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Hajj: Journeys to Britain

Jabal al-Rahma (The Mount of Mercy) at Arafat, photo by Reem al Faisal
 Jabal al-Rahma (The Mount of Mercy) at Arafat, photo by Reem al Faisal
Jabal al-Rahma (The Mount of Mercy) at Arafat, photo by Reem al Faisal

Walking around the exhibition for the first time, one is intensely conscious of the inward, contemplative atmosphere evoked of the Hajj and also of the solemn respect of other viewers. The venue is the old British Library with its glorious domed ceiling, and one approaches the main part of it by circumambulation of a long corridor with subdued lighting, gently resonating, evocative sounds and large photographs of pilgrims approaching their goal on one side.

Speaking to The Majalla, Venetia Porter curator of Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, and also Curator of Islamic and Modern Middle Eastern Art at the British Museum says, “It was vital to convey the atmosphere of this profoundly spiritual journey – the Fifth Pillar of Islam. It’s difficult to do this with a collection of objects—so we included the sounds that evoke pilgrims arriving in Mecca: the Talbiya and their words not only on arrival, but when they see the Ka’ba for the first time and say, ‘I am here, I am here, God.’”

Silk vest made from the internal kiswa of the Ka ba, Malay peninsula, late 19th c.
Silk vest made from the internal kiswa of the Ka ba, Malay peninsula, late 19th c.

The first ever major exhibition dedicated to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca central to the Muslim faith, is now on at the British Museum until 15th April 2012. But no doubt visitors from all over the UK and the globe will travel to experience this event, just as Muslim pilgrims aim to journey to Mecca to perform Hajj at least once in their lives. Three key strands emerge in the exhibition. The first theme is the journey on the major routes across time from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Second, Mecca itself, its origins and importance as the destination of Hajj. Lastly, the experience of Hajj today is evoked, with its associated rituals and what they mean to the pilgrim.

Reem Al-Faisal, a Hajj photographer whose work is on display in the exhibition, recently wrote, “It is difficult to capture the Hajj in text or visually since the Hajj is larger than any possible description. No book or photograph can ever give the Hajj its due. Even those who perform the Hajj can never fully comprehend it.”

It helps that the exhibition, mounted in partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, consists of a wealth of objects, including historic pieces as well as new contemporary art. It has been brought together from different key collections, including the British Museum and the British Library, the Khalili collection, and from sources in Saudi Arabia.

Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor explains the importance of these objects, whose impact is enriched by images, films and sounds: “These help to tell the story of that spiritual journey and to convey the intensity of their collective but also very private act of faith.” So what is the relevance of this exhibition to the rest of the world? “Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam,” writes MacGregor, “But it is the only one that non-Muslims can neither observe nor take part in.” He adds “It is important therefore to find other ways to explore that experience and to understand what it means to Muslims now, and what it has meant through the centuries.’’

Porter comments on the significance of the inclusion of the photography, painting and sculpture of contemporary artists, which she says “personalise the history, allowing us to glimpse the experience through individuals, deepen our understanding and see how art has been used in the service of Islam.”

She states, “We are at a time when unfortunately Islam gets bad press—all most people know is what they hear in the news. Of course there are militant aspects of it, but basically that’s in the minority, though it casts a pall on the way that people think about Islam. This show should enhance understanding and respect. Hajj is so important to Muslims that if you begin to understand it, then you will deepen your understanding of Islam. I hope that’s what it will do.”

One of the contemporary art works on display depicts a road sign on the way to Mecca, with one route for ‘Muslims Only,’ the other for ‘Non-Muslims,’ who have not been permitted into Mecca or Medina since the beginning of the Islamic era. Commenting on whether non-Muslims can really understand what happens at Hajj or enter into its experience Porter says, “Well, we can’t go, and we should be respectful about that—if they feel more comfortable just being surrounded by fellow Muslims, I think that’s fair enough. It would become touristic and hugely distracting otherwise.”

Porter immersed herself for two and a half years in preparing this exhibition. “It took me a long time to study and understand the incredibly complex rituals, each of which has a very particular meaning and resonance. So we have included afilm intended to introduce the viewer to the set of rituals,” she says. The film invites everyone to see the steps of the pilgrim’s progress through Medina and then Mecca and beyond over the course of several days.

Magnetism by Ahmed Mater Al Ziad 2011
Magnetism by Ahmed Mater Al Ziad 2011

In addition to sounds conveying atmosphere, the experience is heightened by old films and posters, quotes on the walls from pilgrims, their poignant stories about their long, arduous journeys. At last they see the Ka’ba covered in fabulous textiles—magnificent examples of which we, the modern pilgrims, now admire. Voices and films of UK Muslims who have performed Hajj both in the past and today also contribute to the atmospheric experience.

“On average 15,000 pilgrims from the UK go on Hajj every year, and we needed to hear their story,” Porter adds. “You hear their voices talking about the fact that all their lives they’ve faced Mecca in their prayers, but nothing prepares them for actually being there—the experience that they are surrounded by other Muslims and everybody is the same—rich or poor, from China or Africa.”

This is not just an exhibition about the past. In playing up the contemporary experience of Hajj, the exhibition is very current.  Porter says, “When you compare the writings of early pilgrims with those of today, it is clear that although the method of travelling and Mecca itself may have changed over time, the act of pilgrimage—that need to touch the holy place—is the same. The reactions to seeing the Ka’ba for the first time have not changed at all. It’s an experience in which every year more and more people make that journey.”

Indeed, the inclusion of new contemporary art is fundamental to the ‘now factor’ of the exhibition. Porter adds, “We chose to show works about the Ka’ba, because I wanted to keep things very focused, which they are. They are also very black and white, which was accidental. I wanted a few key works, six in all, which illustrate vital points.”

Among these contemporary pieces is the dramatic and dynamic Black Cube 11 by Algerian-born Kadar Attia. Another artist, Shadia Alam, was born in Mecca. Her family have been involved with the care of the sanctuary and the Hajj for generations. She creates a glittering, radiant sculpture she calls A Stone from Heaven, which she describes as “a stone touched and kissed by millions through the ages, believed to enhance memory and learning ability.” In the British Museum’s Great Court is a mesmerising sculptural installation by British artist Idris Khan entitled Seven Times, with prayers sand-blasted into 144 steel blocks. The ritual of circling the Ka’ba inspired this work. “If you have ever watched footage of people walking round the Ka’ba seven times and stopping, it’s a truly beautiful thing,” he says.

19th century Mahmal from Cairo lent by Nasser D.Khalili Collection of Islamic Art
19th century Mahmal from Cairo lent by Nasser D.Khalili Collection of Islamic Art

A leading figure in the Black Muslim movement in America, Malcolm X, went on the Hajj in 1964. When asked what had impressed him most about the experience, he replied, “The brotherhood, the people of all races, colours, from all over the world coming together as one. It has proved to me the powers of the one God.” Ayman Yossri celebrates this spirit of Muslim unity in a manipulated photograph of a line of pilgrims in white apparently crossing a desert, a scene taken from a film about Malcolm X, which Yossri has entitled We Were All Brothers.

One of the stars in the Hajj exhibition is a magnificent embroidered Egyptian Mahmal, a covered litter borne by a camel, whose annual arrival in a splendid procession in Mecca was a major event. The physical reality of performing Hajj has obviously changed over the centuries. In the past, the journey was often extremely arduous. Some pilgrims did not even expect to return, carrying their shrouds with them, and thoughtfully divorcing their wives before departure. Dangers on the journey were manifold and pilgrims came against Bedouin banditry, plague, flash flooding, and the searing heat of summer.

Today every pilgrim flies to Saudi Arabia, and is transported to Medina in an air-conditioned coach, which inevitably must alter the experience of the pilgrim from that of the past.  But as Venetia Porter comments, “Nowadays, people say that discomfort comes from being surrounded by millions of people, which is taxing in July or August. Even though it’s so much easier today, the spiritual experience doesn’t seem to change.”

She adds, “Every single object in the show, whether it was a Thomas Cook ship ticket or the contemporary art, is pulling you into the focus of the Hajj. Some of the modern works are intended to make you contemplate what you will take away from it. In Idris Khan’s work You & Only, there is a series of stamped words, like ‘What do I do now?’”

One photograph is of a tent camp at night by Reem Al-Faisal, who, when performing the rituals says she “slowly discovered the rhythm of the universe.” In the stark simplicity of black and white, she records pilgrims quietly seated by themselves, or in small groups. The impression of the image is tranquil and meditative. Above the pilgrims are bright stars shining in the night sky. She says, “Even though the Hajj is a collective event, it is also a very personal one, for each of us finds the Hajj we came looking for.”

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Juliet Highet
Juliet Highet is a writer, photographer, editor and curator who specializes in Middle Eastern heritage and contemporary culture. She is currently working on her second book, Design Oman, having published her first book, FRANKINCENSE: Oman’s Gift to the World, in 2006.

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