Mecca. The word reverberates as the very center of existence, the penultimate expression of grandeur - so that the highest compliment something can hope to have bestowed upon it is to be referred to as the Mecca of its subject, be it the Mecca of science, the Mecca of gambling, the Mecca of sports, or a thousand one other subjects. Mecca, the mother of cities, Mecca, the home of the world's largest single religion. Paying homage to it is a difficult task, but whatever the other failings may be, Slimane Zeghidour manages to convey a feeling of the sacredness of Mecca, of the spirit that animates it, the immortal attraction that it holds over the millions of pilgrims that visit it every year, the aura which pervades it - he brings, in his work La vie quotidienne à la Mecque: de Mahomet à nos jours (Daily life in Mecca: from Mohammad to today), Mecca to life.
In fact, the book is not a history book, not in the way which the title implies. When I started to read it, I assumed that I would have a story of Mecca's history, tracing it chronologically over the course of centuries, and observing it from the perspective of the different social classes of Mecca, in how they lived their lives. The humble peasants and workers who labored in the shadows of the mosques, the merchant traders who crossed the burning sands, the praying imams, the raiding Bedouin warriors, the herdsmen, the kings and nobles: that Mecca's history would be analyzed through their eyes. In fact, La vie quotidienne is a novel without characters - or that rather, its characters are the untold millions who every year take part in the Hadj, the great pilgrimage to Mecca, to travers the Kaaba and to stone Satan, to drink the fabled water of the holy city, to visit Mount Arafat. Zeghidour's book discusses the history of Mecca, but what strikes one is that despite the rise of concrete, steel, international medical examination, airplanes, buses, and air-conditioning, is that the spirit of Mecca remains forever the same: that despite the contempt for history in the Western sense, Mecca is eternally impregnated with an atmosphere that harkens back to the days of Mohammad. One of my favorite quotes from the book is:
« Les Occidentaux conservent soigneusement les monuments religieux tout en négligeant, sinon en réaménagement constamment les rites et traditions, contrairement à nous qui conservons intacts nos usages canoniques tout en transformant régulièrement nos lieux de culte. Ce sont des conservateurs de musées, nous sommes conservateurs de bonne foi »
The Westerners carefully preserve their religious monuments, while at the same time they neglect, if they don't constantly reconstruct, their rites and traditions, contrary to us who conserve intact our canonical practices while we regularly rebuild our places of worship. They are museum guardians, while we are the guardians of good faith.
French books enjoy being literary. They enjoy being filled to the gills with unusual words, with expressions that do not enter into regular speech, they enjoy finding the most rarefied terms that can be used. In this, La vie quotidienne à la Mecque is an excellent example. Reading through it can be a struggle at times, when it purposefully exerts itself, but it is hard to complain because it achieves such beauty as well in its descriptions of Mecca, of the pilgrims, of the weather, the environment, the Faith: it is a gorgeously written books, which really makes it feel as if one is in Mecca, in the hallways of hotels, brimming with pilgrims stuffed into hot and crowded rooms, as they perfume, of the wild fervor of the stoning of Satan at the jamarat pillars, the streets filled with vendors and the tunnels of the city where some form of home life must continue still, as the faithful talk over little cups of nescafé, the combination of the little acts of daily life and existence with the grandeur and the faith fill it to the brim. The prosaic purchasing of tires by pilgrims from the Arab socialist states like Algeria marries with the religious fervor of pilgrims who lap at the holy waters of Mecca.
Of course, if one was coming looking for a history book alone, one would be disappointed. And it deals relatively little with Mecca outside of the period of the great pilgrimage. But it does peer into the past, into the creation of Wahhabism, into the life of the Prophet Mohammad, into the improvement of transformation and movement of people, with its terrible handmaiden, the rise of diseases and the plague. What a spectacle in the book, to imagine the plains around Mecca filled with the decaying carcasses of animals sacrificed during the Hajj! When it was not the bodies of the pilgrims themselves, scythed down by either disease or the Bedouins, fulfilling their ancient saying that the pilgrims' fortune is the faith, and that the Bedouin's fortune was the pilgrims - to slaughter, to steal, to loot. The combination of an insight into the mindset and life of the pilgrims is married with the historisation of it, ironically in a city where it seems that history is completely different from our Western perception.
An excellent novel-history book-voyage which dives into the feeling of life at Mecca - and life at a particular stage in history, for as interviews with the author point out, Mecca has changed greatly since when it was written in the 1980s. But la plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and whatever may have changed for the buildings and the cities of Mecca, I am sure that many of the points that the author made about the reception of change by Islam and the humorous joking about the distinctions between Islam and the West, as well as the feeling of the religious customs, remain the same: La vie quotidienne à la Mecque remains a superb book to read to delve into the immemorial practice of the Hajj.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Ryan C Thomas