Maureen Dowd is not known for tact (she allegedly once wrote that Al Gore was “so feminized…he’s practically lactating”). Which is why her latest column in the NYTimes is such an interesting read. Dowd writes about her disappointment at not being allowed to visit Mecca, to ‘experience the religion’ and ‘understand the complexities of Islam’.
At the same time she seems to come across , as a commentator on the web-page put it, like a fairly large ignoramus: she asks a Saudi minister to let non-Muslims visit Mecca during the ‘off season’ and expresses surprise when she finds out that Abraham built the Kaaba. Her assumption that she could learn more about a religion by being in its cradle seems odd, especially since one hardly goes to the Vatican to learn more about Christianity. She seems flippant about Islamic-Western relationship, and her attitude of entitlement would not do any favours for the reputation of Americans, or journalists, worldover.
I grew up in Saudi Arabia, and there is little reason why anyone should go there to ‘understand the complexities of Islam’. The country is ‘closed’, not only to non-Muslims, but to all non-Arabs. Thousands of expatriates and immigrant workers face all sorts of restrictions from travel to dressing. Picking up some readings, or traveling to any other place with a Muslim population would probably serve her better, perhaps even NYC.
However crassly, Dowd does manage to raise a point about opening places of worship to tourism. Many churches, mosques, synagogues and temples are open to the hordes worldwide. How does this affect people that are actually there to worship? Surely, large tourist groups are a nuisance anywhere the pious are praying. Many places politely ask the tourists to leave at designated prayer times. I confess that I have been a camera-toting nuisance myself, terrorizing priests in their confessional booths with my camera. (after the jump: pic of the priest i terrorised)
For most Muslims, the journey to Mecca is one of a lifetime. People invest a substantial lot, financially and emotionally, to make a pilgrimage here. While I understand the Saudi government not wanting to tarnish the experience of these worshipers, I pity that billions worldwide, including most of my friends, would not be able to experience the sublimity of the place. (Saudi Arabia has a 24 hour TV channel dedicated to broadcasting images from Mecca to the world, but of course that barely matches the experience of being there)
Aside from this there is also the problem of the ability of the city to cope with tourist traffic. I have been to Mecca several times and anyone who has been there would tell you the sheer amounts of people, and the difficulty that the authorities face in dealing with such huge numbers year round. The city is perennially bursting at its seams, with not enough hotels, toilets or restaurants to accommodate the millions of pilgrims that gather there year-round. Finding people sleeping on the street, or inside the grand mosque is not uncommon. At the same time India does organize the Kumbh Mela every few years, itself a mammoth gathering open to tourists, but then again the participatory, open nature of the rituals make it completely different from a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Thought I could use this opportunity to also share some pics of Mecca (Makkah) from my last visit there :