In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj

(The following was written after trips to Mecca in 2004 and 2005 as Reuters correspondent sent to cover hajj)

One of the jewels in the crown of the Saudi-Wahhabi state is its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. When Abdulaziz assumed full sovereignty after his Ikhwan stormed into its cities, he added ‘King of the Hejaz’ to his list of titles. Pilgrim revenue, mainly from the hajj season, became the major domestic source of income for the nascent Saudi state, though the Najd-run entity still relied on foreign handouts to survive.(1) The state took control of pilgrim tour operations as part of the wider process of severing Hejazi autonomy and tying its political and economic life to Riyadh.(2) As the country moved into the era of modern communications then entered the petrodollar era in the 1970s, significantly larger numbers of pilgrims were able to visit, but the hajj they were to experience was a hajj with a very specific Saudi and Wahhabi stamp. Processing the world’s Muslims through Saudi-Wahhabi pilgrimage became a vast industry, a major preoccupation of the state and a key element in its self-legitimising rhetoric. Petrodollars are of vastly greater importance to state and princely finances, but, raking in some $24 billion a year in tourist receipts mainly linked to Mecca and Medina, hajj remains a major earner for Saudi Arabia.(3) It is also a monopolistic practice – there is little Saudi Arabia can do to compete with Shi’ite pilgrimage centres such as Najaf and Kerbala, but Jerusalem, which contains the Al-Aqsa mosque, the site towards which Islamic tradition says the first Muslims turned in prayer, is accorded little significance in Saudi media or Wahhabi religious discourse, whether it was under Jordanian or Israeli control. It is a rival to the prestige and revenue of the Saudi-Wahhabi state.(4) Continue reading In the House of God: A Diary of the Hajj

Little Culture Shocks

My first day in Oxford, I arrived at 2 in the afternoon into Heathrow from Dubai, and got straight onto the express train to Paddington then in 20 minutes on the train to Oxford via a neighbouring platform. Pretty straightforward. But when I arrived, little culture shocks began. I search out a Sainsbury’s inside a shopping centre. The shopping centre is dead though the doors are open. Lights are on in Sainsbury’s as a few people push trolleys around. As I get closer I realize they are staff, and they are smirking at the funny guy reading the sign on the door saying it closed at 6.15 pm. That was me. I walk on down the streets and see a red crosses daubed on walls by decorators inside a shop. It makes me think of the two swords of the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi logos. A man stops on a staircase before completing his way down to a basement. I catch him in the corner of my eye and for a second thought for some reason that he was holding the palms of his hands out in a moment of prayer. With no supermarkets to shop in, I check out the prices in a few Pret-A-Manger type shops before moving on in disgust at the extortionate rates, hiked up even more if you want to sit in. Finally I settle on Burger King. How Gulf is that. And when I’m done, I get up without thinking and head for the door. But I catch myself, embarrassed, as a young bloke on the left notes my confusion, then pick up the tray and shove the paper and plastic remains into the designated bin. Life Further North.

Celebrating ‘Stick Houses’ in Hong Kong

HK walkwayHong Kong is impressive in so many ways. Urban living is taken up an extra notch and the result seems so advanced compared to ‘Old Europe’, as former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once put it – overhead walkways and escalators that take you to various districts as the land rises from Victoria Harbour to the peak above, the sanitised elevator handles in the underground train system, the public transport heading in every direction possible, the smart phones in everyone’s hand, the attention to fashion, the healthy lifestyle because of the proximity of green hills and easy access to the footpaths. The feeling I had in Shanghai two years ago returned, of stepping into the Anti-universe, another Earth that was the same but better. Continue reading Celebrating ‘Stick Houses’ in Hong Kong

Ten Days in Iran

The number of people who said don’t go to Iran was really astounding, even more so now that I’ve been there and back. The country is a pleasant surprise in many respects. It is very clean, very green, very organised. People are friendly but few move over the line into what tourists often consider harrassment. I was intending to book a fixed itinerary with the travel agent through which I got a visa but due to some last minute flight changes the bookings were never made, so I went there free to move as I pleased but nervous that that would expose me to trouble with the authorities. I decided  anyway to stick to the hotels that I had agreed on with the travel agent. I didn’t even have a guide book. At the airport on the way out I got myself a decent camera and a pair of sunglasses but there was no time for more than that in the rush. When I arrived, on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, there was no form to fill out at Shiraz airport and the immigrations officials only poured over the British visitor’s credentials for a few minutes more than the others in the queue. It was all incredibly easy and ad hoc for a country that gives the impression of being closed and unfriendly. Once you are in, it’s anything but. I was concerned though about the fact that I was a journalist, so didn’t want to ask too many questions and take too many photos in non-touristy locations. But part of the point of the trip was to improve my Farsi so I wasn’t going to keep quiet, as some people suggested. Continue reading Ten Days in Iran

From Egypt to India

One of the first things that hit me when I arrived in India for the time – Mumbai in 2005 – was how similar to Egypt it was, or at least this one little part of it seemed so. Mumbai, a city of 18 million, and capital of a state of some 80 million was an Egypt unto itself. But it was the lush greenery with the lethargic humanity swarming everywhere on its streets among the animals, and filled out with omnipresent dust and humidity that did it. Coming out of the airport I felt I was going along one of the Nile irrigation canals near the Pyramids in Cairo. As we headed through those outer suburbs I could have sworn we were about to turn into Messaha Street in Cairo where I lived. India was a “wounded civilization”, as Naipaul had once said, but so too was Egypt. Both were one of the world’s first great civilizations, though its Indus culture which was contemporaneous with the rise Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia and Pharaonic Egypt on the Nile had subsequently “disappeared”, historians say, though perhaps it merely was absorbed into Aryan civilization of north India when the Aryan tribes moved in to establish the culture that today we call Indian. Continue reading From Egypt to India