In 1853 Richard Burton, a British orientalist and explorer, disguised himself as a Persian merchant and visited the Islamic holy city of Mecca. For Burton, the stakes were high: not only was the journey itself extremely dangerous (his caravan was attacked by bandits) but the punishment for non-Muslims entering the holy city was death.
Over the last two centuries things have calmed down significantly: there are drive-through KFC and Taco Bell restaurants on the way to the city, and the chance of dying in a car accident is much greater than being the victim of banditry. However, the penalty for trespassing remains harsh: arrest, imprisonment, and deportation. Despite this, in January of 2020 I decided to visit Mecca. This is my journal.
لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا ٱللَّٰهُ
مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱللَّٰهِ
There is no god but God
Muhammad is the prophet of God
Preface: Lisbon: the worst city I’ve ever visited: old, dreary, a heavy atmosphere that weighs down on you like sticky sap hardening into amber, a place that was the center of the world – 500 years ago – a long fall from a high zenith, a wax-clad culture that’s being reduced to night clubs, expensive boutique stores, haute cuisine… I can’t describe how much I hate it. Islam, on the other hand, had a rise, a fall, and is rising again… there’s something about the desert that’s eternal, transcendent, full of life… I would smash The Pietà (again) if I had the chance…
Two flights later and two splendid weeks in Khartoum… There are pyramids here too, and endless sand, minarets. There’s no international banking in Sudan, so I rush to re-activate my debit card as the shuttle rumbles down the tarmac. The flight from Khartoum is short and uneventful. I nod off for a few minutes even though it’s the afternoon.
Abha International Airport is modern, relaxed. Gender segregation is immediately apparent: there are separate immigration lines for men and women. The e-Visas that we’ve purchased online are still uncommon, and the immigration officials take pictures of our documents on their cellphones and hand-write visa numbers in our passports:
١ ٤ ٧ ٧ ٣ ٥ ٥
The only exception to the airport’s clean, boring austerity are the colorful, glitzy fast-food restaurants. We avoid them and walk to the airport hotel. There are no sidewalks. Cars almost hit us. The legends of Saudi Arabia’s deadly drivers might be true – bumper cars at 200 km/h – so we walk with a stark awareness of potential doom.
Awful hotel: no wifi, broken heater, no hot water. Who would have thought that Saudi Arabia would be so cold? Stereotypes I’ve built up during years of anticipation are slowly crumbling… Is this what Bedouin life was like?
I do yoga the next morning while Eason goes to pick up our car. All religions besides Islam are banned in the Kingdom – does practicing yoga violate some law? Saudi Arabia is ruled by sharia. The judgements of Islamic scholars form a body of law called fiqh written in a language I don’t understand by people from a culture I’m not familiar with… If I was the kind of person who spent time worrying about important things, I’d be concerned about my existence in a place with inaccessible and unknowable rules… but I’m not.
We drive East to Nejran. We try to get gas. Two teenagers in a beaten-up pickup truck pull up next to us at the pump. Where are you from? the driver asks. America. Do you know what to do in Nejran? No, we don’t. Go and visit [incomprehensible], the tallest point in Saudi Arabia. Thanks! Eason asks them how to get gas. The red/green distinction is clarified: red is diesel, green is petrol. We’re at the wrong station. The kids wish us good luck; the less-English-fluent passenger says I love you as they depart – I’m not certain how much of that statement was lost in translation.
All businesses shut down during the five daily calls to prayer. We have only three minutes to get to a green station before the noon prayer. We don’t make it. I hear the muezzin calling from a nearby minaret, beckoing the faithful to visit the nearest mosque.
Eason waits in the car at the green gas station while I scramble up a scraggly escarpment to get a view of the Nejran valley. I sneak off behind some boulders to take a piss, painfully aware that being caught with my genitals out in Saudi Arabia is probably punishable by some kind of torture.
Prayer ends, we fill up.
Fast food is omnipresent. We avoid it. I’m an extremely picky eater when traveling. The Danube Hypermarket might be worthwhile:
- Bud “NA” (Non-Alcohic green apple Bud Light) - disgusting.
- Olives - the same as anywhere else.
- Cheese - good.
- Grape leaf wraps - really good.
- Pita - excellent.
We Google the tallest mountain in Saudi Arabia and drive to it. On the way we purchase camping gear (more on that later). Curtains of thick fog pass in front of us as we ascend. Condensation collects on the windows. This is not the scorching desert I’d imagined.
At the top we’re confronted with a gate and a guard who refuses us entry: stern shake of the head. Nearby are abandoned stalls, a parking lot, and flyers, like a neglected amusement park. We are close enough. Our efforts are rewarded by an encounter with cats, dogs and – to our surprise – a family of monkeys. There will be many more monkeys on our drive down to the coastal plain (and we’ll see them again in the highlands around Taif).
Beautiful scenery that challenges Yosemite. Is every tall, breathtaking mountain view in the world the same? Is the experience of staring across the Saudi highlands reproducible anywhere? Or is this experience in some way unique?
Eason almost gets us killed by not checking his mirrors when changing lanes. The angry driver tails us, but I gesture apologetically at him and he gives up the chase. We pull over and let him pass us. It’s my turn to do the driving.
The Red Sea
We approach the coastal plain. The rise of the land prevents us from seeing the Red Sea, but Google Maps promises that it’s just beyond the horizon. Extremely hot and sticky. My glasses fog up the moment I leave the car.
I spend the first of my Saudi riyals on water and coconut chocolates at a small market. We continue north, scouting for campsites. Traffic on the coastal highway is not heavy. The landscape has transformed into something from the Arabian Nights: camels, palm trees, illusory oases on the horizon.
There’s a tall stone wall on our left as we drive north – this wall separates us from the dunes that stretch out to the sea. We drive until we find a place where a sandbank has created a ramp to the top of the wall. I rush out of the car and scamper up the wall. The sea is distant and difficult to make out – the sun is only a couple palm-widths above it. Between the wall and the ocean are a mile of sand dunes, scattered shrubs, and rain-wet depressions: an enormous, empty sandbox. This is the perfect campsite.
We scout a location. I run back to the car and grab most of the gear.
That night we see the entirety of the Milky Way. Most of the named stars have Arabic names – rigel: Orion’s left foot; betelgeuse: his armpit; aldebaran: in Taurus, a follower of the Plieades; deneb: the head of the northern cross. Light pollution from the highway is minimal. We feast on olives and stale pita bread.
It’s New Years Eve. I tether my computer to my cell phone and purchase an Indian visa that I’ll use in a few days, assuming that we don’t get arrested or imprisoned. However, I have a long history of successful trespassing, so I’m not too worried…
Sleeping on the beach was surprisingly pleasant. Sand somehow entered the tent and is encrusting my body. It’s getting light out and the morning breeze is whistling through the dunes. Mosquitoes have devoured my feet.
The car is stuck in the sand where we pulled off the road. Eason guns the engine while I push. The car dislodges, though it’s unclear whether it was actually stuck or if the parking brake was engaged the whole time. Even early in the morning, this small amount of effort drenches me in sweat: The Red Sea is a small finger of ocean between the Sahara and Arabian Deserts, baking in the sun and pouring out humidity. It’s time to head towards Mecca.
THE ABODE OF GOD
We drive north on the coastal plane. Vegetation becomes scarcer, as do cars, people, and villages. The horizons melt into a uniform ocean of sand. A sandstorm blows across the highway briefly, but it’s not dense enough to force us to stop. Sand is the word: it’s omnipresent. I wrap the keffiyeh I bought in Sudan around my head and hope I won’t get a sunburn while driving.
We take the fork in the road towards Mecca. We pass abandoned buildings. Inside an empty mosque is a pile of rotting Korans, the pages marking the passage of time as they slowly become unstuck and fall to the earth.
God is not circumspect
when speaking to his elect
A sign points the way towards the haram, an Arabic word which literally means forbidden. Things can be haram (like alcohol), but so can places. The holy city is protected by gates of haram to ensure purity, to keep non-believers out. We will soon test them. Another sign reminds us that the coming road is off-limits to non-Muslims.
The terrian becomes sharp. Brown naked mountains rise on every side of us, like we’re being swallowed up by an enormous mouth. The temperature drops. There’s an ominous silence outside the car. The gates of haram are adjacent to checkpoints where non-Muslims are turned away. We decide to drive through a checkpoint but aren’t detected – the guard doesn’t even look at us. We pass through the haram boundary… and decide to turn back, taking a longer, safer route to Taif where we check into a hotel and prepare for the next morning.
We’re almost completely unprepared to visit Mecca. Besides its general geographic location, we don’t know anything about what to expect. Both of us have a learn as you go approach to traveling, so it’s time to do some research.
A Google search tells us that Muslims perform many rituals before visiting Mecca for the Hajj (yearly pilgrimage) or Umrah (lesser pilgrimage). The Umrah can be performed any time of the year and is less of a commitment than the Hajj: it can be be completed in just a few hours.
I memorize the shahada or Muslim declaration of faith in case I’m asked to profess my belief. Eason struggles. We write down prayers and do research until late in the evening.
I tell the hotel staff that I’ve recently converted to Islam (a white lie) and will be performing the Umrah the next day, testing the reception I’ll recieve, and am recieved warmly. Rather than being treated with skepticism, which was my concern, I’m given advice – mash’allah.
I’m more excited than worried, but I can tell Eason is still a bit on edge.
مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ
The next morning we enter the ritual state of purity called ihram by shaving our armpits and omitting deoderant. Islamic clerics have differences of opinion about what is required to enter ihram, but the agreed-upon items are:
- wearing simple white robes
- wearing sandals without ankle coverings
- shaving the armpits
- going without perfume or cologne
- abstaining from sex
I was told by the hotel staff last night that I need to stop at a miqat – a pilgrim waystation – in order to buy white ihram robes. At the miqat additional rituals need to be performed, but we decided that it would be safer to simply buy the robes and head out undetected: loitering too long at the miqat would only increase our chances of being recognized as infidels.
Another example of Saudi Arabia’s unique take on modernity: the miqat is perched on a small plateau overlooking an amusement park.
Eason parks and I dash across the parking lot to buy the robes, sandals, and belt that are required as part of our ihram clothing. In the pilgrimage market a South Asian man, possibly not even a Muslim, runs the shop. The sacred task of dispensing pilgrimage clothing is reduced to something less-than-holy when the merchant offers me a special discount – I wasn’t prepared to haggle.
We drive a few miles, argue about the best place to change, and I bully Eason into stopping at an abandoned stable, where we sneak inside, get naked, and emerge as fully-clad pilgrims.
We drive past the first (and, as it turns out, only) checkpoint on our way to Mecca. Again, we aren’t noticed. The haram gates rise ominously on either side of the road.
There is no god but God. Muhammad is the Prophet of God.
The roads close to Mecca are confusing. We try to drive to a hotel parking lot but get off the highway too early. We’re stuck behind traffic in a narrow alleyway for fifteen minutes. Mecca’s enormous quantity of foot traffic makes navigation difficult. Pilgrims from every corner of the world – both men and women dressed in the same white ihram clothes – clog the streets. This is the only place for thousands of miles where gender differences are erased: all are equal before God.
The tension increases as we struggle to get back onto the highway.
Aside: The Kaaba (House of God). A place for angels to worship God before the creation of man… Destroyed in Noah’s flood, it was rebuilt as a place of worship and pilgrimage for the patriarchs. Lost again, it was rebuilt by Abraham at the direction of God. While building the structure an angel brought him a black stone which he placed in the East corner of the temple… As the ages passed it was converted to a place of worship for idolaters. Ptolemy might have made reference to the Kaaba in his histories… Muhammad brought the idols out of the House of God, restoring it to its original purpose as a site of monotheistic religion. After initially establishing Jerusalem as the qibla (direction of prayer), Muhammad was given a revelation that The Kaaba was God’s abode, and the correct site of worship…
We circle closer and closer to the Masjid al-Haram in a tightening spiral until we leave the highway again and try to navigate the treacherous streets. We try to enter a garage but are informed that it’s all filled up.
People are surrounding the car, marching towards the Masjid al-Haram, the world’s largest mosque, built in an irregular donut shape to surround the house of God.
Eventually I decide to ignore our confused GPS and drive up an incline behind some apartment buildings. We quickly find parking and descend the hill into the crowd of pilgrims.
We are much taller, paler, and possibly more nervous-looking than the other pilgrims. But Islam isn’t a religion tied to a particular geographic location or ethnic group: people of all shapes and sizes are present.
There’s no point looking at a map: we follow the surge of bodies down to the mosque’s entrance. A large plaza opens up before us: minarets, tens of thousands of pilgrims. We stop at a fountain outside the mosque’s entrance and drink water pumped up from the Zamzam Well.
It’s quiet inside despite the huge number of people. We march forward through the mosque until we see the Kaaba peeking through a sea of arches.
We descend a flight of stairs and are face-to-face with the Kaaba. Eason is extremely nervous, but I feel anonymous in the crowd and begin snapping photos, encouraged by the sight of others taking selfies and Facetiming their friends. We begin our counterclockwise circumambulation of the black, cloth-covered cube. I pass the Zamzam well (which Muhammad re-discovered early in his prophethood) and circle closer to the cube.
!الله أكبر! الله أكبر! الله أكبر
God is great! God is great! God is great!
People have locked their arms together in a tight circle that rings the Kaaba: they want to be first in line for the noon prayer, which will happen shortly. I see women fighting to kiss the black stone. I try to push my way through the wall of pilgrims so that I can kiss the stone or touch the cube, but everyone refuses to budge, fearful of losing their opportunity (possibly the only one they’ll have in their entire lifetime) of praying so close to the abode of God.
The noon prayer is quickly approaching. Being non-Muslims and having no idea how to pray, it’s imperative that we get the hell out of there before the prayer starts and our cover is blown. The peristalsis of thousands of bodies pushes me back into my counter-cloclwise orbit. I circle the Kaaba again, hoping against hope for some gap in the wall of people to emerge, but none appears. Muslims are required to make seven circumalbulations of the Kaaba, but I stop after only four: a half-Hajj.
With only a few minutes to spare, we retrace our steps and return to the car. As we’re driving off the call to prayer starts. People are prostrate on sidewalks, all facing towards the Kaaba.
We exit the city nervously, heading towards Jeddah. We stop on the side of the road and change back to our Western clothing. We’ve done it.
Jeddah – boring.
A few weeks after my trip to Saudi Arabia, an unusual email appeared in my inbox. The tourist ministry of Saudi Arabia was interested in hearing feedback about my recent vacation. I was happy to oblige.