Thursday, 11 March 2010
Pilgrim Non Grata in Mecca
March 10, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist - New York Times
By MAUREEN DOWD
I was tempted to turn my abaya into a black masquerade cloak and sneak into Mecca, just hop over the Tropic of Cancer to the Red Sea and crash the ultimate heaven’s gate.
Sir Richard Burton, the 19th-century British adventurer, translator of “The Arabian Nights” and the “Kama Sutra” and self-described “amateur barbarian,” was an illicit pilgrim to the sacred black granite cube. He wore Arab garb and infiltrated the holiest place in Islam, the Kaaba, the “center of the Earth,” as he called it, in the Saudi city where the Prophet Muhammad was born.
But in the end, it seemed disrespectful, not to mention dangerous.
So on my odyssey to Saudi Arabia, I tried to learn about the religion that smashed into the American consciousness on 9/11 in a less sneaky way. And that’s when the paradox sunk in: It was nearly impossible for me to experience Islam in the cradle of Islam.
You don’t have to be a Catholic to go to the Vatican. You don’t have to be Jewish to go to the Western Wall (although if you’re a woman, you’re squeezed into a slice of it at the side). You don’t have to be Buddhist to hear the Dalai Lama speak — and have your picture snapped with him afterward.
A friend who often travels to Saudi Arabia for business said he thought that Medina, the site of Muhammad’s tomb, was beginning to “loosen up” for non-Muslims. (As the second holiest city in Islam, maybe they needed to try harder.) But the Saudis nixed a trip there.
I assumed I at least could go to a mosque at prayer time, as long as I wore an abaya and hijab, took off my shoes, and stayed in the back in a cramped, segregated women’s section. The magnificent Blue Mosque in Istanbul, once the center of one of the greatest Muslim empires, is a huge tourist draw.
But at the Jidda Hilton, I was told that non-Muslims could not visit mosques — not even the one on the hotel grounds.
A Saudi woman in Jidda told me that the best way to absorb Islam was to listen to the call for prayer while standing on the corniche by the Red Sea at sunset.
That was indeed moving, but I didn’t feel any better equipped to understand the complexities of Islam that even Saudis continually debate — and where radical Islam fits in. Or to get elucidation on how, as Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria put it, “the veil is not the same as the suicide belt.”
Couldn’t Mecca, I asked the royals, be opened to non-Muslims during the off-season? The phrase off-season, as it turns out, is not conducive to an interfaith dialogue. But couldn’t they build a center to promote Islamic understanding in Mecca or Medina?
Saudis understandably have zero interest in outraging the rest of the Muslim world by letting members of other faiths observe their deeply private rituals and gawk at the parade of religious costumes fashioned from loose white sheets.
(Osama bin Laden’s jihad, after all, began with anger about American troops being deployed to Saudi Arabia during the first gulf war, which he considered a profanity against sacred ground.)
Still, I pressed on with Prince Saud al-Faisal. With his tinted aviator glasses and sometimes sly demeanor, the Saudi foreign minister has the air of a Hollywood mogul — if moguls wore thobes.
I noted that when 15 Saudi hijackers joined four more proponents of radical jihad and flew into the twin towers, Islam had been hijacked as well. He nodded.
King Abdullah’s formal title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.” And Saudis are very eager to remove the restrictions on visas and enhanced airport security measures slapped in place by America after 9/11.
So isn’t there a way for Saudi Arabia to shed light on Islam and reclaim it from the radicals?
“Well, at least leave one place closed for the moment,” he said, looking askance at the mere question. “We only have Mecca now and Medina. Everything else is wide open now.”
Wide open is not a description that applies to anything in Saudi Arabia. Besides, I said, there were objections when I tried to go to a mosque.
“Well, you know, it depends who you ask,” he said. “Somebody in the hotel who doesn’t want to run into trouble may tell you no. Mecca is a special case. It’s written in the holy book that only Muslims can enter it because of an incident in the past where somebody desecrated the mosque in Mecca.
“But for other mosques to be entered, there is absolutely no reason why not. If you go to a mosque and you want to see the mosque and somebody prevents you, you can go to the emir of the region and ask to see the mosque and he will take you there.”
Sure. Just call the emir. I bet he’s listed.
In the end, I did see the hajj. When I got home, I went to the Imax theater at the Smithsonian and bought a ticket to “Journey to Mecca.” I was surprised when the movie said that the Kaaba was built by “Abraham, the father of the Jews” — a reminder that the faiths have a lot to learn from each other.