On the one day of the Easter weekend that I actually had off, I went to the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum, which everyone’s been saying is very good. Mindful that the exhibition closes while I’m away in Asia on work, I was very keen to catch it before leaving and so packed it into an already hectic day. It was worth the effort, but not in the way I might have expected.
The exhibition’s sub-title, Journey to the Heart of Islam, was really also the curatorial idea. There are so many aspects of the Hajj that an exhibition like this could choose to focus on – the community, the rituals, the journeys themselves. Focusing on this last aspect, the exhibition cleverly staged itself as a kind of mini-hajj, leading viewers on a journey of their own as they learned about the arduous treks of Muslims pilgrims of the past as they struggled to reach Makkah from as far away as Malacca, Bombay or Timbuktu, on journeys that lasted years and took many lives. All of this was richly evoked and it was clear that no expense had been spared by either of the show’s major patrons, Saudi King Abdulaziz and HSBC Amanah. But somehow, as I walked in pace with the crowds, I felt something to be slightly awry, something not quite in the right place. And then, as I stood in front of this piece of contemporary artwork by Saudi artist Abdulnasser Gharem, it clicked. What I was feeling was the intensely disconcerting feeling of seeing something you know intuitively, in a place deep inside you, suddenly through the eyes of another.
This felt like an exhibition for non-Muslims. But of course. The British Museum is for the British public, only a small percentage of whom are Muslim. This is a great and brave educational task of enlightenment they’ve undertaken, at a time when the Western world needs a more nuanced understanding of the words ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ more than ever. (For an excellent analysis of why these words have lost all meaning through mindless overuse, see Simon Kuper’s article in this weekend’s FT)
That the Hajj is a closed experience is an understatement. Although almost three million pilgrims now gather in Makkah yearly, not a single person amongst them is a non-Muslim. To be so would be to risk, at worst, decapitation. This leads to a strong feeling of exclusion. And exclusion, as we know, breeds fear – a fear of the unknown that will always colour non-Muslim accounts of the Hajj. Surely, I could almost hear people think, three million Muslims silently gathering from all corners of the earth in the same single place every year reeks of the scariest kind of fundamentalism. The exhibition tried its hardest to pull a veil over such sentiments. But in doing so, perhaps it does even worse.
Curator Venetia Porter has, by and large, done a fine job of portraying the humane, compassionate, peaceful and cultured face of Islam that so rarely gets any Western air-time. But it too often veers into the schmaltzy – every other wall emblazoned with some poetic quote about the transcendental beauty of community, the commingling of brothers and sisters in peace and harmony, the most spiritual moments of their lives. I’m not denying that these moments of enlightenment happen whilst on Hajj – I’ve heard many such stories from Hajjis I know. I just feel that romanticising it to a point where it begins to sound like the greatest spiritual journey one can ever undergo, but one which, if you are non-Muslim, you are necessarily barred from, is a dangerously divisive thing to do. And it’s not totally reflective of the reality either.
As we left, I said to Joel that it felt like an evocation of how one might very well want to see the Hajj, beautifully idolised and in the ancient past, full of grand journeys of great wealth and great fulfilment; disconnected from the many unsavoury aspects of the actual experience today. Scant mention was made of the crime, crowding and sickness that’s now a reality for Hajjis, or even of the thousands who have been trampled to death in the stampedes of recent decades. Sure, with the Saudi royal family bankrolling the show, these incidents were hardly going to get a mention. But without them, it felt a bit like a hollow shell of understanding what Hajj is like in reality, in the present day, to Muslims everywhere. I see it as something you go and do that then changes your life. I think of people I know whose Facebook status updates become devout and almost alter-ego-like when they’re in Makkah, or who return vowing never to touch a drop of alcohol again. Or those who return firmly believing they will run their business differently, be kinder to their staff, help out in the community more. Those are the smaller, more tangible and more powerful effects that going on Hajj has on the lives of young Muslims today.
The British Museum’s exhibition had as its piece de resistance an actual-sized replica of the Ka’aba itself, in a central ‘destination’ room at the end of the journey that was the exhibition. It was gorgeously draped with the famous embroidered panels of calligraphy and surrounded by other pieces of sumptuous artwork – all of it very impressive. But the room had still been titled, in large bold letters on the wall, ‘Mecca’, instead of Makkah - something that had no doubt been pondered over by some committee for many hours. It was a decision that, to me, said it all.