An unforgettable report on one man's hajj--the sacred rite that brings millions of Muslims to Mecca every year
In 1999, the Moroccan scholar Abdellah Hammoudi, trained in Paris and teaching in America, decided to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. He wanted to observe the hajj as an anthropologist but also to experience it as an ordinary pilgrim, and to write about it for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Here is his intimate, intense, and detailed account of the Hajj--a rare and important document by a subtle, learned, and sympathetic writer.
Hammoudi describes not just the adventure, the human pressures, and the social tumult--everything from the early preparations to the last climactic scenes in the holy shrines of Medina and Mecca--but also the intricate politics and amazing complexity of the entire pilgrimage experience. He pays special heed to the effects of Saudi bureaucratic control over the Hajj, to the ways that faith itself becomes a lucrative source of commerce for the Arabian kingdom, and to the Wahhabi inflections of the basic Muslim message.
Here, too, is a poignant discussion of the inner voyage that pilgrimage can mean to those who embark on it: the transformed sense of daily life, of worship, and of political engagement. Hammoudi acknowledges that he was spurred to reconsider his own ideas about faith, gesture, community, and nationality in unanticipated ways. This is a remarkable work of literature about both the outer forms and the inner meanings of Islam today.
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Hill and Wang
January 01, 2006
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Excerpt from A Season in Mecca by Abdellah Hammoudi
A Season in Mecca
MY DEPARTURE FOR ISLAM'S HOLY SITES WAS NO EASY MATTER. There were the time-consuming travel preparations, and then long weeks spent going through the procedures required for the pilgrimage--complicated further by my being a resident of both the United States and Morocco.
But this was the common lot of every pilgrim who in the same circumstances chose to undertake the trip to Mecca that spring of the year 1419 of the Hegira--that is, 1999. What took me by surprise was that a malaise engulfed me, and I couldn't tell whether it would intensify or disappear. It turned out to be lasting, so coloring my life that it became my future.
As the date approached that the Muslim calendar fixed for the departure, I felt not that I was moving toward it but that it was advancing, coming to meet me, catching up with me. This surely was the cause of my malaise. I was floating, tossed and turned by contradictions. Who exactly was this man setting off like this, whose life and activities had fordecades found their meaning elsewhere? For me, the hajj had long ceased to signal salvation or a successful life. It was of course one of the famous five pillars of Islam--along with the profession of faith, prayer, fasting, and charity--established after the initial revelation, when the Prophet called for the teachings of Ibrahim (Abraham) to be restored, when as Muslim tradition has it, eternal Islam was rediscovered after the long period of decadence of pre-Islamic times. I had professed my faith, prayed, and fasted. I regularly gave to charity, and now I was about to go on pilgrimage. But all this was going on in a time frame that was not exactly mine anymore; it belonged, rather, to my identifying traditions, "beliefs and practices" attributed to the society I came from, which were objects of anthropological discourse--mine and other people's.
It was in this mindset that I had begun to plan this project the year before. I had wanted to approach it as I had the subject of sacrifice in my earlier work--by reporting on every last detail of what was said and done. I hoped that in this first stage I would come to understand the meanings that pilgrims gave to their actions and to the sequence in which they would accomplish them. I wanted to understand the relation between each action and those preceding and following it. And I expected this first part of my work, yielding new theoretical perspectives illuminated by what pilgrims said about their experiences, to transcend mere description. I thought I could thereby understand religion through one of its concrete forms, and understand those who practice it today. From experience, I knew it would be with my difference that I would achieve this "first description." As in my previous work on sacrifice and on masquerade, on rites of power and ritual power, my task would be to imagine Muslim religious life in the future tense, a religion in process whose traces I would follow in the past and present. And once again I knew my researchwould be very different from that of anthropologists who come to the study of Muslim tradition by other paths.
Still, as I made these plans, I had not foreseen the feelings that now I could no longer elude, for the more imminent and real my departure became, the more it seemed to authorize, even free up, certain words; I began to express my unease and anxiety in inadequate formulas that left much unsaid ; but despite my regularly reminding myself and those around me of my worries, the reason for my malaise and for its persistence remained hidden, unknown. My diary from 1999 echoes this:
All four of us came back [from Morocco] to Princeton: Miriam [my wife], Jazia [our daughter], Ismail [our son], and I, on 5 January. My plan was to spend a few weeks with the family, to reassure everyone before returning to Morocco. We talk and talk about my hajj with our friends. Many allusions to it, many jokes as well: "You'll be a grand haj," says Chahnaz, the Turkish Muslim wife of an American friend who is an eminent specialist in international relations and an activist for Third World nations' political and cultural rights. The closer the departure, the more specific the questions.
Am I being completely straightforward with my friends [in Morocco] Lahcen and Fadma? They know I write books about my experiences and in fact don't ask questions. They surely understand that I have no intention of subverting the hajj or lying about what I'm doing. But I am not a believer like the others. I am approaching the hajj as I would a ritual from another religion. I am not contemptuous of religions; I believe that under certain conditions they allow for the expression of major existential dilemmas and encourage reconciliation on a grand scale. As with art, it's not so much about belief as about creating a palpable form (visual, audible, tangible) that reveals the future, creating by repetition (prayer, invocation, ritual)an image of self: first in outline, then more precisely, then coming into full bloom, as in a painting, an icon that exists only to fade away when another, more fully realized one takes its place.
I don't know if this way of seeing things will allow me to be in communion with the masses of pilgrims, or with Lahcen and Fadma, although it surely connects me with the forms of absorption in piety that one can see on faces and bodies, hear in words ... Anyway, what does communion with the faithful mean? Is there any proof that communion implies identical experiences and expectations?
I have to acknowledge that the motive for my venture isn't salvation, and perhaps this puts me out of line with most of the pilgrims. On the other hand, my project is indeed one of initiation. I've taken risks to become who I am today, and this trip could change me, introduce me to an even harder life, a more difficult drama. So the malaise I feel as the hajj approaches, my own hajj, is not going to dissipate. Maybe that's the main topic of this journey to the end of the night.
It was in any case a journey to an ultimate destination--which the word "hajj" itself indicates, beyond its usual translation as "pilgrimage." It was to move along the traces left by the founding heroes--Ibrahim, Hajar (Hagar), Ismail (Ishmael), Muhammad. It doesn't matter to the existential quest of the men and women preparing for this journey that three of these four were or weren't known to Arabs before Muhammad's prophecy, or that Muslim tradition kept Hajar obscure for so long. These are the names spoken today, recited and sung, which have such great resonance. I decided for this reason to write them in ordinary transcriptions, though of course I mostly heard them in colloquial Moroccan Arabic. I preferred the conversational "distortions," shifts, and translations.Names migrate, too, as do the meanings of "migration," nor is this foreign to the very foundation of Islam or to the name "Hajar," which, along with "Ibrahim" and "Ismail," precedes and links up with the word "hajj" in the ultimate journey that should crown every Muslim life.
Our peregrination--this much is clear to everyone--had to end with a return, for once one has bidden the Kaaba farewell, one must quickly leave Mecca and go home. This last leg of the trip is also a migration, to be added to the others. Taken together, these migrations proceed--with the oscillating tension of to-and-fro, going and coming--to a double destination, in a round-trip punctuated with pauses, going to the source and then proving it by coming home. As if the later stages ought to anticipate the preceding ones. A paradoxical space of transmission: of course Ismail's name follows that of Ibrahim, but does it not also anticipate it, being the name of the father of Islam? Isn't "father," for that matter, defined after the fact by "son"? Besides, according to the Bible and the Qur'an, there is that impossible link between Sarah and Hajar, Hajar being the first mother, the first to make Ibrahim a father, whatever else her status may have been. This matrix, producing both father and son, links Muslims to Jews, and to Copts via an Egyptian parentage, through them to Sarah and Ishaq (Isaac); it links and harmonizes rich, comprehensive groupings. As the Arabic word for it, "rahm," indicates, this matrix gives us the word for mercy (rahma), it branches out via the different paternities in multiple directions, different yet all-embracing in mercy: the most frequently invoked attribute of Allah. It gives birth to possibilities and reversals--in short, to the characteristic paths of time and of narration.
On the eve of this departure, in any case, anxieties contended with introspection:
The closer the due date, the more tangible become the physical dangers I shall face on the hajj. The cold, the heat ... the risk of sunstroke especially. I tend to get heatstrokes, and being bald doesn't help. The pictures of pilgrims being trampled to death frighten me, too ... Here, though, I navigate between anxiety and fatalism. I've traveled quite a lot: in Europe, Mexico, the United States, Canada, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, Japan, not to mention my constant trips to and from Morocco since 1960. Each time, of course, I've felt apprehensive but always very excited about what I was doing. I went to Yugoslavia to find out about its experiments in self-management carried out against Stalinism and to garner its "heritage" of unconventional Marxists--Luk?cs, Axelos, and the people at Praxis (published multilingually in Belgrade then). In Papua, I had my first contact with people famously described in the old ethnographic literature as primitives. In Saudi Arabia, I was thrilled and very curious to see a country that is the virtual backdrop for Islam. And going to Egypt was like going home and rediscovering bits of my own culture there, the songs I had loved as a child and the "classical" art of Egypt's musicians and singers, which I had absorbed so passionately when I was a student at the lyc?e in Marrakech.
The trip to Mecca isn't a trip like these others. It's the performance of a ritual. It begins, as all travel does, when before you leave apprehension wins out over exhilaration. Still, I know that carrying out this rite of pilgrimage when I am so detached from its eschatological meaning is going to force me out of the self I have been constructing, with such great difficulty, over the years-a self that will not accept blind submission, persecution, ostracism, and that will therefore be able to gain access to certain types of knowledge.
Knowing how truly dangerous language can be, I already understood--I'd understood for some time--that I had to beespecially cautious in my research. I had to stand outside myself, retrieve my implicit concepts, the trace of my own footsteps mapping the world, before deciding to follow them back to where they came from. This introspection, this turning back to symbolic forms, would make me address questions that the Islamic tradition posed for me in the present about what kind of human community we anticipate or dream of for the future.
To trace one's footsteps like this is to find oneself face-to-face with one's own doubts. One of them was that my departure would seem more and more like a return, but by another route on which my footsteps had left enigmatic traces. Each step was taking me back, but by returning, where was I going? What was making me do this? As I faced toward Mecca, I did not know what the outcome of my trip would be. Still, I quickly realized I was traveling to places I had come from-which made for curiosity, confidence, and anxiety all at once. I was going to walk in the footsteps of Islam's prophet and, before him, of Ibrahim, wasn't I? Put another way: I would be following the track of my tradition, a tradition that knew where it was going, had given itself a beginning and an end, and had already thus defined my life--a story within history, giving me a future that had already taken place, brilliantly illustrated by the prophets' example. This tradition constructed its past in the future tense or, put differently, built its knowledge on the norm. Tradition was offering me its moment of truth, which was also the moment when it passed beyond truth. Like all foundational languages, it laid bare the lives of people, including me, feeling their way toward the future, often blindly; it was a memory in process, a record of all possible questions. Was I, without really wanting to know it, on the verge of a decisive farewell? Even the meaning of the question escaped me.
In the meantime, a title--haj--was going to be added tomy name. Would I know how to bear it? Who was this person whom I was about to dress in white and thereby place in a state of ritual purity? Was such a move simply a way of pledging allegiance? In the diary I decided to keep at the beginning of this experience, I expressed my preoccupations thus:
In Morocco, this allegiance will translate into a "relearning" of the Qur'an, the prayer, the invocation ... and will last throughout the pilgrimage and maybe even beyond. How should I confront the ambiguity? I'm going to have to carry the title Haj Abdellah! Yet haven't I been dissembling foryears? People in my circle know perfectly well I'm not a practicing Muslim, do not observe the rites and do not obey the injunctions about food and drink. Something in this way of life is hiding in plain sight. I'm worried because basically this open secret is so volatile: What if a nation, a police force, or a group of zealots decided to tear asunder the magic curtain guarding it? I'm worried because I have not yet decided what I would do in such a situation.
I was perhaps even more worried about all the alleged transgressions I might commit. Was I going to bid "ambiguity" farewell, confront it to leave it behind? A question haunted me which a man had asked me fifteen years before in Imi n'Tassaft, a village in the western High Atlas where I was doing fieldwork: "What are you doing here? Why aren't you with your people on this day of sacrifice?" At the time, I answered that I simply wanted to see how the feast was being celebrated in different regions. The man accepted my answer in good faith, and I saw in his willingness to accept my distance from religious practice a form of tolerance. But I could not mistake the meaning of his remark: it was aquery about my religious identity and a plea for me to join him.
The man's words came to occupy the space that since adolescence had separated me from religion. For a long time revolution and demystification had been my chosen alternatives. But the dilemma between the freedom I sought and had been denied on the one hand and my attachment to Muslim men and women and their civilization, including their religion, on the other, became quickly apparent. It was tantamount to squaring the circle: Could one hope to separate these forms of life from their oppressive power over one? If one suspected a secret link between them and the absence of freedom, how could one continue to love them? There lay the paradox: Islamic forms were the only ones that I was intimately close to and claimed as mine, that were my true home, and yet, as the years went by, I felt more and more confined in them.
This departure for Mecca was not a departure from a certain belief system: I had done that long before, as everyone had seen. This new departure was turning out to be more painful: Would I remain hiding in plain sight? If I did, my "I" would have to continue to endure an inner exile, and the illusion this required would become more obvious every day. Exile of this sort devalued me in my own eyes. To live exiled within myself amounted to "pledging allegiance." In the end, it would impose on me a life incapable of generating its own representations. It would condemn me to living my own tradition as if it were "other," experiencing it as something that was not a projection of my own free will. I would be making a fatal choice, kept from mourning the past and from loving it as something lost. In turning my back both on time past and on new beginnings, I would satisfy myself with an illusion of totality, consent to live the story of the pilgrimage intenselywhile representing it to myself as only a story about simple survival. That would mean losing the way to truth, the way toward a truth of the self.
I had to go. As it turned out, I was taken aback by how easily my bewilderment about the departure relegated the anthropological truth about the pilgrimage to the background. All the theories I had spent years learning did not disappear, of course, and they still had worth in the effort to gain a certain knowledge. But this knowledge became of secondary importance. I no longer had the strength to make it my only goal. What I now wanted passionately to know, and what kept eluding me, was the truth about the anxiety of this departure. There were so many unanswered questions. Still, I could not claim to be participating in the project in an ordinary way, so I had to add simulation to my open secret. My only redeeming claim--a poor one at that--was that I was indeed attached to Muslim forms of life as forms. So I would be simulating something I had never ceased wanting to make my own. I knew I was seeking a truth of a different order from the one that interpretations of religion usually ascribe to it, which anyway end up sounding very much like the basic "truths" of existence as religion itself supplies them.
I was indeed in search of a truth of religion that could carry my life. In preparing for my pilgrimage to Mecca, I tried to imagine something that Islam might have evoked or reminded me of, something that might have been fading away, something even the very act of forgetting would have preserved as a memory. A sunlit desert stretched around me, giving the traveler no other signpost but his own shadow. I kept moving toward the horizon as it appeared and then was lost from view--from Princeton to Morocco or in my Holy Places, so long anticipated.
Princeton, 2 February 1999. The date of my return to Temara [Morocco] is approaching. Relief: to be leaving Princeton. Suffering: to be leaving my wife and children. Since I'm going to try to spend more time in Morocco, this dual sentiment will torment me for a good part of my life. Here I feel I'm walled in. I understand everything, but nothing speaks to me: not this magnificent, chilly campus, not my colleagues, not the trees everywhere, not this society, so often given to competition and violence. And on top of all this--contempt for Arabs. Alienation: I feel I am living more in the image of something than in the original. So, like a sleepwalker, I live between two images: that of Morocco and that of America, where I landed by chance and by necessity ...
The relief is mitigated this time, though. I have to prepare for the hajj. This morning I was telling Miriam, "I don't know how to behave in this piece of white cloth" (the ihram,1 and when I say the word, I think "shroud").
What does it mean to live "in the original"? What meaning should or could be attributed to the word "original"? People's occasional retreat into noncommunication is certainly real, too. I knew I did that myself, when something in me no longer wanted to talk. Was it that I lost the power or will to name things? The original is indeed the origin, the source, when it becomes communicable, opening onto experience that is hard to express or has perhaps withdrawn from language. No doubt knowledge and learning atrophy life, atrophy the will to live by simple attachment and filiation. Theycreate a "false address" but leave intact all the "addresses" of tradition--heedless of itself, inattentive to its own creations, preserving the momentum of compassion even as it denies it. To leave the "false address," then, was to agree to be homeless, to prepare to accept a new paternity, a kind of genealogy that moves perpetually toward its origin, both a question and a lack, both creator and fatal desecrator of norms and constitutions. It was to recapture the historicity of existence so as to highlight it according to the main marks of language. To agree to move toward this fracture line was not to imply--as people often do--that institutions are arbitrary or artificial but to feel in them the tremors of blocked creation. Was this what should guide my fumbling efforts to reflect on "my religion"? Perhaps, and that meant I had to move away from my predecessors, which complicated things, as I realized clearly the night before I left, when I reread a passage by a founder--a refounder--of anthropology about his relation to Buddhism. My diary reports:
Sunday, 14 February 1999. The passage in question is the one in Tristes Tropiques where Levi-Strauss climbs a muddy hill in Burma to visit a Buddhist temple. This takes place in September 1950 near Chittagong. He has stayed in a village for a few days, marked by the rhythm of the temple gong. Inside the temple, everything feels "natural" to him--the customary ablutions at the entrance (he has walked barefoot in the mud and welcomes them), the simplicity of the place, the "barnlike" atmosphere, the priests' courtesy, the care with which they gather up the ceremonial instruments ...
Without hesitation he quickly declares his affinity for the place; this is a temple as he likes to imagine temples should be. In the name of his own civilization, he pays homage to Buddhism. At this point, though, the dividing line appears. He is in sympathy with Buddhism, but he is not a Buddhist; he hasn'tbeen brought up in that civilization. It's a double line: one drawn by civilization, the other by the anthropologist's professionalism. The two dividing lines lead him to take a stand on what he should do in the temple. His companion makes matters easier. "You don't need to do what I do," he says, prostrating himself four times before the altar. The visitor tactfully follows the advice. Not sharing his companion's beliefs, he might have devalued the ritual had he prostrated himself simply to observe the conventions.
Reading this passage, I thought a lot about my own predicament. / am a Muslim, one who continually questions the religion's fundaments but fiercely maintains its ethos--which I want to sum up as solidarity and sharing, as the measured acceptance of worldly pleasures and the effort to free oneself from them. I don't know, though, whether this corresponds to the position taken by most pilgrims to Mecca. I share with them a love for the great achievements of Muslim civilization and culture, but I can only perform the rites knowing that I act simply for pure pleasure and the desire to understand--with respect, of course, for the pilgrims and for their beliefs, but unable to adopt the truths of absolute knowledge they profess.
The difference between the anthropologist I was reading and me is that his companion knew they did not share in the affirmation of a single truth. And the anthropologist wrote that he wouldn't have been embarrassed to bow down before the wisdom of the Buddha, wisdom that, according to him, his own culture could only confirm. But there's the rub: in my case, when I perform the ritual acts, I cannot affirm certain aspects of Islamic wisdom my coreligionists confirm every day, so there is a sort of falsehood in my situation: I will be making "as if"--and no one will ask me anything, and I won't have to explain myself. My confusion really stems from this: faithful Muslims will, in the name of Islamic truth, be offering me a bond of solidarityand shared love; I will be receiving something precious I would have no way of reciprocating. Face-to-face with them, I will be no more than a fake ...
No doubt I could partially remedy the situation by giving them something of real value to both them and myself: a kind o love going beyond a shared faith and an omnipotent God, a love of the sort that many cherish, especially in situations of distress, a love that overflows the religious framework. I could also claim that after all I both respect the hajj and am entitled to see what happens during it; I can say, if anyone asks, that I hope to follow the rites and write a book. I've taken other risks in my life, and I know that this time, too, I won't hesitate to abandon my position if a new experience leads me to do so. My trip is a quest in two senses: for salvation, and for truth. My work always has the mark of an existential quest. In consolation, I can tell myself that I shall not be observing the pilgrims and pilgrimage from an easy vantage point. Risk forbids this sort of comfort.
I realized that the humor and jokes, the hesitations and the shilly-shallying, as well as the writing, were efforts to deal with an insoluble problem. Since I could find no rational solution for it, I would at least change some of its terms, displace it, throw it off center.
It was not that I might threaten to devalue the pilgrimage rite--an issue that always came up whenever I performed a ritual solely to understand it or even just to participate in a life-form from which I certainly did not want to cut myself off. Rather, it was that the rite posed questions for me that I couldn't always answer. When because of social or political fear I couldn't give a public answer about what I was doing, it was my self-esteem that I felt had been devalued, the more so since the balance of power was unfair. As an anthropologist studying my own culture and religion, I had always beenprotected by the postcolonial system prevailing in Muslim countries, since my academic specialty was left largely free of religious regulations and the conventions by which they were implemented. To the degree that the state operated along several different lines of logic, and inasmuch as its systems postulated several coexisting worlds--among them the world of scientific research--I as a researcher was always privileged in comparison to practicing believers. My activities were accepted, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm or resignation. But I knew that traditionalists despised me or, at best, placed me low in their hierarchy of human paradigms. Thankfully, my value varied from one world to the next, and thus I benefited from a kind of compensation in other spheres of my life.
Nothing could turn me into an anthropologist from Europe or America taking this trip so as to be initiated into Islam or edified by it. Since my coreligionists did not ask me for mere respect, I could not adopt a researcher's posture toward them without transgressing their norm. I couldn't possibly be an observer plain and simple, whether hostile and distant or friendly and admiring of Islam. And there was another divide, which my Muslim colleagues in anthropology and I never mentioned: the suffering caused by the distance we had to put between us and the communities we decided to study. Distance, translation, treason?
This reflexive return to religion and identity, with the suspicions and contradictions surrounding them, was subverting the participant observation I had planned on. The risktaking, the possibility of returning to Islam or being further distanced from it, was acceptable only to men and women who put themselves in positions like or near mine. I knew there were more of them every day, not to mention those who transgressed Islamic rules even though they could not imagine life without them, and, of course, all the skeptics. Sothe odds were that only a minority of men and women might feel authorized to call me to account--active and resolute, but still a minority. It was also clear that religious policies and the structures for managing religion developed by Muslim states forbade free individual initiative. Yet I no longer thought, as I once had, that only fear was holding me back or deterring those who, like me, felt their will to live in a different atrophying. To think differently from other Muslims, deep within oneself, for oneself, whether alone or with others--this was common enough. In private, one simply denied tradition; but denial left it intact, living on in its burdensome, oppressive way. Could it be that my anguish stemmed from the confused feeling that somehow I could no longer avoid this issue?