea to the sweetness of a new day’s melody; from breathtaking images to the fragility of a flower. It may not be offensive to walk past indifferently a field of purple flowers (lush and radiant), but it is certainly blind.