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Sunday, December 10, 2006

hear the azaan through Bose speakers!

I begin at the prompting of y...

Hajj is approaching, and perhaps to connect with various family members about to embark on this rite, I watched ‘Le Grand Voyage’ recently. Quite afraid that it might be a horrid repeat of ‘monsieur ibrahim’ which was an all too trite meditation on Islam (mysticism allows us true communion with other humans, with Islam, and with kind-hearted sex workers), I was met by something else.

Firstly, the movie is amazing for the very last thing it does- revealing actual film footage of Hajj in Mecca. This is new, and as many of us know, there has been a continuous tension around images of Mecca. The first images were leaked in 1853 when a non-Muslim British explorer went to Mecca and described his voyage in a diary. And even though photographs have been circulated of kaaba and hajj for quite some time despite the wahhabi prohibition against iconoclasm, the film scenes are imbued with a bit of the taboo.

Secondly, this film takes us by car from the south of France, through Italy, Serbia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan to Saudi Arabia, an epic 3,000 miles. Visually, this is quite impressive. The father, Mohammed Majd, enrolls his unwilling 18 year old son Reda to be his driver on this voyage. While within the borders of Europe, it is the son who controls communication with border agents and transportation issues. And after they are swindled in Turkey (aren’t we all though…), the poles of the relation shift. The father is capable of speaking multiple Arabic dialects, and after they hit Jordan, he must explain to fellow hajj travelers that his son was raised in France and only understands Moroccan Arabic. They look on with a puzzled expression at the boy as though he was mentally inferior, and Reda must stand by as they are obviously talking about him.

Such a transformation and relation can be viewed in multiple ways: most English reviews I have seen have fixated upon the ‘traditionality’ of the father, and the clash with his ‘modern’ son who is about to take college entrance exams right as this voyage sets out. For many reviews, Hajj, I assume because of its connection to Islam, is firmly within the domain of tradition, and so any person who wishes to go on this pilgrimage must by extension also be traditional. What this reading denies is the ‘cosmopolitan’ nature of Hajj, both historically and in the contemporary period. Certainly historically speaking, Hajj catapulted Cairo and Damascus into world cities precisely through being the two conventional starting points for Hajj (if you wanted to go on Hajj, you had to go to one of these two starting points for the annual caravan). A Hajjee was seen as cosmopolitan, a savvy negotiator of difficult and multiple travel arrangements through many countries. And in this film, the father recuperates such an image of a Hajjee. Beginning in Turkey, it is the father that seems worldly, as he handles shady money-changers and wily Turks.

I am reminded of Bobby Sayyid’s work on tradition and Khomeini’s discourse: to call Khomeini traditional was wrong he argued, because of all the ways that his discourse deployed modernism, using concepts like ‘the people’ and the ‘state.’ Khomeini’s political theory ‘is not a reiteration of traditional shia thought; rather it is a radical and novel reinterpretation of shia political doctrine…’ This is why sunni wahhabis can reject Khomeini as heretic. Returning to the film, we can use Sayyid to see all the ways that Hajj is changed into a ‘modern’ event even if it looks to be an ‘unchanging’ rite. The design, technology, and logistics going into the planning of housing, sanitation, transportation, and regulation of pilgrims are feats of modernism. In 1982, the government created an industrial meat-processing complex to handle the sacrifice and world-wide distribution of animals by all Hajj participants. Different security forces are charged with moving people through sites (the government website states that with one 9000 security agent force, they can get 1.5 million people through the small site where pebbles are cast at three pillars representing the devil in five hours). The desert sand floor surrounding the kaaba has been excavated and equipped with below-ground air-conditioning for a half mile radius so that pilgrims’ bare feet would not be scorched in summer months. The visas and lottery system by which permission to enter and perform the rite are also regulated by the government through an extensive bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia and sending countries. Zam-zam water is now treated with UV rays and made sterile, escalators in the Medina mosque (expanded to fit one million people at once) have been constructed to carry 15,000 people per hour. Radio networks and sound systems abound to carry the azaan.

Various modernist projects (urban planning, sanitation techniques, transportation systems, industrial housing, airport/bridge/road/tunnel construction, food service, police and security forces, etc.) have transformed the face of hajj. What is fascinating is how much hajj has changed, literally from the ground up, and yet it is depicted and even experienced by the pilgrims themselves as something that has remained totally 'unchanged.' Especially in the twentieth century, the aforementioned projects came into existence because of the greatly increased number of people performing Hajj at once (in 1885, Hajj involved a total of 70,000 pilgrims; last year, the number was at 1.7 million). Continuous technological improvement of Hajj is important at a number of levels: ideologically, the successful regulation and management of Hajj demonstrates the good faith of the Saudi monarchy as privileged protectors of this Islamic rite (lest i depict them in some kind of positive light, I do think the Saudi government uses hajj for every last drop of good public relations). It also is important to increase the limit of people able to perform Hajj simultaneously, to demonstrate that there is no limit, and that as Islam’s adherents grow, there is no need to change this mandatory pillar of Islam. Even if only ten percent of Muslims will ever perform Hajj, it is symbolically important and revising the pillar would meet with opposition.

If I was going to come up with a credit-card-commercialesque motto for the Saudi government, I might suggest: “Hajj: we change, so that you don’t have to.” But this would be an advertising lie, because the pilgrims are of course- changed as well. And more importantly, the government would never want to reveal how much hajj and its context have in fact changed.


Blogger viola swamp said...

How about "Hajj: Closer to God, Comfort like Home"

12:07 AM


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