In 2002, when I took up a posting in London with the Indian High Commis¬sion, Ziauddin Sardar, already estab¬lished as one of Britain’s leading public in¬tellectuals, was one of the most interesting voices in the argument that overshadowed all others, on whether the West, led by the US with the UK in tow, should invade Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein. It was a voice that raged, inflected with despair, of a prophet in the wilderness calling down a plague on both the houses he belonged to, the ummah, his spiritual home, and the West, to which he had migrated. The West, he said, was culturally arrogant, the regimes of the ummah despotic or bigoted; both were mor¬ally bankrupt. It was clear that this was not just an intellectual debate or a matter of poli¬tics for him, but a tussle for the soul of the two civilizations that had shaped him, and which were now bringing out the worst in each other. That tension between worlds also runs through this fascinating book on Mecca.
In an evocative passage in its opening sections, Ziauddin Sardar describes how ‘The Lure of Mecca’, the title he gives to the first chapter, reeled him in:
Our house in Dipalpur, Pakistan, where I was born and spent my infant years, had one tat¬tered old calendar on the wall. In fact, it was very likely the only item of decoration in the house. The calendar had a picture—rather gaudy, I now realize—of the Sacred Mosque that stands at the heart of Mecca with its soaring minarets amid the encircling hills. The heart of the Mosque, the centre of the picture, was the Kaaba. The Kaaba drew the eye. It was an abrupt, arresting presence, a simple cuboid structure enveloped by a drapery of gold-embroidered black cloth…. Time has moved on, but the image of the Kaaba on our decorative calendar is fixed, burnt into my memory.
Ziauddin Sardar and I are contemporar¬ies. Across the subcontinent, where I grew up, our house in Kolkata had a puja room on the terrace, with statuettes of gods and goddesses in metal, stone and terracotta ar¬rayed on a plinth, surrounded by framed prints of those in the pantheon who had not been available in three dimensions, and of the holiest shrines. Among these prints was one of ‘a simple cuboid structure enveloped by a drapery of gold-embroidered black cloth’. At some stage, I learnt that this pic¬ture was of the holy of holies of Islam. Like many other Bengali Hindus of their pre-Par¬tition generation, my deeply devout parents thought it quite natural to embrace as holy what so many of those they had grown up with held in reverence. Thrice a day, after I woke up and after my morning and evening bath, and more frequently when examina¬tions loomed, I knelt in front of that altar, touched my head on the ground and prayed. In the first eighteen years of my life, I prob¬ably prayed before the Kaaba, and turned to it every day, more than Ziauddin Sardar. Years later, reading The Satanic Verses, I realized that Hindu households that placed the Kaaba among their gods honoured it as it was in Mecca before Islam, as one of the countless manifestations of the one god, to be wor¬shipped in all its forms.
It was just as well that the image of the Kaaba did not cast the spell on me that it did on Ziauddin Sardar, because, unlike him, I would never have been able to visit it. Saudi laws, continuing earlier practice, permit only Muslims to enter Mecca. So though I spent two years in Saudi Arabia, the closest I came to Mecca was when I drove from Jeddah to the summer capital of Taif, branching off outside the holy city to the bypass known locally as the Shaar-ul-Kaffir, the road of the unbeliever, the primrose path macadamized.
Turning the pages of Ziauddin Sardar’s book, I realized that we were in Jeddah around the same time, though our paths never crossed, which was perhaps not sur-service of Mammon, in charge of the com¬mercial desk at the Indian Embassy, where, before each Haj, there was a division of labour. The rest of the Embassy, from the Ambassador downwards, prepared for the arrival of tens of thousands of our pilgrims, praying fervently that all of them would re¬turn in good health with the two tokens that in the 1970s proved an Indian had done the Haj—a plastic bottle of water professing to be from Zamzam, the holy well, and a Toshiba two-in-one. I worked with Indian exporters and Saudi importers against the deadline of Id-ul-Adha for the arrival at the same port of multitudes of cattle which would not return.
In one of Saudi Arabia’s many peculiari¬ties, in the 1970s all Embassies were in Jeddah, because the ruling family did not want foreign Missions in their capital, Riyadh. Since Jeddah then was not much more than a sleepy port, the influx of mil¬lions of pilgrims led to a chaos, squalor and pandemonium that made it even less live¬able than it usually was. For its foreign resi¬dents who were not Muslims, the Haj and its upheavals was then something to dread. Now, in its modern, televised avatar, it seems dehumanized, the Hajj is millions of white automata herded by technology through the stations of their pilgrimage. In elegant prose, Ziauddin Sardar makes a non-Muslim un¬derstand the call of Mecca and the experi¬ence of the Haj:
Like all Muslim children I learnt that one of the five pillars of our faith was an obligation to visit Mecca, if I was able, at least once in my lifetime to perform the Hajj, to be part of the great an¬nual pilgrimage that is the highest expression of Muslim existence. I drank in all the details: one had to walk around the Kaaba—for real. The other stations of the pilgrimage became land¬marks in my growing sense of geography: the hamlet of Mina, where the pilgrims were required to spend a few nights; the plains of Arafat, at the foot of the Mount of Mercy—here pilgrims prayed the noon prayer in unison; the parched landscape of Muzdalifah, where pilgrims spent a night under the open sky. What an adventure it would be—to cross mountains and stand where the Prophet had stood, to walk in his footsteps performing the same rituals he established and be part of that ocean of brotherhood that united people of every race and nation. That brotherhood and unity were over¬stated, of course, as Sardar himself admits throughout his book, and as was evident in daily life in Saudi Arabia. Catching a flight in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s was like board¬ing an unreserved third-class compartment on the Indian Railways: the boarding pass simply let you on, it did not allot a seat, so after the mad rush over the tarmac to the plane, you would elbow your way in and get the first seat you could. Which was not al¬ways the end of the matter, and the begin¬ning of the journey, because the airline would often issue more boarding passes than there were seats. If Saudis were the last men stand¬ing, the cabin crew would come down the aisles, identifying pliable victims to offload. Usually they would be migrant workers from South Asia. This book shows that it was ever thus: pilgrims from the subcontinent have always got the short straw.
But it also shows that for the true be¬liever, these trials and tribulations, visited upon them by petty and bigoted men, did not matter, simply because of the spirit of the place. In several passages throughout the book, pensive, poignant, introspective, Sardar explores and makes the reader understand the mystical call of Mecca and the Haj, as when he describes his first Hajj, in which he had helped an old pilgrim to lie down, had sat next to him in silence and realized after a while that his companion had faded away:
It was 16 December 1975. I was fulfilling one of the most important religious duties of a Mus¬lim: Hajj, or pilgrimage, to the sacred city of Mecca. I was excited, enraptured, and somehow connected to the over 2 million other pilgrims who were performing the Hajj. I hoped to re¬turn spiritually uplifted. Yet the old man had come to die. I felt he understood the inner mean¬ing of the Hajj better than me.
rise and fall of the various branches of the Prophet’s family that have ruled over it as Sherifs, until usurped by the House of Saud, and the machinations, diplomacy and cam¬paigns they used to retain their autonomy, while the Hejaz which surrounded it was the lawless home of Bedouin tribes, but under the formal sway of a succession of great em¬pires, from the Umayyad to the Ottoman. For the general reader, there are fascinating nuggets of information in every chapter, but the detail can become overpowering and mo¬notonous.
The chapter on ‘Western Visitors, Arab Garb’ is on one of the clichés of western adventurism, the clandestine visits made to a forbidden city by Europeans masquerad¬ing as Muslims. Most of these visits are well known, since the visitors were good at pub¬licizing themselves. Nevertheless, it is inter¬esting to have these collated, and to com¬pare how, over the years, Europeans saw and reacted to a city that did not change much over the first thousand years after it became, for Muslims, ‘God’s earthly throne’.
For an Indian reader, the chapter on ‘Camels, Indians and Feudal Queens’, and the references to the Indian presence in Mecca through the centuries in other chap¬ters, might be the most interesting aspect of the book. The poorest Indians were dread¬fully put upon, but even the rich and pow¬erful were treated with disdain as inferior Muslims, the extraordinary treatment meted out to the Nawab Begum of Bhopal when she visited in 1864 being a marvellously en¬tertaining cautionary tale, which Sardar tells with relish. Repeatedly sent enormous quan¬tities of food by the Sherif, who refused to either invite or meet her, but expected her to accept these gifts which were then taken back by guards who beat her staff and ran¬sacked her house, the Begum left with a dim view of the ruler and his city. If the current dowager Begum, born a Hindu, were to visit Mecca now, a city transformed, she might find that the more things change the more they remain the same.
It is that transformation, the ravaging of the old Mecca, forced by the House of Saud, with its Wahhabi contempt for history and culture, that Ziauddin Sardar describes in the closing chapters, almost as an act of pen¬ance for unspeakable sins committed by oth¬ers. He writes about this desecration with a profound sorrow, and a pain almost unbear¬able, because he makes the reader share it, in long passages that read like a man recount¬ing how the person he loved above all else in this world had been claimed by a brute, who changes are irreversible that the reader shrinks as Sardar remorselessly lists the destruction, as in these passages:
…the Royal Makkah Clock Tower, which at 1972 feet is the world’s second tallest building after Dubai’s Burj Khalifa …. is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers and includes shop¬ping malls devoted to luxury goods and seven-star hotels catering exclusively to the obscenely rich. The Tower …. dwarfs the Kaaba and soars above the Sacred Mosque. The skyline above the Sacred Mosque is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling mountains. It is surrounded by the brutalism of hideously ugly rectangular steel and concrete buildings…. They look like downtown office blocks in any mid-American city….
…this grotesque metropolis is built on the graves of houses and cultural sites of immense beauty and long history. An estimated 95 per cent of the city’s millennium-old buildings, con¬sisting of over 400 sites of cultural and historical significance, were demolished to build this erup¬tion of architectural bling. Bulldozers arrived in the middle of the night to demolish Ottoman-era town houses. The complex stands on top of the bulldozed Al-Ayad fort, built in 1781…. The house of Khadijah, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad, has been turned into a block of toilets…
…the Saudis are rebuilding the Ottoman-era section of the Haram, the oldest surviving section of the Sacred Mosque. The interior, of exquisite beauty, with intricately carved marble columns, built by a succession of Ottoman sul¬tans from 1553 to 1629, will give way to a series of multi-storeyed prayer halls, eighty metres high. The columns, which are adorned with calligra¬phy of the names of the Prophet’s companions, will be demolished. Indeed, the whole of the old Sacred Mosque will be bulldozed. History, stretching back to Umar, the second caliph of Islam, ibn Zubair, who sacrificed his life to re¬build the Kaaba, and to the Abbasid caliphs, will be replaced by an ultramodern doughnut-shaped building.
This is vandalism on an epic scale, as dreadful as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban, or the destruction of Iraq’s heritage on which the ISIS is now embarked. Sadly, political realities being what they are, the Saudi desecration of the most holy site in Islam cannot be challenged, is rarely criticized, and is hardly even known, so for this, if nothing else, this is a book that should be read. The courage and stoicism it must have taken to write about a defilement that so clearly wrings the author’s soul makes it an extraordinary book.
Satyabrata Pal is a former diplomat and formerly Member of the National Human Rights Commission.