Pilgrimage to the lower echelons

Pilgrimage to the lower echelons

December 20, 2007, Thursday/ 20:29:00/ KERİM BALCI
Turning back to Mecca, this time for the core rituals of the hajj, I further realized the extent of contradiction this holiest city of Islam possesses.The qiblah of Islam, the most anti-consumerist religion in the world, and the qiblah of consumerism are side-by-side here. The ultra-modern shopping center under the Burj al-Arab hotel, overseeing the Abdulazziz Gate of the Holy House, even hosts a Starbucks. There is nothing wrong with shopping while at the same time visiting the Kaaba. One can even claim that commerce is a part of the realization of Patriarch Abraham's prayer after leaving Hagar and Ismail in this resolute land, that Allah grace this city with an attraction to the people so that his offspring can make a living.

The contradiction lies in two things: in that some pilgrims spend more time in shopping centers than the Kaaba itself, and that some other pilgrims are in no position to buy a coffee in Starbucks. I had the chance, or should I say imposed decision, to observe this second contradiction on our last night in Mecca before leaving for Mount Arafat.

Just to remind my readers, I am being hosted by the Saudi government's Ministry of Culture and Information, alongside other journalists from all over the world. The Ministry of Information has arranged a hotel in Jeddah for us and another in Mecca. Understandably room fees in Mecca are higher in this season and the ministry tries to keep the bulk of its guests in Jeddah. Most of the guests are content with this, since they either do not know or do not care about the prospect of circumambulating the Kaaba in the middle of the night.

Well, I do know, and I love to be in the Holy House at night. It is less crowded and in the darkness of night the mosque looks brilliant. But this time it was an obligation for me to stay in Mecca. Upon receiving the consent of ministry officers in Jeddah for my staying in Mecca during the hajj, I made my declaration of intent for a Hajj-ı Kıran, which necessitates more circumambulation, more bustling between Safa and Marwa and staying under the rules of Ihram till the end of the first day of the Kurban Bayramı (the Feast of the Sacrifice). But the officer in Mecca, carrying my name, was not "kerim" -- generous -- enough. He denied me a room in the Mecca hotel. And having made the declaration of intent already, I had to stay in the mosque all night.

When an unanticipated deterioration in living conditions occurs, it is a common human response to load extra meaning on this deterioration. I did so. It is not that I've never stayed until morning in a mosque; I did it in Mecca once and in Medina once, only in the last week. But in those cases I had the prospect of returning to a hot shower and air-conditioned room any time I wanted. This time I was left on the street. So, I said to myself, this should be a call to me to live as the poorest of the poor on this night. I shall eat what they eat and sleep on the marble slabs of the mosque.

Hajj is not easy at all. But for the poor it is even harder. I discovered tonight that most of the people sleeping in the streets, in the remote parts of the mosque and under the tunnels reaching the mosque, were doing so because they did not have anywhere to go. I discovered that they pay less than $1 for each meal, while up until then I had paid at least $15. Just behind the Hilton Mecca Hotel, falafel shops are crowded with barefoot people; I joined them. This was not hard, I had already experienced living off falafel for a long period of time during my years in Jerusalem.

The hardest thing I had to do was join the poor in the toilets they used. I realized that these people took their showers in the toilets and sometimes waited in line to shower for more than an hour. I joined them.

Then I realized that the places these people chose to sleep were not arbitrary. The Saudis have equipped the marble ground of the Holy House with a cooling system which makes the marble slabs so cold sometimes that it makes you walk faster. It is impossible to sleep on that cold marble. I realized that some slabs lacked that cooling system -- and these were all occupied by the poor. I was not only poor, but also late.

At about 6:30 a.m. I found an underground floor where none of the slabs were cooled. There I curled up in a corner, only to realize that by 7:30 a.m. the other poor people of Mecca, the cleaners, would start washing the ground. With that one hour of sleep I left the mosque and returned to the hotel, where I did not have a room, but my face was enough familiar to the receptionists that I had a place in the lobby. There in the lobby I meditated on this one night's experience and decided that I was a now real pilgrim; now that I had made my pilgrimage to the world of the socio-economic classes' lower echelons.