Mecca: Portraits of the City in Two Recent Books

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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This review first appeared on Bookwitty:

mecca: portraits of the city in two recent books

Two recent books—Raja Alem’s award-winning The Dove’s Necklace (2016) and Ziauddin Sardar’s acclaimed Mecca: The Sacred City (2014)—offer portraits of a city that’s been glimpsed by many, but imagined by many more. Both books tell of Mecca, yet they stand as near-opposites: one densely intimate and the other broadly analytical; one profane and the other respectful; one a wild nest of stories and the other meticulously organized; one an insider’s tale and the other giving a bird’s-eye view.

Sardar, born in Pakistan and educated in Britain, writes as a history buff and an authority on the pilgrimage. He spent five years working with engineers in Saudi Arabia to make the annual influx of pilgrims run more smoothly. Alem is a Mecca-born novelist who lives in Paris. She’s concerned not with pilgrims, but with the people who call this Saudi city home.

Taken together, the two books offer a stunning panorama: Mecca’s role in world history set against the city’s most intimate smells, secrets, and stories.

Sardar’s Meccan story: Centrality and underdevelopment

mecca: portraits of the city in two recent books

Sardar puts Mecca simultaneously at the center and the margins of his book. Mecca is currently home to just over a million official residents. But this modest population is dwarfed, each year, by the arrival of more than two million pilgrims.

Mecca has never been an important city, Sardar writes. While it’s been a focus of observant Muslim life, Mecca has not been a center of art, science, or governance, at least since Muhammad and his followers left for Medina. Indeed, Mecca was site of pilgrimage even before Muhammad’s time, when the Ka’aba drew Jews and Christians.

Sardar’s Mecca is thus the story of millions of outsiders whose lives touched and were touched by the city. Its status as a center for pilgrims was an ostensible boon for the city. Yet, according to Sardar, this also meant that Mecca developed neither industry nor infrastructure. Instead, it relied on a tourist economy and the sometimes-lavish gifts of princes and caliphs, such as when, in 1324, the emperor of Mali traveled to Mecca with as many as 60,000 fellow pilgrims and brought, “’Some say 100 camels laden with gold, or no camels but 150 kilograms of gold, or 500 slaves carrying 6 pounds of gold each, plus 300 camels with 300 pounds of gold, or 500 slaves each carrying a rod of 2 kilograms of gold.’”

Meccans waited on these boons, and their fortunes rose or fell with them.

Alem’s Meccan story: A city watching a city (watching a city)

mecca: portraits of the city in two recent books

Alem’s novel, co-winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and translated by Katherine Halls and Adam Talib, puts Mecca’s poorest residents at its center.

Alem’s novel is built on the shoulders of classical Arabic works, and notably evokes Ibn Hazm’s eleventh-century treatise on love, also The Dove’s Necklace. Yet it begins not with romance, but with a young woman’s death. We follow a police detective, Nasser, as he tracks down the victim’s and killer’s identities.

But this is not just a love story twined with a murder mystery. Instead, like a great classical Arabic text, it absorbs dozens of genres within its packed walls: love stories, epistles, murders, horrors, thrillers, Nights-esque stories, bildungsromans, and family histories. The stories are packed in as tight as those who live in the place where it’s set, the Lane of Many Heads, one of Mecca’s poorest neighborhoods.

Many of the sub-stories are structured around a story spying on a story. The Lane of Many Heads itself is a character, and it observes the humans within its borders. The Lane observes Detective Nasser, who investigates his case by reading Aisha’s emails and Yusuf’s journal. Aisha and Yusuf, in their writings, further observe the others in the Lane.

Dozens of lives pulse within: There is Khalil, the disgraced pilot-cum-taxi driver; the Turkish seamstress; the immigrants and undocumented residents. Pilgrims appear, but only at the margins. For a while, Yusuf has a job as a pilgrims’ wheelchair-pusher.

There are wonderful Nights-esque stories buried within, as when Aisha emails her German lover about a girl whose father imprisons her in a basement. The girl is not permitted a single masculine object. Instead of sleeping on a bed (sireer), she has to sleep on a feminine chaise lounge. She can’t wear necklaces or earrings, only bracelets. Finally a scissors, a masculine ma’as, falls into the girl’s hands. With this, she is able to dig her way out and even best the prince Harj ibn Marj, who’d never before been defeated in battle.

This tale is echoed by “real” stories, as when Umm al-Sa’d is imprisoned by her brothers and stripped of her inheritance. Although nearly starved to death, Umm al-Sa’d manages to pack the family’s gold jewelry within her cervical cavity, where her brothers daren’t touch it. She’s finally thrown out into the street, almost dead, but is revived at the hospital where medics are shocked at the treasures hidden inside her vagina.

After this rescue, Umm al-Sa’d doesn’t vanquish her brothers in battle, but she does learn how to use the stock market online and increase her wealth. Throughout, Talib and Halls do their best to follow Alem through her wild tangle of stories and wordplay.

Overlapping interests

The two books do have some of the same concerns: the 1979 Mecca massacre, for instance, is present in both. Most importantly, both are angry about the city’s contemporary desecration, the sweeping away of ancient places and construction of skyscrapers—the troubling and corrupt aspects of a for-profit Mecca.

In the end, Sardar’s Mecca is for any reader. It’s an open, accessible, and clear history of an important city. The Dove’s Necklace is not for the faint of heart. The reader enters a dense thicket of stories, some of which seem to end up, frustratingly, nowhere. Yet there are marvels within.

As one of Alem’s characters asks: “None of us knows what it means to live next door to God’s holiest sanctuary, what it requires of us. Are we supposed to celebrate life? Or to fight against it?”

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