August 6, 2012

I had arrived in Medina, the second-holiest site in Islam and home to the Prophet’s grave, before beginning the seven-hour journey by bus to Mecca. The Saudis have a randomly organised system of transportation called SAPTCO that offers bus rides from Medina to Mecca every half hour — the station is located across the Masjid-e-Nabwi mosque. The drive to the bus station was organised by our enterprising hotel manager in Medina, who stopped a wayward car, spoke to the driver for less than half-a-minute, after which the gentleman abandoned what I could only assume was his earlier destination, and instead lazily drove us to the station nearby.

After a series of hiccups on account of a clearly disorganised conveyance system, we were finally on board our bus an hour after the scheduled time, and at the mercy of our temperamental, rash driver who thankfully deposited us some eight hours later, close to dawn, at the gates of the Kaaba.

When you are in Mecca, on your way to Al Haram, where the Kaaba is situated, what greets you first is the Abraj Al Bait, a majestic if imposing structure reaching into the sky with its Empire State Building-esque pinnacle. The Abraj Al Bait is a complex built at the reported cost of a staggering USD 15 billion, and is currently the second tallest building in the world, surpassed only by another Arab technological high-achiever, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai.  The Bait also holds other impressive records: it has the largest four-faced clock — 45 metres in diameter, with a 72-foot minute hand and a 55-foot hour hand.  The Bait is also the tallest hotel in the world. The clock glows in an electric green light at night with its LED inscription, ‘Allahu Akbar’ visible from several kilometres away, facing north, south, east and west. At the top of the Bait’s tower is a crescent made of fiber glass mosaic gold and the crescent was reportedly divided into 10 parts to move it to Mecca.

Whispering ‘Labbaik Allahumma Labbaik’ (here I am oh Allah, here I am), I cautiously made my way into the Haram, anxious to catch my first glimpse of the epicenter of the Muslim faith. And my first gut reaction to the vision of the Kaaba was a fierce protectiveness, for there is an absolute sublime perfection in the Kaaba that engenders feelings such as these.  The divisions within the faith are, however, less sublime. The Saudis religious credo has been documented in a recent issue of the New Yorker by Basharat Peer aptly titled: Modern Mecca. The article points out the increasing influence of Wahabism, a conservative branch of Islam developed by an 18thcentury Muslim theologian, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, which discourages the preservation of historic sites such as the Prophet’s (PBUH) house and those of his companions in order to prevent polytheism and idolatry which Wahhab believed was fostered by sacred monuments. Opinion on this controversial and sensitive matter is divided in the Muslim world, but those subscribing to the Wahabi doctrine have ensured that in Saudi Arabia, at least a certain dogmatism prevails  which often engenders the destruction of the Muslim heritage.  For example, the house of Hazrat Khadija was toppled to accommodate the expansion of the Grand Mosque, over which a bathroom complex was built; the Hilton hotel stands atop the house of Hazrat Abu Bakr- the Prophet’s (PBUH) closest confidante and first caliph. The Abraj Al Bait itself stands on the Ajyad fortress that was built in the late 18th century to protect the Kaaba from invaders.

The Saudis dismiss the outcries against the demolition of sacred structures, sometimes citing economic reasons as an excuse.  They maintain that old structures need to make for new ones that will provide accommodation for the ever-increasing pilgrim population: Mecca hosts over 10 million pilgrims each year and this number is expected to rise to over 25 million by 2016. In response to these projections, the Gulf Air Civil Authority (GACA) raised over USD 4 billion earlier this year for further re-expansion of the Jeddah airport. The ambitious Haramain High Speed Rail project, built at a total cost of USD 9.3 billion, will eventually transport over three million pilgrims from Medina to Mecca each year, replacing the currently limited and cumbersome transport options of buses, taxis and personal vehicles. The project, now in its third phase, is expected to be completed later this year.

These justifications notwithstanding, in a forum devoted to Mecca and its current advancements, some visitors of the kingdom criticised the Abraj Al Bait with its ‘oversized’ clock as a ‘Big Ben’ and others saw in the new building and structures coming up a New York and Las Vegas wannabe style ethos that is completely alien to Saudi culture.

It is true the Kaaba is surrounded by cranes and skyscrapers: a dizzying testament to The Kingdom’s pursuit of tourism.  Amid prayers, one can now hear endless traffic and the sounds of construction as Saudi Arabia continues in its quest of malls, hotels and food franchises.  There can be no doubt that The Kingdom is clearly now setting itself up as a hospitality centre for tourists from the Middle East akin to entertainment hubs like Dubai.

One of the pilgrims I came across at Mecca, a slight gentleman from Lahore, told me quite animatedly of his travel plans, which included a one-week five star hotel stay in Mecca followed by a short ‘cool off’ stint in Dubai before he headed home with his family.

Against this backdrop, the pilgrimage may never be quite the same.

The writer is freelance journalist.