by Rabia Ashfaque
February 6, 2018
Like most people in Muslim households, I grew up looking at images of the Hajj. I watched this annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca during Riz Khan’s historic coverage of the event on CNN in 1998, and have sat through yearly viewings of sepia-tinted Polaroids and silver gelatin prints of family and friends standing in front of the Ka’aba, the black, cuboid building in the center of Islam’s most sacred mosque. These images came with narratives of the event that always conveyed the kind of inexplicable awe that seemed unique to each individual’s religious experience yet universally interconnected in reverence.
I found myself remembering these images as I watched the powerfully hypnotic Road to Mecca I (2017), a two-channel video at the center of Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys at the Brooklyn Museum. Though I have never been to Mecca, Mater’s work appeared all too familiar as an encapsulated view of the social, political, and religious amalgam that is the Hajj: an event that draws millions of Muslims during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah (or Zulhijja). The 4 minute, 19 second video records a car journey through Jeddah, en route to the holy city. The film winds through desert landscapes dotted with billboards advertising Umrah and Hajj travel packages and cautionary public service messages such as “Speed kills. Keep it online” before approaching checkpoints that lead to two separate roads: one exclusive to Muslims, and the other for everyone else. Archival footage of people making these journeys on camels and horses since the 7th Century CE is layered with more recent video clips showing cars and buses filled with pilgrims travelling past construction sites and sand dunes. Religious symbolism is everywhere on this journey. A building on the way to Mecca identified as the “Chief Office of Research and Fatwa1,” and people offering prayers on the street close to their businesses indicate that faith is an integral part of daily life here. As evening approaches, one sees a faceless crowd ebb and flow by the majestic Mecca Royal Clock Tower, and hears sirens blaring as ambulances and patrol cars break the otherwise endless stretch of people who seem to walk to the beat of drums playing in the background (and seen in the accompanying Road to Mecca II (2017), which shows ceremonial drummers performing at a traditional wedding).
“When my grandfathers spoke to me as a child about their experiences of the Hajj, they told me of the physical attraction they felt toward the Ka‘aba—how they felt drawn to it by an almost magnetic pull,” Mater writes in the accompanying wall-text to his installation Magnetism(2012), which explores the indescribable allure of the Ka’aba for Muslims via an experiment that uses thousands of iron filings placed within the force field of two magnets (only one of which can be seen). The filings draw together to form a circle around the magnets in an eerily accurate depiction of the faceless crowds surrounding the Ka’aba, reduced to specks when seen from above. “In Magnetism, I was playing with a bird’s-eye perspective,” the artist explains. “The diorama is a way of considering the city as it exists in its symbolic form. It is as if scale were the means to zoom in and out, to acknowledge the tensions of multiple Meccas.”
Other works in the exhibition explore these same “tensions of multiple Meccas” by chipping away at the surface of the city to make visible the dichotomy within. His photograph Room with a View (2013) depicts a luxurious hotel room looking over the Grand Mosque (Masjid al Haram). Foundation for the New Tower (2015/2017) captures a city literally divided by a gaping construction pit, with high rises to its right, and older, diverse immigrant settlements to its left slowly being erased to construct a shiny, new city. Mater’s exploration of the confluence of tradition and modernity in Mecca—the holiest religious site and heartland of Islam—comes at a conflicted time for Saudi Arabia. The nation has recently made international headlines for its monarchy’s ostensible progressiveness (mostly in the eyes of the Western world, with whom it engages in an oil-for-weapons relationship) by allowing women to drive, by opening doors for tourists and its stock market for investors, by lifting the ban on cinemas, and supporting the arts to promote a more à la mode image of itself. All the while, it continues to enforce increasingly repressive (Wahabi) religious decrees on the global Muslim population, exercises its clout by manipulating governments of weak Arab and Asian countries to back its policies, lest they lose monetary support or face a labor crisis. (Unable to sustain their families on local wages, many South Asian laborers, for instance, find work in Saudi Arabia). In addition, the nation passes on the economic brunt of its declining oil trade to the Muslim world by inflating prices for pilgrimage, and backs war in countries whose leadership poses a threat to Saudi supremacy.
Mater takes on some of these issues, such as the plight of Muslim laborers from all over the world that he finds employed for the construction projects surrounding the Clock Tower, in the 19 minute video Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2013). The film focuses on the struggle of the laborers who “adapt to their limited means, composing life from the little made available to them to form communal spaces where shops, restaurants, mosques, and other necessities can be found,” as per the wall text. Broken into four “seasons,” the video shows a laborer named Jibreel (who shares his name with the archangel Gabriel) overseeing the installation of a golden crescent on top of the Clock Tower. Mater describes the heroic moment: “he makes his heavenly ascent astride the great golden crescent moon, he comes to represent the millions of workers who have found themselves between two realities: resident in the most holy city of Islam, yet also living in extremely challenging conditions.” These two realities are always part of Mater’s narratives, shown in his images, and elaborated in his wall texts, which offer vital context to images that are otherwise in danger of presenting incomplete, and sometimes misleading, pictures. Mater is a doctor-turned-artist, and narrates the stories with the compassion of his medical training shining through. His writings are sometimes nostalgic, sometimes pragmatic, always empathetic, and humanize familiar images of Mecca, the likes of which have been seen so often in a religious context, that they have all but lost the ability to be seen in any other way.
Settlement (2015/2017), offers another, less common image to the popular narrative of Mecca. Writes Mater: “the Burmawi district is home to Burmese Muslims from the Rohingya community of Myanmar. They are the largest population of refugees in Mecca. Burmese refugees have lived in the Kingdom for more than seventy years, and some have received residency cards, but many still live in illegal settlements that are threatened with demolition as part of the expansion of the Grand Mosque.” This image of Mecca, revealing its struggling, threatened and hidden people, is captured with sensitivity and presented with dignity by Mater, who offers a timely contemplation of the plight of displaced communities that form a nation’s minority. Hiding in plain sight, ignored or condemned by the majority, whether in the US, Myanmar or Saudi Arabia, these people, who are the real faces of community, force us to confront our own humanity.
1. A fatwa is a legal opinion that is given by a mufti (expert on Islamic law) pertaining to issues in which the existing jurisprudence is unclear.