Paris Hilton in MeccaPosted: November 27, 2012
For years now, people have been complaining about how the Saudi government is ruining Mecca with its obnoxious renovations. Thanks to runaway consumerism, the ancient city is overrun with luxury hotels, an awful clock-tower looming over the Ka’ba, and numerous malls and public toilets where holy sites used to be. The latest news is that Paris Hilton’s fashion empire has opened up a store in Mecca, and Muslims worldwide are again disgusted at the apparent poisoning of our holy city.
There are plenty of reasons to despise the Saudi custodianship of Mecca. Their ruling brand of extreme Sunnism, enforced by police squads of skinny teenagers in khaki uniforms, oppresses any Islamic traditions that fall outside its approval, including not only Shi’a but in fact many Sunni practices. The holy city isn’t a bastion of gender equality, and the ongoing development has only exacerbated its economic inequality. For poor pilgrims who have saved their entire lives to make hajj, it’s impossible to find accommodations anywhere close to the Great Mosque.
I’m all for the struggle to make Mecca a truly holy city of peace and justice; this fight matches the struggle of hajj, our own efforts to perfect our character and do better in the world. My problem is when people frame their opposition to the present Saudi version of Mecca as a call to restore a more just past, a return to an imaginary innocence that Mecca supposedly lost in the 20th century.
I’m sorry, but that innocence never existed. Apart from the Ka’ba, Mecca is just another city. The people of Mecca—the pilgrims, the authorities, and the regular folks who just live there—have never been anything other than people. Whatever rottenness you can find elsewhere in the world exists in Mecca, and it’s not a Wahhabi invention. Long before Islam and throughout Islam’s history, Mecca has always been a host to unjust power, poverty, greed, racism, sexism, and intolerance. Paris Hilton doesn’t bring anything new to the city.
I’m not saying this to dump on Islam. For me, the fully human shit of Mecca is the whole value of hajj. Before I went on hajj in 2008, the most valuable advice that I heard was to remember that no matter how awful people in Mecca might be to me, they were far worse to the Prophet. In the city where people literally heaped camel intestines on Muhammad’s head, how can I cry about its lost innocence now that it has a Burger King?
I tried to stay mindful when I came in contact with all of Mecca’s assholes. I had to deal with the religion police barking at me about my improper practice, other pilgrims telling me that I was going to Hell for my heretical innovations, and folks shoving and trampling me during ritual acts. I encountered Arab supremacists who thought they owned Islam as a racial birthright, arrogant rich people, and regular selfish assholes who were the same as the selfish assholes you’d meet at any other tourist trap.
But the biggest asshole of all in Mecca was me, and I learned this at every step of the way. I was an asshole for my lack of patience, my irritability, my own prejudices, and my arrogance about what makes “good” religion. I failed again and again to deal justly with the difficult people around me. Fortunately, my reactions to the assholes I was surrounded by taught me a lot about myself.
One meaning for the Arabic root of hajj is “to overcome.” Hajj serves as a struggle against the self, and I found plenty of opportunities during my hajj to see just how deep that struggle can get. I do believe that Mecca can be better, and that Muslims should strive to make it better; but it’s that unending struggle that makes hajj what it is.
I came to Mecca from an American city that is not perfect. Like Mecca, it’s thoroughly human and thus full of assholes. When Muslims from that city complain about Paris Hilton opening a store in Mecca, I wonder about the content of their daily lives: the shows that they watch, the songs on their iPods, the stores where they shop, the restaurants where they eat, the activity on their Facebook walls. How pure are their local cultures that they can worry about the purity of a city that they see maybe once before they’re dead?
When pilgrims wish for Mecca to have an innocence that cannot exist in their real lives, they might be missing something. If you seek a magical time in which you find total peace and momentarily escape the ugly shit of this world, forget hajj, because what you want is a vacation. Seriously, go on a cruise. Or stay home and spend your money on weed, because the experience that you’re really after is closer to just getting baked for three weeks.
Hajj as it actually happens, with millions of flawed human beings smashing into each other, is a confrontation with nasty reality; Otherwise, you don’t overcome anything. Be thankful that the holy city is run by intolerant, greedy pricks, because they’ll hold up a perfect mirror to your own self and give you a worthy adversary. We measure ourselves by what we do with the Mecca that they give us, the Mecca that we give ourselves. Welcome to Mecca, Paris. You belong here.
‘Paris Hilton in Mecca’ was reprinted by permission of the author and originally appeared on the site VICE.
Michael Muhammad Knight (@MM_Knight)) is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel, The Taqwacores, and his Hajj narrative, Journey to the End of Islam. His work has been translated into multiple languages and taught in numerous college and university courses. He earned an MTS (Master of Theological Studies) degree from Harvard University, and is presently a PhD student in Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.