Sunday, December 28, 2014
Sacred Journeys (with Bruce Feiler) -- Mecca and Medina
All religions have disgusting features and rites that are affronts to human dignity. Pilgrimage is an aspect of organized religion that shows piety at its most craven, bigoted, superstitious, and unpleasant. It is manifestly unfair to judge the intricate structure of philosophy, narrative, and poetry comprising a major religion by its pilgrims and its pilgrimage sites. So my comments about Bruce Feiler's Sacred Journeys (about which I previously written) focusing on the episode involving Muslim pilgrims making the Hajj, that is, a journey to the prophets Muhammed's tomb in Medina and, then, Mecca, and the sacred sites, apparently, suburban to Mecca must be read with this caveat in mind. Nonetheless. the hour-long program about the pilgrimage to the deserts of Saudi Arabia is particularly horrific and casts an alarming light on institutional Islam. It is a show that people hoping to understand the Muslim religion should see. Since he is non-Muslim (indeed, some kind of Bill Moyers' style secular humanist), Bruce Feiler is excluded from this adventure. Feiler is dismayingly enthusiastic, but irrelevant -- since he can't travel to Mecca or Medina, he has to limp around the Mojave desert, favoring his game leg, and cheerleading sententiously 'from the bench' as it were. He utters a few comments about deserts and, then, sits by a lonely campfire in the wasteland sulking a bit when he is not skyping with the American pilgrims in Mecca. Since Feiler is one of the most irritating aspects of this PBS show, his exile from center-stage although manifestly unjust actually improves the program. Like the other episodes that I have seen, the program follows a dramatic pattern: the pilgrims have been selected for their relative diversity, a bit like a movie-platoon in a Hollywood W. W. II combat film: there is a simple, unsophisticated true believer, a cradle-Catholic or -Jew or - Muslim, an enlightened poetic intellectual in the Bill Moyers' mold, a cynical skeptic, and, in the Mecca episode, even a handsome young horn-dog, an amorous fellow who has just been divorced and is sowing his wild-oats (such as they are) on the Hajj to Mecca -- the guy is a little like an Islamist Charley Sheen and he's looking to hook-up with the pious beauties converging the Holy City. Predictably, everyone, even the skeptic, is deeply moved by their pilgrimage and, at the end of the show, all pronounce the experience to be profound and life-changing -- there's no dissenting voice, no lone rationalist who declares that the whole thing was a monumental waste of time, but, then, my friends, what did you expect from a cautious, life-affirming, beneficent PBS documentary series? The pilgrimage sites in Saudi Arabia are, apparently, noteworthy because of their sheer, hideous ugliness and the spectacle of millions of people reduced to swarming insects in structures that seem to be modeled after the worst aspects of a modern airline terminal is ghastly to behold. Islam is iconoclastic and mosques on the scale shown in this documentary -- one of them comprises 100 acres -- are simply too vast and impersonal to be decorated in any way. The pilgrimage sites look brand-new, as if built in the last couple years, and they consist of gigantic white concourses clinically lit that lead to ramps circling holy places, for instance the Kaaba with its cornerstone of black meteorite. Since Islamic custom requires that pilgrims circumnavigate the big black cube seven times, the shrine is surrounded by vast concrete ramps, at least three levels, permitting the pilgrims to perambulate around the Kaaba stacked on top of one another. Viewed from above, the site looks something like a gigantic interstate cloverleaf, cheerless concrete pillars supporting vast viaducts something like colossal freeway overpasses. A million people blacken the huge ramps, marked by signs like you migh see on the LA freeway, inscriptions in Arabic and English pointing the way to the various levels of the ramps. When one of our heroes makes the mistake of actually attempting to kiss the black meteorite at one of the corners of the towering Kaaba shrine, someone throws an elbow into his eye and he makes the rest of the pilgrimage with a swollen shiner. The throng mangles the knee of one of the women and she has to be shoved from place-to-place in a wheelchair and, as the pilgrimage continues, from sacred place to place, the pilgrims become increasingly desperate -- it's a race against time since the throngs require enormous patience to navigate and, apparently, long hours are stuck in traffic jams comprised of hundreds of buses stalled in impasse in the moonscape of the Arabian desert, and during the ordeal the pilgrims all become increasingly irritable and debilitated. The women, in particular, are emotionally unprepared for the level in patriarchal institutionalized sexism that they encounter -- one of them weeps and says that the separation of the sexes at Muhammed's tomb, and the fact that women, as second-class Muslims, are kept more remote from the sacred place makes her feel "very distant from the prophet, somehow more distant than when I came here." It seems impossible to enter the holy places during the day because of the vast multitudes and so the American pilgrims tend to make their ritual observances at odd hours, two or three in the morning, and the lack of sleep takes a toll on them. Several of the pilgrimage sites require camping in the desert, a bivouac accomplished by means of filling up barren valleys with thousands upon thousands of white plastic tents, a spectacle that looks a bit like the teepee-like profile of the Denver International airport combined with the world's largest egg container turned upside-down. People have to stagger around the desert to pick up rocks to stone the devil, an exercise that apparently has to be done twice -- but there are so many people picking up pebbles in the wasteland that the American pilgrims are forced to fill their plastic baggies with tiny stones not much bigger than grains of sand. (This is notwithstanding the fact that the Saudi Arabian government trucks in 8 million pounds of stones every season.) Satan is a massive textured concrete wall set in the middle of a conical funnel that collects the stones cast against that structure -- presumably so they can be recycled to the adjacent desert. The concrete wall sits in the center of a enormous plaza, something like the world's ugliest and largest shopping mall, a vast concourse, again with several ramps surrounding the towering wall that represents the devil. At one point, a cynical pilgrim, a programmer or computer scientist from suburban Boston, says that the whole thing is upsetting to him and a little frightening: "I wasn't prepared for the industrial aspects of this experience. It's so industrial," he laments. Viewed from the air, the Kaaba shrine sits in a crater surrounded by skyscrapers that look vaguely like the Stalinist monuments of Moscow, huge towers half hidden in an aerial labyrinth of orange and yellow construction cranes. Vast queues of air-conditioned buses await entry to the gigantic traffic circles surrounding the central mosque, a flat-roofed structure with small, ugly-looking minarets screwed into its corners and a huge bureaucratic looking tower on one side, a building that looks like the old Metropolitan Life building in New York City crossed with the high-rise Moscow University in the Russian capitol. Christians and Buddhists are apt to think of their religions as beautiful, even delicate, and viewing the tracery of Moorish columns and arches in the old mosques in Palermo now converted to Catholic uses, it's clear that Islam has a marvelously intricate aesthetic side as well. But this is not on view in this disheartening episode of Sacred Journeys -- instead, we are confronted with the disheartening spectacle of religion as brute force, sheer power, a titanic colossus noteworthy for its ugliness and conformity.