The Dystopian Realities Of The Modern Pilgrimage To Mecca
When someone calls Kansas City the "Mecca of Barbecue," or Madison Square Garden the "Mecca of Basketball," that doesn't do the real Mecca justice. You could call Mecca the Mecca of Meccas, but then the word starts sounding so funny that you wonder if you're saying it right. Over two million Muslims make the journey to Mecca (Mech-ha? Mekuh? Damn it) each year. That's a lot of people doing something we know nothing about, so we spoke to Omar Khormi, who made his Hajj in 2014 ...
There Are Muslim Tests
Islam takes its holy pilgrimage very seriously, and the Quran states that only Muslims are allowed within the holy city. But precisely because of how interconnected we are today, entrance has become tighter than the asshole metaphor we probably shouldn't use to open up this article about sacred spaces. Long story short: Sometimes people entering Mecca now have to pass a special test.
"Even with my name and my skin color, I was still asked to recite a few things at the airport, probably because I was an American Muslim," remembered Omar. "As a precaution, my dad brought a paper from our Mosque confirming we were Islam and we were told to recite a prayer. There were a few white people in front of us as part of another hamla (group one joins to go to Mecca), and after they gave us the fifth degree, I looked back and I saw they were still under questioning and pulling lots of papers out."
Try talking your way out of that to a glaring cop.
And that's just at the airport. It's like if the Vatican made you take a special Catholic test to try to weed out all the Lutherans before letting you in to stare at Adam's wang, or whatever it is you do at the Vatican.
"The highways in Saudi Arabia have Muslim and Non-Muslim exits when you get close to the city," Omar continued. "There are even checkpoints where they ask a few questions. A part of it is security I think, but they made sure to check our religion."
"Take a pilgrimage to that chair, Yankee Doodle. This is going to take a while."
For non-Muslims, being caught trying to sneak in results in a fine. Getting caught inside Mecca results in, at the very least, automatic deportation and a ban from Saudi Arabia, as a merchant once found out when the Saudis ran a fingerprint check and arrested him -- on the charge of being a Christian. The only places in Mecca for non-Muslims are the airport and a bus terminal, to get right the hell back out of Mecca, Billy Bob.
The Saudis Are In Charge, And Don't Forget It
Like the only kid on the block with the hot new game console, the folks in Saudi Arabia love to lord Mecca over the other Muslim nations. Omar noticed it as soon as his plane landed.
"At checkpoints, Saudis were always waved through when they showed their Saudi ID, but Muslims from the neighboring UAE had to show them lots of ID," he said. "I've never seen this in a city before, because they can choose who comes in and who doesn't."
It's stressful enough when the airport might mess up your luggage, let alone your soul.
And choose they do. The Saudi government is very open about how little they care for Iranian Muslims, who are not allowed into Mecca at all for political reasons. And by "political reasons," we mean that Iran thinks Saudi Arabia does a shit job of running the show. Because of these "politics," Iranian Muslims are prevented from fulfilling one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and that's what's known in religious circles as "a dick move." In Saudi Arabia's defense, Iran's beliefs are a deep and personal insult, because a) it's a holy honor to have Mecca in their country, b) they want to be loyal and protective guardians of Mecca, and c) there are plans to focus on Hajj tourism when oil profits eventually die off.
But if they're counting on tourist money, Saudi Arabia's got a helluva lot to learn from, say, Hawaii. Step one: Don't treat the guests like garbage. Only the French can get away with that, for some reason.
"We were at the hotel, where my dad tipped a bellhop to help us with our bags," Omar told us. "Then someone else came in, checked in while we were waiting, and the concierge said something to the bellhop. My dad swung around, because he knew Arabic better than I did. The bellhop took off our luggage and put this man's on. My dad asked why to the bellhop, and even with my Arabic, I heard 'He's Saudi.' After that, I started seeing all the preferential treatment."
Mecca Is Slowly Turning Into A Resort
This is what the Sacred Mosque, the largest and most uh ... sacred mosque in the world, looked like back in 2003:
Every little speck there is a person, so good luck finding a spot in the world's holiest parking lot.
Omar felt it was important to explain exactly how much of a modern phenomenon this is. "My dad went on the Hajj before," he said. "We read about it going in, and saw many photos online, but when we got there, my dad was shocked. I was awestruck with the mosque and all the different Muslims from around the world walking around ... a loss for words. But my dad looked almost disappointed with the city."
As a point of reference, Mecca today looks like this:
Nothing improves religious contemplation like the sound of heavy construction equipment.
To folks like Omar's father, the city was starting to feel less sacred than a Sandals Resort. "There's a giant hotel right across from the mosque," Omar continued. "Going inside and walking around the Kaaba is an incredible feeling. You feel so entwined with your religion, praying with everyone while looking the same in what we wear. You leave the mosque on a religious high. When I did it, it was almost ruined, because I thought there would be talk of religion everywhere or people in prayer, but we left near the hotel and only heard people complaining about their rooms or why their ride to the airport was late."
The building Omar described, the Abraj Al Bait, actually has a Fairmont Hotel, a giant mall, and even a Hardee's and a KFC inside -- all literally steps away from the holiest site for Muslims in the world. These changes are extremely controversial, for obvious reasons. Some sites from the time of Muhammad himself have been knocked down (by family members of Osama bin Laden, no less) in favor of such luxury hotels.
Pretty sure "faith" isn't one of the Colonel's 11 herbs and spices.
This is all about "iconoclasm," or worshiping images like God. It's a big deal in Islam today. It's why minority extremists (reminder: the majority of Muslims aren't extremists) get so angry at "Draw Mohammed" contests, it's why the Taliban blew up all those old Buddha statues, and it's why ISIS has spent so much time destroying valuable antiquities.
All Muslims don't feel the same way, of course, which is why Omar's dad said "We're not in Mecca" when he first saw all the changes made to the city. But it's also important to understand why many Muslims don't think it's weird to destroy buildings their prophet hung out in. In their view, it's messed up to venerate old buildings more than God, just like it's messed up to mourn the loss of artifacts more than people.
"Also, all those people who died. Maybe we could avoid that in the future?"
The Divide Between Rich And Poor Is Sharply Defined
With Mecca now turning into Little Dubai, the gap between rich and poor becomes very clear. "We had a tent in the American part ," Omar told us. "But when I left to explore a little, I saw thousands and thousands of people outside the tents. Mina is amazing, but so many people who couldn't afford a tent staying in a small area was incredible. I thought a part of a hill was moving, until I realized it was people on the side of it moving around.
Everyone wears white Ihram sheets. Ihram is the pure and clean state Muslims must be in to perform the Hajj, with the whiteness of the cloth being part of it, and we are supposed to all look the same. It means, no matter who you are or how much money you have, you're all under Allah. However, there were a few of the ways you could get around the clothing to know if they had money or not. Where everyone slept was clear, but also where everyone ate, what we smelled like or (as my dad pointed out) what our fingernails looked like showed where everyone was. It was not equal in Mecca at the least, even though it was supposed to be."
No wardrobe choice can quite disguise who rolled in on top of a bus.
Muslims worldwide save up their whole lives to afford the Hajj. And still, some get a much better experience than others. For Omar, he felt some guilt about that fact, and had to do a lot of personal reflection. "I saw a group of Africans leave after the Hajj," he remembered. "They were piled into a beat-up bus in front of us when we were going to the airport. I don't know where in Africa they were from, but that is a long trip back. When I asked my dad how long it would take, an older man behind us said, 'Days. Lots of them come every year. No one likes to talk about them because they don't spend here.'"
As you may have picked up on by now, not a lot of respect is extended to the "impious."
"It shows great faith to make a trip like that across numerous countries, but I felt guilty because we were in a luxury bus going to the airport. I would be back in the US days before they got back ... I felt terrible every time I saw them."
Ah, religious guilt: the one thing that brings us all together.
It Can Be Dangerous Now
A lot of people (read: Donald Trump) assume everywhere outside of the U.S. is a viper's nest filled with murder. Many folks are particularly afraid of the Middle East, because 90 percent of the news Americans hear about that part of the world involves at least one explosion. But the chief danger in Mecca isn't being robbed or ISIS'd -- it's finding yourself in the middle of a lethal mosh pit. In 1987, over 400 people were killed in a mass gathering. In 1990, 1,426 people died in an overcrowded tunnel. In 1997, a fire at the tent city in Mina killed over 300, and this happens every couple years. In 2015, a stampede killed over 2,400. When mass amounts of people enter a city with the infrastructure for only a much smaller population, it leads to deaths.
Three million people may be a few too many to safely go for a stroll together.
"I saw a lot of people get injured," admits Omar. "At the tents in Mina, people were passing out. It takes a lot to walk everywhere, and everyone is always tired. When we went out for the Stoning of the Devil , people were wheezing from being mobbed by all the people. I had to help yank my dad from a bunch of Egyptians who stopped and were close like sardines."
The Jamarat Bridge is notorious for squishing visitors on the way to the ritual. Imagine the Super Bowl being held in South Bend, Indiana. Yeah, there's theoretically space for it, but only if you're breaking about 15 different fire codes.
"Escalators there injured the most people," he told us. "Some would stop at the bottom and we would start to nearly spill out from everyone backed up. There's that many people. The man in the hotel room next to us had his wrist broken during one of these backups. The escalator clogged, people pushed, and he fell on his wrist."
Security Is Downright Dystopian
The police are there to keep things moving, which is more important than you might think.
"The security in Mecca and everywhere else the Hajj takes us is incredible," said Omar. "Everywhere you go, there are Saudi police directing everyone to keep moving. There is no stopping. If you stop, the crowd is not going to go around you and police will immediately yell at you ... If anything looks like it might become a problem, they swoop in.
"Move along, nothing to see here ... except the holy artifacts you traveled thousands of miles for."
My dad told me that there used to be little police during the Hajj, but because of how many people go nowadays and possible threats."
The Grand Mosque has been taken over by terrorists before, who actually hid inside the Kaaba, while the holy city of Medina had attacks earlier this year. It's scary to be there, and the security needs to be at its best. Unfortunately, it can get a little too tight. That man at Omar's hotel who broke his wrist is lucky it didn't happen at the Hajj itself, or he might not have gotten medical treatment.
"People need to stop and find family members or those they are traveling with, but police will yell to get us moving and you're lost in a swirl of people looking for others they know," explained Omar. "There are many people who get lost or separated (everyone wearing almost the exact same thing doesn't help matters), and security seems to make it worse. I lost my dad a few times, and even though I'm over 20, I still felt a little afraid that I couldn't find him, because there are so many people and everyone dresses the same."
It's like Where's Waldo, except everyone is Waldo.
"I was yelled at by the police for stopping when I thought something sharp went into my foot, and again for staying at a holy site for too long. Mecca police are in no mood for anything. I sympathize, because I know it can't be easy to watch and direct thousands upon thousands of people every hour ... I also saw one of them deny someone from going into the city because he thought he wasn't a Muslim. The man being questioned only spoke English. Every time someone went up to translate, the police officer only said he would talk to him in Arabic."
It's gotten more intense, too. To avoid stampedes, Mecca is issuing bracelets to help find lost people, an additional 5,000 security cameras have been set up, and earlier this year, 100,000 Saudi troops were sent to the city when Mecca wound up with 1.5 million pilgrims at once. That's basically one New Mexico's worth of people, all in a single town, all on vacation. If alcohol were allowed, the whole place would have burned down by now.
Evan V. Symon is an interviewer, writer and interview finder with the Personal Experience team. Have an awesome job/experience you'd like to share? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org today!
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