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A season in Mecca: narrative of a pilgrimage

About the author
Abdellah Hammoudi was born in Morocco in 1945 and currently lives in the US where he is a professor of anthropology at Princeton University. His previous books include Master and Disciple: The Cultural Foundations of Moroccan Authoritarianism and The Victim and its Masks: An Essay on Sacrifice and Masquerade in the Maghreb (1993).

This extract is from one of seven books shortlisted for the 2005 Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage. The winner will be announced on 15 October, and over the coming weeks openDemocracy will present extracts from each of the finalists:

  • “Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq”, Riverbend
  • “Of Wars: Letters to Friends”, Caroline Emcke
  • “Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier”, Alexandra Fuller
  • “A Season in Mecca: Account of a Pilgrimage”, Abdellah Hammoudi
  • “The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World’s Oceans”, William Langewiesche
  • “Maximum City: Bombay lost and found”, Suketu Mehta
  • “Death in the Little Pentagon: The Secret Killing Fields of the Peruvian Army”, Ricardo Uceda
  • * * *

    Edited extract from A season in Mecca: narrative of a pilgrimage / Une saison à la Mecque: narratif de pèlerinage (Hill and Wang, 2005)

    Chapter 9: Resurrection Before Death
    Translated by Catherine Tihanyi


    An employee had come to our tents and announced that we were going to leave Mina late in the night for Arafa. This news, as could be expected, brought confusion in our camp. We asked again each other the same questions: “Do you know what time we are leaving?” “Is the bus going to be here?” “Where are the employees of the company?”

    These employees reappeared for a moment to throw us the packages containing our dinner. In between the poor organization of the services and the pilgrims’ ruthless competition – everyone wanted to be first, and to take as much as possible – we got caught in the rush that accompanied every distribution. It was the eve of the “station” at Arafa, the height of submission to God, the station of mercy, and all of us were in a state of irham.

    And yet, the solemnity of prayers was followed by a blind free-for-all. And even though we were in no danger of dying of thirst or hunger, many pilgrims, in their flowing consecration clothes, were grabbing the food ration, yelling and brutally shoving each other, helping themselves without the least concern with their fellow human beings. The women remained on the side while the men, mostly young, kept on manoeuvring to obtain the most resources possible. If Darwin’s theories were verifiable, these scenes would be their most direct proof. The history of millions of years wrote itself in a few movements.

    I was deeply shocked by this sudden rush. All the more so that in my own country many men and women were succumbing to this strange freedom that ended up carrying in its wake those, also numerous, who were opposed to it. And the worse was that, here, they were not fighting for life but for mere advantages. I did not recognize the same type of archaism in this rush that I would have instantaneously recognized in animals whose violence, like their pain, is unavoidably limited by the means of expression available to them. But this was not the case here where the struggle around the meal distribution counter made use of highly developed representations and technologies responding to an archaism that had become phantasm of lack.

    This archaism was very strong, but luckily, at this point of elaboration it was limited to clever ploys, manoeuvres and shoving, while insults, blows and threats of death were avoided in this sacred place. But there remained enough language and religion for violence to be expressed: pilgrims frequently redistributed what they had put so much effort and industry in conquering from others.

    So I was always provided by a very clever companion. I wasn’t the only one in this situation; another man would make the rounds of the tent to make sure that “all the brothers and sisters” had something to eat. Well, we were not as beautiful, but, perhaps luckily, not as one sided than animals. If there is a nature, it isn’t these natural beings that it makes more dangerous. In the gods’ image, we woke up each morning in the guise of other species that took form within the decomposition of preceding ones. I was only half surprised that on the road to this death that had already occurred, we were prey to such a big appetite.

    * * *

    We left Mina around midnight, after being told that it was crucial to get to Arafa as soon as possible if we were to secure a place to sleep. We were exhausted, still short on sleep; we had to get our strength back to prepare ourselves for the stage that was to happen the next day. We fought in indescribable disorder for our places in the bus. We drove about five or six kilometres on an immense boulevard crowded with people in tents or sleeping without shelter. It was hard to find our camp in the night, in the midst of the crowds and traffic. The buses were filled to the brim with travellers on the roofs, hanging on the steps, and on the back fenders. There were pilgrims on foot everywhere. It was very late when we arrived at the tents that had been reserved for us, near the “Mount Mercy.”

    I went to sleep right away. Other men were lying down next to me. Women occupied the edges of the tent. My companions’ wives grouped themselves not far from their men. I opened my eyes at four in the morning. I left my makeshift bed, and proceeded to do my ablutions and left the place to get some fresh air. After a short walk toward the Mount Mercy outlined in the first light of dawn, I came back to lie down while waiting for the others to wake up.

    Men and women were slowly getting up and the familiar comings and goings soon resumed. We prayed individually to the dawn; then, after five o’clock, we collectively preformed the morning prayer under our large shelter. The crowd was getting thicker as other pilgrims arrived. Volunteers were already concerned with the order of the prayer. One man demanded that the women be sent back behind the men. “Our neighbours” – they were pointing to another group – “prayed behind our women. Their prayer is not valid.” My companions’ spouses and the other women joined the “neighbours’ wives” without comment.

    So the two groups were conjoined in the proper order, “the women behind the men,” and we prayed under the leadership of a literate man from a rural Arab tribe in the south of Rabat, who was reserved and very pious. From everywhere rose the clamour of invocations, prayers and sobs even though we knew that the station only began with the common Friday prayer in the middle of the day.

    People kept on arriving in a tumult that invaded everything: the landscape, stationary and moving crowds, highways, the stunted trees. The tumult drowned in the whiteness of the street lights and of the misty fog spewed out by giant sprinklers in the form of a fine artificial rain that was supposed to tamper the heat of the sun. Like the air conditioned tents in Mina, they were spoken about as one of the achievements “of modernism at the service of our values.”

    I walked a while under this rain in the direction of Mountain of Mercy, passing through streets and improvised markets. I stopped by the stand of a Bangladeshi woman to breakfast on some tea and biscuits. All around us giant trucks were distributing charity fare: drinks, fruits, milk in cartons. It all was given in the name of industrial and commercial companies whose names were advertised on the trucks’ side panels. Perched at the door of the containers, employees were throwing these largesse to the excited crowd. I had barely avoided a milk carton when an Egyptian pilgrim rushed to fight me for it. We engaged in a short pursuit and gestural feints. I barely won through a stroke of luck and I left as my adversary rejoined other formations. These were fast changing in function of the direction of the projectiles.

    Mount Mercy was now only a mountain of white silhouettes. I could guess where the pillar was but couldn’t see it and I turned around in the direction of the tent. Men and women were contemplating the sight while crying. Others were praying or silently calling upon God. Fervour was spreading everywhere. Nothing seemed to dampen it; the markets installed all along the camps; the publicity donations; the souvenir photographs, not even the beggars and collectors. When I got back to my tent, here again was this same blend of spirituality and the everyday.

    During the night, two men whom I didn’t know had come to sleep near me. After prayers I struck up a conversation with one of them. I found that he was from Tafilalet and, since he had a brother living in Temara, he (often as he told me) travelled between it and Rissani.

    He asked me questions about the “pillars” and the duties and proper behaviour of the hajj. He was very worried about missing something and invalidating his pilgrimage, so he wanted to do not only what was prescribed but also everything that was recommended. He told me that upon seeing Mount Mercy he had been overcome with tears and had to look away. I asked him questions about the Tafilalet region. He told me that this area now resembled a town, that the state had installed electricity and that the villages had “energy” night and day.

    Then he turned toward a woman briefly entrusted to him by a friend. “Do you want to go to Mount Mercy?” he asked her. Her answer was: “No, I don’t need to be walking around because I don’t want to buy anything here. I plan on doing all my shopping in the Illuminated City. But if it’s possible, I would like to have my picture taken next to Mount Mercy.” Behind us, some women were discussing going up the mountain. “If you don’t do it, you will have accomplished nothing!” A young woman, knowledgeable in religious matters, intervened to explain: “that the climb is not one of the obligations and it is suggested only for young people who have the physical ability to do it.”

    One of my neighbours, fairly young and friend of the other one, complained about fatigue and lack of sleep. He showed no interest in getting acquainted with the sights or in performing the rites, in spite of the insistence of a pilgrim who was exhorting him to go to Mount Mercy. He left the tent for a while and when he came back, he told me that he had gone to wash himself: “They say that complete ablutions are not permitted when in ihram. But, may God forgive me, I took a shower.” “God forgives you,” I told him. After this he lay down and fell asleep. Other pilgrims left the tent to look for something to eat. They came back with bottles of water and complained bitterly about the lack of food.

    I went out again to get some fresh air. I could see the crowds and the charity distributions all along the length of large alley leading to the mountain. Recitations and sermons came from the Namira mosque of which I could only see the high walls and minarets. Carried by loudspeakers, these voices floated above the crowd and spread all the way into the dark recesses of the immense basin. They blended with the talbiya chants, the supplications and the prayers. This sky of oration, this vault of piety, covered us all, those who were seeking the salvation of their soul as well as those who were in pursuit of more earthly concerns. I was again accosted by beggars: Pakistani, Afghani, people from Bangladesh and elsewhere. Here and there, I thought I could recognize the elements of a well developed line: “I am a pilgrim. I gathered the necessary money to do my duty... but everything got lost.” Or again: “We, Afghani, are the fighters for the faith...”, etc.

    I came back fairly soon to our shelter. Everyone was absorbed in saying prayers and supplications out loud or in silence, each for herself or himself. Then I saw again the same young technician who was coming forward and started the talbiya chant, which we all soon took up. This chant lasted for a good fifteen minutes, led by other young men, some of whom had well trimmed beards, while many ordinary men and women, not well versed in religious matters, were concentrated around country tolba whose presence inspired a certain reserve to our devotions.

    The chant soon came to a stop. We knew that the time for the Friday service was near. Some renewed their ablutions, others went to the Namira mosque. I remained on the spot with the majority of the men and practically all the women. Some of the women however had asked to accompany their husbands but these always responded with the same argument: “it’s too hot and crowded.” Pilgrims remarked that people had to put themselves through the intense heat and the discomfort of the crowds “in the jihad on the path to God.”

    Along with many others, I decided to remain there in the name of another widespread interpretation of Islam: “No extremism. Do what is possible and remember that God never asks believers to do something above their abilities.” And then, weren’t we the “people of the right middle?” In spite of all this, the young bearded men kept on preaching this holy war of the everyday, a new form of religiosity to which we were opposing the sweet torpor of a tradition.

    We got up promptly when the call to prayer sounded. Volunteers ordered us to form into tight ranks. Others yelled: “women in the back! Women, go to the back! We are here for worship and not to laugh and chat with our women!” I couldn’t miss it; the last part of the comment was aimed at some of us, myself included. We had been going back to the practice of being in the company of women after prayers and during meals. This would get us reprimanded, and not always in a friendly manner. We quickly obeyed.

    I was hearing bits and pieces of the sermons coming from the mosque, without really knowing in what way we were to perform this prayer, the most solemn in which I had ever participated. Then I saw a young man go to the front and signal our imam to rejoin the ranks, behind him. The imam complied; but right away there was the beginning of some motion in the ranks. People were asking what was going on. Some pilgrims intervened, some to support the imam who had been sent to the back, and others in favour of the man who had just taken charge.

    This first disagreement led to a second one: one group wanted to put this service together with the mid-afternoon one and abbreviate both; another insisted that they should be separated; and yet a third one advocated performing the prayer led by the official imam, at the mosque, while the two others argued that it was not really necessary. There was a staunch debate, though quarrels were avoided. Finally, some men gave back the mistreated imam the leadership of the prayer and ordered the ambitious young man to give up his claims. We thus prayed behind this taleb who had always kept himself on the side, a bit reserved, and who preferred to make his personal invocations in a low voice. This matched what he had told me earlier when I had briefly talked with him: “Religion is for God and not for people...and it is only this way that religion can better people!”

    The prayer was immediately followed by the “station.” I couldn’t see beyond the campgrounds, but standing up like everyone else, I could feel in myself the incredible energy of a humankind in a state of devotion: fated, devoted, devolved. Clamours flowed like limitless waves and were interspersed with silences. Collective invocations regularly made way for whispered and inaudible individual prayers and supplications, said in a seated position. These were moments of rest, moments of contemplation and of return to and in oneself.

    This rhythm which I liked so much was unfortunately interrupted. New trials appeared, this one about a disagreement regarding the invocations. A large group of young men came to join the Moroccan preacher who had taken over the leadership of the rite. He brought his own prayer and invocation booklets. They made us repeat these “selected pieces” word for word, allowing neither pause nor individual supplication. We kept on reciting, steadily becoming covered with sweat in the stifling shelter. We even repeated our guide’s language mistakes. Then, having had enough, some people began to exchange looks, then others took it upon themselves to sit down.

    The “guide” stopped and, with the help of his companions, asked us to go back to the “collective prayer, out loud and standing up.” This demand expressed in a vehement tone of voice, drew a sharp reply: “No! Would you please conclude? People must have time to say prayers for their personal salvation, for the health and prosperity of their families, for the people in charge and the Muslim governments! No, Sir! After the collective prayer said out loud, there is the return to oneself, the passing in review of all our faults!”

    It was becoming clear that the texts we were made to repeat didn’t come from the Malekite manual given to us by the office of our Minister of Islamic Affairs. No, it was clearly not our official vulgate. Some of us easily recognized the Wahhabite propaganda leaflet. But the preacher was adamant: “the prophet proceeded with group invocations with his companions and he was leading them!” “No!” someone answered, “they alternated collective invocations said out loud, and then each one was allowed to retire into himself!”

    Most of the people asked the young sectarians to withdraw. They left, once more yielding the place to our country taleb, who came back without enthusiasm to the centre of action. We calmly resumed our binary rhythm which cleared away all our divergences. For a long time, we alternated prayers with silent individual appeals said with the words we each wanted to address to God. We were thus standing, for a long, long time, till the end of time...

    We had been only seated a moment when our imam signalled us to stand up one last time. The afternoon was coming to an end. After a long series of invocations and humble supplications, we remained standing in silence. Then, at a last signal, we broke ranks. Dinner was distributed and we were informed that we would depart right after the meal. We ate in a hurry, and, like everyone else, rushed to the assault of the buses. There was a long struggle for the seats.

    After two hours of rough shoving, I had succeeded in sitting down and reserving a seat for Farida, the young woman who had come with us without her husband. I held out my hand to her to help her get on the bus through the walls of bodies that separated me from her. A few minutes later, a woman of mature years planted herself in front of me. Leaning on her cane she ordered me to leave the seats, because she had reserved them shortly before my arrival. I didn’t know what to say, surprised as I was by the outrageousness of her argument. Then she rained insults on me: “Satan! God will punish you! You haven’t come here to do hajj but for the women! And without qualms you hold out your hand... Satan, your sins are there for everyone to see. I am going to call the police, you’ll be expelled from the bus!”

    The scene lasted several minutes. I remained speechless till someone led this woman away. I would have gladly given her my seat if she had asked me. It was difficult for me to imagine which of two possible motives she could have had: kick me out of my seat or deny it to me because I was a demon in her eyes. By ranting at me and at the same time looking out for my welfare, she would have thus accomplished in one move two pious actions. This second hypothesis no doubt put her in the right frame of mind for the forthcoming lapidation of Satan the next day.

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