The legitimacy of the Saudi Arabian Kingdom does not depend only on its oil reserves and alliance with orthodox Islam. Saudis are also the revered protectors of Mecca, the birth place of Islam and Muhammad the Prophet. At the symbolic center of the city stands Kaaba, an ancient structure which must be visited at least once by all Muslims who are physically and financially able to do so. This pilgrimage is known as the Hajj. Unlike Umrah which can be performed at any time during the year, the Hajj is a pilgrimage which only takes place during designated holy days. The journey to Mecca requires utmost modesty, spiritual purity, and peace of mind. The descent of millions of Muslims upon Mecca makes for a spectacular event. It also creates a managerial nightmare and lucrative business opportunity. In 2014, a Saudi economist predicted that the Kingdom would make $8.5 billion from the Hajj alone, and a combined $18.6 billion from all visits to the city. According to the Arab News,
Revenues are poised to exceed $150 billion by 2022 in light of the expected mergers of economic blocs and groupings to meet the growing demand on Hajj and Umrah economics in terms of transport, commercial stores and expansion in small, medium enterprises.
These earnings would essentially double the state’s annual revenue which, including the oil industry, is now about $150 billion. However, these numbers also represent the pressure placed onto ordinary Saudis from Mecca.
Ahmed Mater: Mecca Journeys at the Brooklyn Museum is an exhibition based on Ahmed Mater‘s book titled Desert of Pharan: Unofficial Histories behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, and examines the confrontation between the authentic and imagined Mecca, and of pilgrims with the tourism industry. Mater, who is also a physician addressing the mental consequences of living in urban centers, in the exhibition signage is quoted saying he was “compelled to document the rapidly disintegrating and soon-to-be-lost narratives” of the city. For over a decade, he has taken photographs and videos to juxtapose his visits to Mecca with the visits of the pilgrims, and the lives of the natives. “As I returned again and again,” he explains, “repeatedly taking the same road from Jeddah to Mecca, the journey was always to a site simultaneously shared and exclusive, collectively known yet with an increasingly remote and inaccessible history.” According to Mater, most Muslims “have a strong emotional attachment to this place … highly personal bonds shaped by collective consciousness and individual experience.” But its religious significance generates a perplexing view of Mecca. The city is understood as an eternal center, a place that does not change throughout history. Mater again says:
It is rarely perceived as a living city … yet inhabitants and all they entail are an inevitable and swelling reality; for centuries, pilgrims of all backgrounds and statuses have arrived here and never left.
So, Mater focuses his camera not at Kaaba, but at the relentless state-sponsored urban transformation. His photographs search for an ordinary city and its citizens against a background of redevelopment. A site he regularly returns to is the Abraj Al-Bait luxury complex and its Makkah Royal Clock Tower, the world’s third tallest building. The clock tower and complex were built to accommodate the wealthy, and both overshadow Kaaba in every aspect. Constructed on top of the archeological ruins of old Mecca, which were unapologetically destroyed to accommodate the buildings, they dwarf Kaaba in its modesty. They operate in an ethically absurd context. There is an upscale shopping mall here, and hotel rooms which cost up to $3000 per night. “The divisions that luxury hotels impose is anathema within the context of the dignified, fundamental, leveling principles that are the very basis of Hajj,” states Mater. “The core tenets of Islam, eloquently articulated by the rituals of the Hajj and protected since the days of the Prophet, were never meant to compete with super luxurious hotels or brand names.”
In his video King Kong (2013), Mater records the Clock Tower from a helicopter, witnessing its incredible magnitude in the arid Meccan geography. In another video titled Leaves Fall in All Seasons (2013), he constructs a narrative from footage taken by the laborers who built the complex. He depicts not only their pride to have taken part in the project, but also their grievances, such as late payments, awful living conditions, as well as the strikes they carried out. The video concludes with a sequence of demolitions of newly built apartment blocks, which were cleared to make way for further upscale development. Also filmed by the laborers themselves, this sequence appears to erase the meaning of their own work. Mater also showcases a large collection of colorful window frames which he salvaged from demolitions. They are an homage to what he imagines existed before, but was erased. Like the Hajj itself, Mater’s exhibition is a unique experience. It is a journey into a Mecca of spiritual and financial wisdom, modest and luxurious life styles, and sacred and profane experiences.