Mecca is a promise, a metaphysical destination etched into the consciousness of all Muslims; home to the Kaaba, the direction in which every Muslim prays. It is also a city, a constantly evolving place troubled with worldly concerns. Mecca’s heart is the haram (the sanctuary), the greatest and holiest mosque in the world. Its soul, the Kaaba, is a cuboid structure with a black rock said to have fallen from heaven as a guide for Adam and Eve to build an altar and became the first temple on earth.

Gone are the mountains that towered above the Kaaba. In their place are skyscrapers, ivory towers that pierce the Arabian sky. The tallest of them is Abraj al-Bait, the Clock Tower Hotel, a government-owned complex with luxury hotels, shopping malls and massive prayer rooms with the aim to “modernise” the city. It is the tallest building in Saudi Arabia and the fourth tallest in the world.

There are two Meccas. A Mecca of piety and another of politics and money.

The Clock Tower is an ever-present reminder not just of the importance of Mecca to Saudi Arabia but also of the state’s aspirations which tower above everything else. But some mountains remain, where people live in shanties, their sole purpose to serve the industry around the haram. These are hilltop favellas with five, six people crammed in rundown homes. From the top of one such mountain, the “mother of all settlements”—one of the Quranic names for Mecca—looks like a model town, a make-believe bin Laden-land born of the plans of the monarchy and the imagination of building tycoons like the bin Ladens.

Most of the residents atop this mountain are Urdu-speaking Rohingya who have migrated here. Their forefathers came with dreams; the later migrants fled nightmares and torture in Myanmar. I meet a young boy who works at the Noor Hotel and he guides me further up, past crammed homes and piles of rubbish and skinny cats. We reach the top where a humble green and white mosque stands, its crescent rising in the sky. Up here the crescent of the small mosque just about eclipses the spire of the Clock Tower, a building that has monopolised Mecca’s horizons.

“Soon this mountain will go,” he says and the tower is a constant reminder of impending doom, destruction imminent as the haram grows to accommodate millions of pilgrims who visit Mecca annually.

“There are two Meccas,” he says as the warm wind blows. “A Mecca of piety and another of politics and money.”

The crowd moves you towards the door past the Rolex showroom to the Kentucky Fried Chicken and around the fountain. Bodies press upon each other, nudging pilgrims towards the Great Mosque of Mecca. Everybody wants to be at the centre where a bricked cuboid structure draped in black silk rises above the white marble. This is the Kaaba, the “House of Allah”.

The men—pilgrims in two unstitched pieces of white cloth, others in majestic golden thob and chequered longhi—and the women, covered in multi-hued scarves and Batman-style abaya, shuffle together, almost always a wrong turn away from a stampede. A policeman in a baseball cap stands on top of a box outside the haram with a microphone.

He yells, “Pilgrim, keep moving, keep moving.”

There is no alternative but to surrender to the crowd and hope that somehow you will end up at one of the many 20-feet high golden doors of the haram. There is no guarantee you will be allowed entry, just a possibility. Standing between the pilgrims and “House of God in heavens”—which the Kaaba symbolises—on this hot Friday in Ramzaan is a dapper police officer wearing aviators.

The electronic sign above his head reads “No Entry” despite the gates to the Holy Mosque never closing, but during the holy month, as millions descend upon Mecca to perform the umrah (lesser pilgrimage) green plastic barricades are pulled out to manage the unpredictable crowd. When the haram is full, clusters of police officers prevent pilgrims from entering.

“No space,” says the officer in Arabic, Indonesian, Urdu, and English.

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Pilgrims break fast at the haram during ramzaan. This and title photo: Alia Allana 

In this mad dog heat tempers soar, transforming peaceful pilgrims into a manic mob.  “Will you hit me, will you hit me?” asks a heavy-set woman in Urdu. She’s about three times the size of the young officer, who tries to ignore her but she lunges forward, shoving at the barricade. Tense vibes take over outside Gate 88. The Pakistani woman is relentless and soon the young officer’s beret is pushed to the back of his head. He restrains her by clutching her blue and white tie-dyed salwar but she’s still at it. Another guard waves her off.

Hut, hut,” he says until a middle-aged army officer walks her away.

“At least we are inside,” says a Palestinian woman as she leaves the 52 degree summer heat behind and walks into a mosque where it always feels like spring.

There is no space and women are squatting on the stairs a few steps away from the barricade. Some are asleep on the carpet, others recite the Quran while a group of women chatter.

“If this were al-Aqsa,” says another Palestinian woman who has crossed from Israel over the Allenby Bridge into Jordan for a long drive to Saudi Arabia. Just the mention of al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, the third holiest mosque in Islam, is an invitation to a bigger conversation, one that others in the crowd can’t help but join. The female Saudi guard whose face has been hidden yet lit up by a mobile under a black veil enquires: “Are you not allowed in?”

The Palestinian leans against the grey and white marble wall and closes her eyes and reopens them slowly. “What can I tell you,” she sighs. On the good days, women and men over the age of 45 will be allowed into the mosque. Even then, they have to carry Israeli  permits to attend prayers. On the bad days, thousands of Palestinians will be prevented from crossing over and will pray at Israeli military check points where security forces in bullet proof vests and machine guns stand guard.

“At least everyone comes in here,” says one.

“At least there are no guns,” says another.

By now a sizeable number of people are listening to the conversation, and a Bangladeshi, a nurse living in Saudi for 17 years, adds, “Verily, this is Allah’s house.”

There is a crackle from the loudspeakers and the sermon begins. The imam at the haram is a celebrity. So elevated is his status that he was voted Islamic Personality of the Year in 2005. His voice is as recognisable as that of a pop star and he speaks in the sort of classical Arabic that would be lost on most fluent speakers. There are some things everyone understands, though.

Allahuma inni as-aluka al-jannata wa a’udhubika min an-nar,” he pleads.(“O Allah, I ask you to grant me paradise and I take refuge in you from the fire.”)

Aameen,” the gathered roar, the sound rising up to the high ceilings off which golden chandeliers hang.

A woman on a wheelchair who has been asleep with her two-month-old daughter in her arms is stirred by the fervour of the pious. “Protect the mujahideen,” (those who fight for the religion)  the Imam asks Allah and she is incensed. This is a good moment to wake. Imam Sudais has never shied from taking a political stand and he prays for the ummah, for the Muslims in forsaken lands, in Syria, in Palestine, in Iraq, in Yemen. Soon his voice collapses into a full sob at the devastation across Muslims lands. The women to my left and the women to my right follow. On this Friday, in this cool mosque, together we weep.

The fragrance of oud, blended with the freshness of rose itar and combined in perspiration give the haram its unique scent. Marble pillars, one after the other, rise to the high ceiling. There are intricate plaster of Paris arches illuminated by golden chandeliers with LED lights. With the mosque undergoing its most ambitious expansion, parts of it look like a construction site. Drills are at work hidden by a partition, AC ducts and vents poke out. Signs point to the “Mataf Piazza,” which is where the Kaaba stands. There is the slow murmuring of quiet prayer in all corners of the mosque but in spite of the presence of thousands of pilgrims, there is always a curious silence, a calm interrupted only by a loud invocation to pray, the azaan.

“Hayya’alas-Salāh, Hayya’alal-falāh”

“Hasten to prayer, Hasten to success.”

No two imams are the same, and the various men who lead the prayer in the sanctuary differ in style and delivery. Some cajole the pilgrims through their azaan, gently inviting them to prayer while others are authoritarian, demanding attendance.

In a place where people from all over the world congregate, a beard can tell a thousand tales. An unkempt long beard often indicates orthodoxy; Nigerians and Algerians are more often than not clean shaven, and Turkish beards are most groomed. Unlike the popular image of women in black, the haram bursts with colours: a woman in a pastel linen abaya is from Jordan, the woman with the pointed abaya in bold colours is North African, and the woman with kohl in her eyes is Bedouin.  It is at once staggering how so many people from so many countries manage to survive the Haj Virus that debilitates thousands of pilgrims each year, and resist the urge to shout and shove each other.

The House of Saud with their horror of history, and their pursuit of uncompromising Wahhabism began washing Mecca clean of its past in June 1973. Historic districts were razed and sites of significance to Islamic tradition no longer stood lest they became places for worship. 

Instead they walk united by their faith across gold and blue carpets, on marble floors cooled by water flowing underneath, through replicas of Ottoman arches, and escalators. In front of them stands the Kaaba rising 43 feet high. There are thousands of people performing the tawaf (circumambulating the Kaaba seven times) and towering above them is the Clock Tower Hotel at 1,972 feet, the centrepiece of which is a clock whose hands don’t stop, much like the pilgrims who go round and round the cube day and night.

The Clock Tower hotel and shopping complex is built on the site of an 18th century Ottoman citadel: it epitomises over-the-top Saudi opulence characterised by a penchant for all things gold as well as the absolute disdain with which the monarchy has erased the rich history of Mecca.

The House of Saud with their horror of history, and their pursuit of uncompromising Wahhabism began washing Mecca clean of its past in June 1973. Historic districts were razed and sites of significance to Islamic tradition no longer stood lest they became places for worship. They undid the history of a valley mentioned in the writing of Diodorus Siculus, the ancient Greek historian who wrote that “a temple has been set up there, which is very holy and exceedingly revered by all Arabians”, in the first century BCE.

Today, the Great Mosque is undergoing its largest expansion ever and around the haram and its environs cranes rise above the minarets. Seen from above the haram looks like a football stadium where religion is the sport and the pilgrims are players. But one thing will remain: in a city where buildings have begun to touch the sky is an awkward yellow house, small in size, gigantic in stature. It is apparently the site where the Prophet Muhammad lived. The house is now a library with large signs on its façade that says that it is not a place of worship. 

This is in keeping with the Wahhabi ideology where paying homage to saints and venerating anyone but Allah is sacrilegious.

Some history has been dealt with diplomatically: Prophet Muhammad’s first wife, Bibi Khadija’s house has been pulled down and a small geometrical mosque stands next to a three-star hotel. Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s closest companion and the first Caliph’s house near the haram has been pulled down to make way for the Mecca Hilton.

Despite this erasure of history, $10,000 rooms in fancy hotels continue to be booked and women in Cartier preside over opulent buffets where the fortunate few feast on lobster with a bird’s eye view of the Great Mosque. It is in these ivory towers where prestige, the label on your abaya and who you are matter as women size each other up in lavish prayer rooms so close to the haram that the sound from the mosque can never be switched off. Instead it booms out of Bose speakers almost hidden in a room that looks like an Arabised version of the Palace of Versailles.

But the Kaaba remains humble, unchanging. In its long history, the Kaaba has been remade several times, most recently in 1979 when the silver door was replaced by a 300 kg gold door. Manning the Kaaba and the door on the eastern side of the cube is a young police officer in his mid-20s. He has his arms slung through a black rope that ensures he doesn’t nose dive into the crowd below him that tug at the kiswa (black silk cloth) in various states of rapture.

Ya Allah, Ya Allah, they say.

They rub their hands on the cube, faces covered in tears, arms raised to the sky. They beg. They plead. They pray. Just below him a group of people have begun to shove closer to the al-hajar al-aswad (the black stone) which Muslims believe fell from heaven and has been venerated at the Kaaba since pre-Islamic times. It was set intact into the Kaaba by the Prophet and the faithful believe that kissing it will wash their sins away. So they smother it.

“Pilgrim,” shouts the young officer, “keep moving,” his face shaded by a white umbrella as deadpan as the guards at Buckingham Palace. Desperation to get close to the Kaaba can make a squatter of the most reasonable of people. Desirous of praying near it, they pray in haphazard locations, at times on top of each other with complete disregard for safety. Some faint in the heat, others are taken over by hysteria. As sunset approaches people distribute laban (a cool yoghurt drink), dates, nuts and water to break the fast.

One evening I found myself walking about the Kaaba and as soon as the azaan sounded, everybody and everything stopped. I sat on the spot where I had stood, less than eight rows from the Kaaba. When we all stood so close to this ancient cube, men next to women, in a religion which has been so tainted because of women’s apparent inferiority to men, I felt empowered as an equal, for I am an equal. It was magical.

Other times were less magical. One evening, as we neared the time of breaking fast I found myself with a group of women who had camped on the main thoroughfare to the Kaaba. It seemed like an unreasonable spot but the Egyptian woman next to me was convinced otherwise. When a group of police officers came with unequivocal instructions to get up, she issued me a set of alternate instructions.

“Don’t look at them. Pretend they don’t exist,” she said.

Despite the officers’ pleas and their consequent banging on the barricades, we continued to talk about the rising cost of living and the “insane people” of Egypt who had overthrown the government of Hosni Mubarak. Other women carried on much the same, refusing to acknowledge the police officer. Reinforcements were called and despite the escalation the sit-in remained. A woman from Sudan in bright pink fainted, a little girl got lost, and finally a sheikh, in agal and ghutra and golden and brown bisht (the traditional attire of a cleric) came and ordered the women to move. In the haram, order was best imposed by a man of God.

Soon after sunset, moments after the prayer had concluded as hundreds of people made their way out of the haram, a group of men in grey overalls and white skullcaps made their way inside. They emerged from behind the pillars, like Santa’s little elves and pulled a rope securing the area around the Kaaba. The area was cordoned off, buckets of water were splashed and pilgrims slipped and skid across the marble floor. The men in the overalls glided with their brooms cleaning up the mess thousands of hungry people had left behind. A giant grey dryer followed them and in a matter of minutes the place was spotless and the army of grey cleaners, predominantly from South Asia, were out of sight once again.

During the month of Ramzaan and in the summer, Mecca awakens in the evening when the stifling heat makes way for a mild breeze. Days are for rest and contemplative prayer while nights are spent in leisure. Food is on everyone’s mind. There is a queue of about 70 at the Donut Store at the Zam Zam Mall, the line for Burger King goes around the block but the most popular of them all is al-Baik, whose mouth watering chicken sandwiches and fruit cocktails are the talk of the town. Jewellery shops sell antique Ottoman currency, gold medallions, toy shops sell toy laptops and flapping fish that recite a prayer typically associated with Mecca, invoked during times of pilgrimage.

Labbayka Allāhumma Labbayk. Labbayk Lā Sharīka Laka Labbayk.

(“Here I am at Thy service O Lord, here I am.”)

A vibrant market place around the sanctuary in Mecca has always existed. My paternal grandmother and great aunt whose houses used to stand within the confines of the Great Mosque recall a time when people used to shop as they performed the sa’ee, a mandatory component of pilgrimage. The distance between the hills of Safa Marwa—a tribute to the journey of Hagar who ran from one rock to the other looking for water for her son—were lined with stores that sold items such as rose essence from Damascus, prayer beads from Baghdad and honey from Yemen, she says.

It is impossible to disassociate Mecca from the region. In fact, each corner of the Kaaba pays homage to the great countries that lie away from it. The Northern corner is known as Ruknu Iraqi (the Iraqi corner), the western as Ruknu sh-Shami (the Levantine corner) and the southern is Ruknu Yamani (Yemeni corner) and the four corners of the Kaaba point towards the four cardinal directions of the compass.

Sitting on the eastern edge of the Kaaba under the AC is a woman I see night after night. I wonder if she ever leaves. One night she calls me over and places a fistful of Yemeni raisins in my hand. “This is the Yemeni quarter,” she says and it is her home for the month. She fled her country with her two daughters, five grandchildren and husband a month ago when the war had become bloodier. They found a small apartment in Jeddah but the cost of living was too high. They decided to journey to Mecca and remain in the haram. “It is a sanctuary after all,” she says, where despite the orders to move, nobody will be thrown out.

One evening she explains the lie of the land. The South Asians are on the first floor, the Egyptians are to the far right corner of the ground floor, and the women from the Gulf are in the small section abutting the Kaaba.

“Draw a line from here to the north, south, east and west. You’ll see fractures everywhere,” she says.

The azaan (call to prayer) had sounded and people scurried to their positions. They formed rows, their shoulders grazing each others, to ensure that the devil couldn’t pass between them. Mothers struggled to position their babies on the floor opposite them and occasionally a frustrated child would distract everyone from worship. Despite the distraction, the thought of missing a prayer in the haram was unthinkable but the unthinkable had started to occur.

A group of about 15 men in kandoora that ended above their ankles, attire that indicates orthodoxy, walked in and sat behind one of the many tall pillars in the haram. Despite the call to prayer they remained seated. This act of defiance didn’t go unnoticed. As soon as the imam of the Great Mosque concluded his prayer, the small congregation stood up and were led in prayer by another man.

“We came to the Kaaba not on a Saudi religion package,” a young man with a bushy beard told me.

Wahhabism, the ideology to which the Saudi state adheres to and actively promotes has irked other Muslims who have different views and practices in worship. The man with the beard recounted an incident where a muttawa, a religious police officer, ordered him not to raise his hands in prayer at the shrine of the Prophet in Medina. Such rifts have created divisions in the haram and small groups of people began bringing their own religious leaders and guides (peer) who endorsed alternative ideologies and views.

“It is not their religion,” he said of the Saudi government which sidelined all interpretations of Islam other than the Salafist brand of Saudi Islam.

Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two Holy Mosques. Its Ministry of Haj and Umrah issues visas and allocates each country a quota on the number of visitors per year. It is here politics meets religion and allows Saudi Arabia to use Mecca and Medina, Haj and Umrah, as a political tool to reward or punish countries' behaviour. Access to Mecca is subject to a strict visa application process.

There are no Iranians at the haram this year apparently because of a spat between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The abysmally small number of Syrian pilgrims who used once to be the largest contingent has become a talking point.

A Qatari woman sitting on a black chair, erect in posture, leafs through the Quran. As she turns page after page, her diamond, as big as her finger shines. She maintains an air of nobility about her and standing behind her are three Filipino women who attend to her.

“I’ve seen the Syrian children, so white with blue eyes. They are begging outside the Clock Tower and in the Zam Zam Mall,” she says with a deep sigh.

The Saudi government was quick to back the Syrian opposition in the five-year civil war that has gripped the country.  The foreign ministry of Saudi Arabia does not recognise the government of Bashar al-Assad. The ministry that issues visas only does so through the opposition, a body that is constantly changing with ministries that don’t work formally and with no fixed address or leader. A Syrian woman with whom who I broke my fast one evening told me how hard it was to obtain a visa. It took her months to reach the right person. She handed me dates that had been sweetened in sugar syrup and leaned in close.

“Even the sanctuary has been tainted by politics,” she said.

 (Published in the August 2016 issue of Fountain Ink.)