FAITH

PILGRIM’S PROGRESS

An uncertain Muslim embraces that unique planetary event, the hajj

Brian Bethune May 22 2006
FAITH

PILGRIM’S PROGRESS

An uncertain Muslim embraces that unique planetary event, the hajj

Brian Bethune May 22 2006

PILGRIM’S PROGRESS

FAITH

An uncertain Muslim embraces that unique planetary event, the hajj

BRIAN BETHUNE

The hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, is simply unique, not just in religious terms— although there is nothing comparable in other faiths—but as a planetary event. The last of Islam’s five pillars, the hajj is obligatory, at least once in a lifetime, for every Muslim physically and financially able to make the journey. Its timing—five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar— and place are invariable. All of that makes it the largest and most intense annual migration in the world. Once a year more than two million Muslims—a kaleidoscope of ethnicities, languages and religious interpretations—converge in a tiny corner of Saudi Arabia for one of the most profound experiences of their lives.

When Abdellah Hammoudi decided to take part in the March 1999 pilgrimage, he approached it with reverence—and some unease. Hammoudi—a Moroccan-born, Frencheducated Princeton anthropology professor married to a non-practising Jewish woman from Montreal—was no longer a believer. Yet, in a way that will ring familiar to millions of so-called “cultural Christians” in the West, he cannot imagine a life outside the ethos and sensibilities of his ancestral faith. As a scholar, he wanted to study the role of ritual in religious faith; as a 53-year-old man, he wanted to reconnect with his past.

As distanced from Islamic belief as he felt, Hammoudi was just as alienated from his Princeton life: “Nothing here speaks to me,” he wrote in his diary before departure, “not this magnificent chilly campus, not the trees everywhere, not this society, so often given to competition and violence. And on top of all this—contempt for Arabs.” Hammoudi had no doubt where he belonged, as he notes in A Season in Mecca, his account of his hajj experiences, but he was not entirely sure of his welcome there: “Islam is my home,” he writes, “but I inhabit it as a homeless man.”

Hammoudi’s warring feelings suffuse his graceful book: the existential dread that he might somehow lose his rational self; guilt that he was trespassing on the faith and generosity of the devout friends who managed to get him included within the Moroccan quota; and a simple desire to belong. He tells his story with emotional honesty and an anthropologist’s eye for the telling detail; A Season in Mecca is a gold mine of information for nonMuslims. The bureaucratic rigmarole (Hammoudi’s all-important pilgrim file required 30 photographs in all) and the bribery involved in joining the quota outraged him. Then there was the worry of how he, a slight, middle-aged man, would fare in Mecca.

Death has always marked the hajj, in ways large and small. This year’s pilgrimage, in January, saw some 350 people trampled to death during the key rite of stoning the pillars (a symbolic rejection of Satan). No disaster of that scale struck during Hammoudi’s pilgrimage—although he, like many others, emerged from the whirling crowd about the pillars with his sandals missing, his feet bleeding and his pilgrim garb shredded. And the crowd was constantly called upon to offer prayers for the day’s dead. “There is the heat and cold,” Hammoudi explains over the phone from his university office, “and never enough sleep. Emotions are high and often transport people to another spiritual dimension. Many people get lost in the desert. And there are lots of elderly people who go to the holy places hoping to die on hajj with all their sins washed away. Think of the numbers: two million people who at some moments all have to be in the same place at the same time.”

Beyond these practical obstacles lay the inequities that had always disturbed him about some strands of Islam, particularly the subservient role accorded women on the hajj. He loathed the puritanical Saudi imams and their endless harsh commands—“Women to the back! Women to the back!”—and was secretly amused when his friends’ wives refused to cook, arguing that the hajj was a time to concentrate on spiritual matters. “And these were pious women,” he says, pointing to their example to show that women need not abandon Islam to achieve equality.

Shocked, exhilarated and occasionally almost shattered by joy as he was, Hammoudi did not come away from the hajj as a bornagain Muslim. But he was renewed in his bond to his people and their traditions. He even, in a moment of transport, thought he saw his long-dead father open his cloak and close it about a child pressed against him. “Clearly that was more than a metaphor,” he says now, “but more than a fantasy too: it was a moment of consecration with him. I had never had a bad break with my father, I always knew he loved me as I loved him, but I also know my life is very different from the one he—a pious Muslim—hoped I would have. The vision was like him saying, ‘I love you in spite of everything.’ ’’Just the way Hammoudi feels about the faith of his fathers.

HE WAS UNSURE OF HIS WELCOME. ‘ISLAM IS MY HOME,’ HE SAYS, ‘BUT I INHABIT IT AS A HOMELESS MAN.’