|Wednesday, January 14, 2004
13:22 - But... that's not what PBS told me!
A few months ago, there was a special on PBS or the Discovery channel or something which followed a young British Muslim on his first hajj. It dutifully recorded his every statement, following him through the ritual shaving of his head, the ritual collection of forty-nine stones to throw at Shaitan, the ritual throwing of the stones from within the swarming throngs as soon as he saw the pillar, the ritual off-the-cuff condemnations of America, everything. The show spared no effort to demonstrate how overwhelmingly beautiful and magical was the whole experience.
So what can this guy possibly be on about?
In Mecca, I found the same mixture of confusion, oppression and apathy I thought I had left behind in Egypt. But as in Egypt, nothing worked, even at the blessed hajj, for we were visitors not to an Islamic state but to yet another cynical Arab kleptocracy which only pretended to adhere to the true ideals of Islam.
The Saudis couldn’t even organize the hajj safely. Each day, as I performed the rituals of the hajj, I was part of massed crowds of Muslims from all over the world: Turks and Pakistanis, Nigerians, Malaysians, Arabs. We would shamble forward without order or seeming direction, endangering lives as we knocked over women, the lame and the elderly in our hurry to get from one ritual to the next. Once, in a street so filled with pilgrims that I could not take one step forward, I was forced to jump into the back of a truck to avoid being killed in a stampede.
At night, I would wander through the pilgrim camps, disgusted by the sight of the mud-faced pilgrims who were only too happy to sleep on the filthy streets. In the morning, the streets would be clogged again, and veiled women who had trouble walking because they’d so rarely been let out of their homes would waddle slowly before me. At the stoning ritual, I watched little girls fall under the crowds of pilgrims: Turks shoving Arabs, Africans shoving Indians until each day a few more pilgrims were trampled to death. The next day I would read of the incident in theSaudi Times (FOURTEEN PILGRIMS KILLED IN STAMPEDE) which would quote a hajj official who never took any responsibility for the deaths. He would only say that since the pilgrims had died on hajj they would ‘surely enter Paradise’. There was never any promise to cut the number of hajjis or control the outsized crowds to prevent these needless deaths.
The mutawan, the dreaded Saudi religious police who enforce the rigid observance of Wahhabi Islam, patrolled the streets, beating or arresting anyone they caught missing a prayer; it was impossible ever to know if the native Meccans prayed out of genuine piety or to avoid a whipping.
I returned from prayer in the Grand Mosque one morning to find my sandals stolen from the shoe racks.
What I want to know is, why do the mutawan not have to pray too at the same time? ...And who's gonna ask them?
Fascinating story, though. There's a lot more. It ends like this:
I was riding a train home from a short trip with friends to Assuit in Upper Egypt when the war in Iraq began. Our Egyptian guide told us the bombing had started the night before and that we should no longer speak English on the shuddering train or venture out of our apartments when we got back to Cairo. I locked myself in my flat and waited for word from the American Embassy. The next Friday from my balcony I watched a quarter of a million Egyptians rioting in the streets below, men and young boys chanting, smashing windows, pelting soldiers with stones and carting banners. A giant tank rushed down my street, its water cannons hosing the crowds while the soldiers drove back the protesters with batons.
I fled home the next week, leaving all my illusions of the Arab world in my Cairo flat. I couldn’t wait to be in America again. On the long flight home, I promised myself I would never accept anything less than full democracy for my fellow Muslims in the Arab world or apologize for the tyranny that now masquerades as Islam.
Yet, for all the hypocrisy and suffering I witnessed during my time in Egypt, it was impossible to ignore the sincerity of the poor and righteous and the depth of the belief of Muslims and Copts alike. I studied Islam with a village sheikh from Giza; I watched shop owners feed strangers during the nights of Ramadan; the local beggars, men who should have lost all hope, prayed each day without fail on tattered sheets of cardboard. It is only because of these expressions of true spirituality that I never lost my faith.
Even now, I can remember the dread in the faces of my Egyptian friends at what would become of their lives. Could it be, that the fascism which once bubbled up in Europe has now invaded the Middle East and that in our time, all hope for the true Islamic values of freedom, modernity and equality in the Muslim world lies not in the East, but in the West?
The saddest thing, though, is that it takes a Seattle-born convert to say this.