WHEN I first went to Makkah in the 1980’s I bought a ticket via Thomas Cook – no SAHUC, no agents, no problems. But then things were a lot simpler. The most direct air route to Jeddah was via Nairobi, where you hoped your transit would be brief.
We were then the world’s number one nasty nation, and Kenyan immigrations treated South Africans like dirt. We were not allowed to enter the country, and I once remember being stranded at the airport without food for 36 hours.
But challenges of that era aside, the process of getting to Makkah seemed so uncomplicated. I would simply book my ticket and go. Visas were obtained on entry to Saudi. Accommodation, which was cheap, was negotiated upon arrival.
I can recall staying in Aisha Bewley’s Bayt – the Arabic for “residence” – a stone’s throw away from the Makkah Haram for 10 riyals a night. Granted, it was a small room – but it had an air-con and a bed.
I use the word “Bayt” with fondness because that’s what we used to call accommodation in the Holy Cities. There was no such thing as a “hotel” with satellite TV, dinner buffets and obliging Bangladeshi butlers.
In fact, I’m probably the last generation able recall the old ways of Makkah and Madinah; an era when the locals, people like the late Sayyid Safi, were such gracious hosts. You felt you were a guest of Allah in the true sense of the word.
The old buildings were still standing, and the Wahhabis had not yet managed to flatten all the ziyarah places. In Madinah I can still recall walking a few blocks from the Haram, and discovering quaint old mud houses amongst palm groves filled with birds – and a magical world that reminded me of the Qur’an.
The neem trees hadn’t even been planted at ‘Arafat, and the Wahhabi muftis hadn’t yet put up the funny green boards saying it was against the Prophet’s (SAW) wishes to climb Jabl Thawr.
If I sound wistful, it’s not because I’ve airbrushed my travels to create a glossy, postcard of yesteryear. Indeed, there were challenges. The Wahhabi morals police would think nothing of smashing your cameras – or as I once witnessed, dragging a woman out of a phone booth during the adhan.
Reciting the Qasidah Burdah, or the magnificent Dala’il Khairat, in Madinah was enough to get the askaris – as we called the Haram guards – rushing to tear up your book. I heard lots of bida’h, shirk and kufr in those days – and once had my hands slapped when making du’ah at the Prophet’s (SAW) grave. I just ignored the askari and lifted my hands again.
But if I have to comment on my nostalgia, it’s because what I yearn for is the more soulful, traditional values of the Hajj and ‘Umrah. This is something that many Saudis have totally forgotten in their indecent haste to transform Makkah and Madinah into “Allah Vegas”.
I would argue that crass materialism and interest-based market forces have permeated into the very cloth of the Ka’bah. Many of our so-called Hajj agents and certain SAHUC office bearers, currently caught up in visa and other obscene scandals, are mere symptoms of this end-time malaise.
Mimar Sinan, the famous Turkish architect who renovated the Haram in the 16th century, was so in awe that he refused to build anything higher than the Ka’bah. Yet today Saudi developers boast about a multi-million dollar clock, a monstrous wart looming 1,000 metres over the Haram.
It seriously begs the question: where’s the spiritual respect, the old-fashioned adab towards the sacred environment?
Indeed, the same developers have kept quiet for years about the ecological havoc they’ve wreaked in the Holy Cities. Sewage now flows into Makkah’s oldest cemetery, the Jannat ul-Ma’ala. This is where Khadijah, the wife of the Prophet (SAW), lies buried.
How many pilgrims visiting Makkah nowadays know that the same developers, deaf to the ears of experts, damaged the well of Zamzam when rock-blasting? The BBC conducted chemical tests on Zamzam last year and discovered that it now contains arsenic.
The fact that residence near the Sanctuaries is only now for the pockets of the usurious elite is equally scandalous. The wealthy dwell around the Ka’bah in six-star, timeshare comfort. The rest of us exist on its periphery. Where is the egalitarianism of the pilgrimage now?
In 2004, when the Saudis last allowed me to enter the country, I could see all of this beginning to happen. The dust and destruction of engineering Armageddon had just started, and I remember desperately wishing that this time round, the developers would try and tastefully blend the past with the future.
Unfortunately, my hope for urban aesthetics was a vain one. The first thing to go was the historic Ottoman fort. This put huge pressure on the birthplace of the Prophet (SAW), a building demolished by ibn Sa’ud in the 1920’s, turned into a cattle-market and then rescued in the 1950’s by philanthropist, Shaikh ‘Abbas Kattan.
To this day no archaeologist has ever been able to dig at the site. This is the very last vestige of the old, sacred Makkah – now threatened by the unsympathetic concrete and marble expansion of the Haram.
Indeed, the house of Sa’ud enjoys the dubious distinction of being one of the only regimes in history to have overseen its own cultural genocide, and to have consciously obliterated its sacred spaces in the name of a religious demagogue, ibn ‘Abd ul-Wahhab.
Today in Makkah and Madinah there is nothing to remind future generations of what was before. The ancient ziyarah spots, which could have been preserved in an environment-friendly modern renovation, have all gone.
The places where the Prophet (SAW) and his noble Companions prayed, fought battles, slept, brought up children, drank from wells and witnessed miracles to found one of the world’s greatest civilisations are blessed historical footprints that have been swept away forever, and we are all the poorer for it.