The View from Madinah
When my family made pilgrimage to Saudia Arabia in my grandmother’s memory, we were struck by the state of faith and war
Photo by Adhi Rachdian
In early spring, with snow still clotted thick on the ground, my grandmother dies in my parents’ home. We wash her naked body the next day in the basement morgue of the local Scarborough mosque, my hands closer to her skin than they’d ever been in life. There is a gaping hole in her throat where the cancer had eaten through to open air. I can’t remember who cleaned around the wound’s curling black edges. I can’t remember much of how her body felt that morning, except that it was very stiff; mine felt barely less so. We recite my favourite dua, the Muslim funeral prayer: allahumaghfir li haiyyaini wa maiyyatina—God, grant us your forgiveness / for the living and for the dead …
We bury her in a graveyard in Pickering, an hour east of Toronto, wrapped in a white shroud her daughters and grand-daughters twined around her. In the orthodox way, we don’t put up a gravestone, no plaque and no flowers. I send myself an email to remember her plot number. We visit often, commencing a new, far different relationship from the one we’d had through the ravages of her long, croaking dying.
My mother begins a slow, thorny grieving. Time wrinkles around her periodically heaving body. In May, she decides we will make umrah, pilgrimage, in my grandmother’s memory. My immediate family doesn’t do field trips. I can’t remember the last time that we, all seven strong, went anywhere together—we are always too busy or too dispersed.
By month’s end, we are flying to Saudi Arabia for the first time in fifteen years.
Twenty-four years ago, when our family first arrived in Saudi Arabia (I was born in Sri Lanka), the country was at war with Iraq. I was young then, repeating kindergarten to compensate for the ocean-wide migration. We landed in Yanbu, a highly industrialized expat-heavy petrochemical centre, then moved to Jeddah, the country’s grittier seaport commercial capital.
My parents eschewed compounds, those securely gated, miraculously green alternate realities occupied largely by wealthy white Westerners and served mostly by South Asian labourers. Instead, we grew up on hospital premises, so that my doctor mother could walk to work. Bussed between our low-rise apartment building of other doctor families from the global south and my state-run international all-girls school, the war seemed far away.
Still, the fighting found ways to impinge on my heavily regimented childhood of school and home. Sometimes I would call my aunt in Riyadh and hear bombs close by in the background. A weird normalcy hung over our conversations, a sense not so much of resignation as of suspended disbelief. I imagined stony grey rubble unfurling beside them, their building the lone monument still standing. In retelling these years, my mother describes sirens, but I do not remember them.
This was the era of the first Gulf War and the first George Bush. In response to Iraq’s 1990 occupation of Kuwait, the U.S., once supportive of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, convened the largest military alliance since World War II to fight Iraq. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia paid more than half of the war’s $60-billion cost, and the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division landed in the deserts of Dhahran, scarcely 400 miles from Madinah.
By then, the U.S. had long been partnering with the wealthy kingdom: during the Cold War, the U.S. had trained al-Qaeda to fight the Soviet Union, and had propagated Saudi religious schools across the world, aiming to use U.S.-funded interpretations of Islam to fight the U.S.S.R.
By my early teens, a marked shift had emerged. With rifts growing between al-Qaeda and the (rest of the) Saudi royal family over U.S. involvement in the war on Iraq, Usama bin Laden became a household name. September 11, 2001 was on the horizon.
As we prepare to fly out of Toronto in 2015, Saudi Arabia is bombing Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, while simultaneously negotiating a $15-billion arms deal with Canada. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s “sunny” soon-to-be prime minister, will spend the election cycle decrying then-PM Stephen Harper for the Conservative-initiated deal, but when elected to power later that year, will himself approve the sale. The light-armoured vehicles, or LAVs, that Canada is to provide to the Saudi Arabian National Guard will reportedly be equipped with, among other things, machine guns that can fire 105mm shells or missiles.
Saudi activists will eventually manage to leak footage of the Saudi regime using LAVs to crush internal civilian dissent, especially against the country’s Shia minority. When confronted with the video, Trudeau refuses to cancel the sale: “We [Canada] are not a banana republic.”
But our departure from Canada is smooth—to my surprise and relief. My brother shares a name with someone on the no-fly list. He’s missed flights before. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare that leaves me enraged, fearful, and despondent by turns. In contrast, my brother, who was in grade school during 9/11, takes it in stride as some kind of Muslim rite of passage.
His experience is hardly unique: there are hundreds of people on this list, including babies. A post-9/11 U.S.-demanded invention, Transport Canada admitted in 2010 that it had listed at least 850 false positives—only three years into the “Passenger Protect Program.”
It’s almost impossible to get off the no-fly list: the Canadian government doesn’t have to tell you that they’ve put you on it, and if somehow you find out that you’ve been blacklisted and attempt to challenge that listing, the government doesn’t have to tell you or your lawyer what evidence they’re using against you to keep you on it. The Orwellian paradox of laws that openly parade their concealment makes it difficult to map, let alone fight, the list’s reach.
Under Trudeau, the no-fly list has been expanded through the so-called “anti-terror” bill C-51. Though the bill was introduced by Harper, Trudeau voted to make the bill an act, and has refused to heed calls for its repeal. Of the act’s myriad racisms, the list, with all the resources required to execute it in airports across the country, perhaps most visibly exemplifies racialized paranoia. But in the nearly two decades since 9/11, Canada has made such ample use of secret trials against Muslims that ultimately the mass surveillance of the no-fly list feels cynically unremarkable.
We land in Jeddah. Though I spent close to a decade of my childhood in this still-familiar dusty city—“the Bride of the Red Sea”—we do not linger. At the King Abdulaziz International Airport, we pile into a van and head to Madinah.
We quickly discover the A/C is broken, so we pull off the highway to grab some pop and shawarmas for the four-hour drive. We enter a sort of strip mall of low-roofed restaurants set a little ways back from the road.
If I had escaped the symbols of war during my childhood here, not so this time. Men mill around us in military uniform, also getting food. Wearing light brown camouflage and traveling in groups, the ease with which these soldiers move through the take-out joints reminds me of my birthplace, Sri Lanka.
After twenty-seven years of civil war, soldiers are as much a part of Sri Lanka’s national landscape as the flora and fauna. My memories of Sri Lanka are as much of checkpoints, soft-jawed teenage boys drooping with the weight of machine guns, and the sunburnt remains of bombed-out commuter buses, as they are of first friendships or the spider-web of familial dramas. After all, a civil war is the war at home; civil war is place imploding in on itself. In contrast, Saudi Arabia’s wars were not, thanks to its domestically relentless and now LAV-equipped autocracy, civil; they were directed elsewhere (such a young country, and so insecure, perennially fighting its neighbours). So I had grown up with Saudi Arabia serving as a foil to my first home, its relative peace counterbalancing the turmoil of the place my family comes from.
(After we return home from the pilgrimage, I talk about the trip with a friend from middle school, and she notes that Saudi Arabia now has checkpoints all over. This is a development since my family moved away in 2000. The war is starting to come home.)
Along our drive, we’re waved through a few such checkpoints. Mostly I sleep through the ride, lulled by the heat and the monotony of the view. We arrive without incident in Madinah.
When we lived here, we visited Makkah and Madinah often. Makkah was where the Prophet Muhammad had been born and was later exiled from; Madinah where he subsequently found refuge and later died. I had always preferred Madinah to Makkah. Officially titled Madinah tul Munawarra—City of Light—I thrilled to the idea of a city named, simply, City; it seemed so confident and cosmopolitan an understanding and demonstration of self.
For millennia, Madinah had been a city without a country, ruled by a shifting patchwork of local and global powers. By the eighteenth century, the House of Saud had emerged as the Ottoman Empire’s chief rivals for control of Madinah. In 1925, Madinah was finally brought under the rule of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Six years later, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company hit oil in Dhahran. Now called Aramco, it is the world’s most valuable company, with estimates ranging from $1.25-trillion to $10-trillion USD.
Seven years later, in 1945, with the end of World War II in sight, King Abdulaziz and then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt met for the first time. They reached an agreement in which Saudi Arabia would supply oil to the U.S., in exchange for U.S. military protection of the Saudi regime. This agreement remains in effect: it has survived seven Saudi kings and twelve U.S. presidents.
We spend most of our time in Madinah in Masjid an-Nabawi, the Prophet’s Mosque. It is the world’s second-oldest mosque, and the second-holiest site in Islam. Built by the Prophet a year after his migration to Madinah, the mosque was originally about the size of an average house, with pillars of palm trunks and roofs of beaten clay and palm leaves. After his death, under a succession of caliphs, sultans, and kings, the mosque underwent a series of renovations, razings, and reconstructions, until now, at over 50,000 square metres and with a capacity of 1.6 million people, it has become one of the largest mosques in the world.
It is also one of the most opulent. The mosque is a thing of wonder, bedecked in marble floors, cream columns, dizzyingly tall doors and archways. Qurans, hardcover and green-backed, are stacked in gold shelving. Gold chandeliers hang from the ceilings, and every pillar has lamps hung in each of its four corners, each pillar inscribed with the name of God.
A marquee outside declares that photography is prohibited, a decree belied by how liberally the mosque is peppered with security cameras, curving out from behind the pillars, positioned high above our heads.
Female security guards check our bags as we enter. Planted at every door, they rifle quickly through our belongings, flip flops and books and water bottles, before waving us in. The search, short as it is, only ever lasting a few seconds, is long enough nonetheless to bottleneck entry. The guards are quick-sighted, and generally effective at spotting women with bags, but the brevity of their search renders the whole process questionable. No one is entirely sure what they’re looking for and they never say, as they prod incredulously my small pillow.1
Inside, the carpets—thousands and thousands of square feet of them—are thickly embossed with the Saudi state emblem, a palm tree emerging from the crossing of two swords. I can’t remember if the carpets were always designed like this, but it feels now like a deeper obscenity than the wealth on display within the mosque, or the five-star hotels and expensive malls that crowd in on its courtyards.
Today, these carpets feel subtly militaristic, this encroachment of state power into the house of God, this laying claim to the spirituality performed here, the countless palms and foreheads pressed in prayer against this symbol of state conquest.
It’s too full indoors, so at 4 a.m. on a Thursday, my mother, sister, and I are praying on plastic-sheeted walkways in the mosque’s courtyard. My mother wants to attempt the ziyarah, a visit to the rawdah, the Prophet’s grave. The ziyarah has strictly enforced women’s hours; it is otherwise open to men. Being no less desirous of visiting the grave than men, this constriction has resulted in the women’s ziyarah being a full-on scrimmage. We’ve arrived for the women’s sunrise hours.
As we wait for the gates to the gravesite open, the female guards begin organizing the hundreds of women assembled around us into groups.
The racial logic of their ordering quickly becomes apparent. Following some unspoken rule, Arabs are typically allowed entry first, South Asians last. All the guards, irrespective of whether or not they understand that we speak English, point us in the direction of the India/Pakistan grouping, where another guard is lecturing the group in what sounds like Urdu or Hindi.
My mother asks where the gates are, and is ignored, until one guard asks where we are from. Given pervasive racism in Saudi Arabia against Sri Lankans, my mother says Canada, and then, into the blank stare that follows, America. The guard nods vigorously, and point us back to India/Pakistan.
Eventually we settle among some Indonesians. Even if she could understand the guards, my mother neither needs nor wants the lectures being imposed on the pilgrims. She quietly manoeuvres through the guards’ racial obsessions, trying to get us as close as possible to the grave so that we can enter quickly when the gates open.
Over the course of our trip, my family discusses often this disconnect between the mosque as a place of faith and the state as a mechanism of racialized profit and regulation. The crassness on display, mere feet from the Prophet’s grave, feels like yet more proof of this tension. There’s little point raging about it here, it’d be like beating a wall, though a woman close by is in fact telling off security for precisely this. My mother just sits, bides her time, absorbed in prayer. When jetlag rears, we nap briefly. Otherwise, there is too much to see to be bored.
A woman in a sparkly niqab bears down on us, an elderly matriarch on her arm. She asks the guard beside us if there are (in this order) groups for English, Tamil, or Malayalam speakers. After first hopefully pointing out Urdu/India/Pakistan, the guard says no. The city—and indeed the whole country—is in fact full of Tamil speakers, many of them migrant workers hailing from Sri Lanka, whose GDP rests heavily on the housemaids and labourers it exports here. But in the mosque’s policed attempts at language accommodation, the most impoverished of its worshippers and custodians do not register. The two women leave.
It becomes evident that we have seated ourselves in the Arab section. A guard comes up to the edge of our motley group and attempts to dislodge the Indonesian women beside us. They are reading the Quran and ignore her wholly. Her pitch grows increasingly frustrated and quick. Eventually, she wins and they disappear, perhaps to their prescribed spot in the mosque ecology. They are soon replaced by a troop of worshippers robed in electric blue. Behind me, there is a group speaking Telugu. I pick out a few words that mimic Tamil, chief among them “palli,” which in Tamil means mosque.
A flock of women in deep brown chadors swoops by us; the backs of their scarves are imprinted with the address of a tour group in Niger. Sometimes it’s the accoutrements that distinguish the tour groups: fluorescent yellow backpacks here, baby blue headscarves there, green messenger bags, orange lanyards, thick winter scarves the shade of the Toronto Blue Jays logo.
Southeast Asians are by far the easiest to spot, each tour group marked by their particular choice in fabric—huge purple flowers for one group, orange and green forest foliage for another—cut at the wearer’s pleasure into long dresses, tunics, sarongs, pant suits. In each group there is always one noncompliant member: among the purple floral is a woman dressed in a solid and beautifully complementary block of violet. I wonder idly about the cost of coordinating outfits like this, how much work it must entail. I like to imagine the odd one out as the group’s poorest planner. I sympathize.
It is not clear if anyone is listening to the guards on the loudspeakers, who carry on anyway. I exchange smiles with a twelve-year-old in jeans. As the hour for the gate opening nears, women begin to stand up, and an expectant lean ripples through the crowd.
We are let into the rawdah, and the women’s bodies push up tight against each other, everyone’s fleshy parts part of a larger thrust towards the dead. Arms reach out and clasp me as they pass by, bracing themselves against me or pushing me out of the way, as the case may be. There is no compunction in touch. My brothers later describe strolling through the gravesite during the much longer men’s hours.
Meanwhile, the guards are still yelling, “India Pakistan.”
I leave Madinah praying I never hear “idhar aao,” Hindi for “come here,” again. The patience with which the immigrant cleaners and pilgrims put up with the mosque’s daily, inept, and deeply entrenched racisms seems indicative of the Muslim cognitive dissonance on which Saudi Arabia relies: the holiness of this place exists in a different dimension than the profanity so openly on display. Everything that is beautiful about this place seems also laced with disrespect for both the sacred and the human. It falls to the individual pilgrim to carve out worship from the cacophony of ugliness.
On July 4, 2016, the day before Eid, a year after our pilgrimage, a string of bombs goes off across Saudi Arabia: one near the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, wounding two security officers; the next a suicide bomb near Masjid an-Nabawi, killing four officers; and the third outside a Shia mosque in Qatif. In Jeddah, the government arrests a thirty-five-year-old Pakistani migrant worker.
As one of the Middle East’s biggest regional powers, Saudi Arabia is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS. When Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in March 2015, it claimed it did so to protect Yemen from Iran and the world from ISIS, echoing U.S. justifications for its invasion of Afghanistan. It also proudly noted that “U.K. military personnel are providing assistance in targeting and its legal aspects.”
By February 2016, at least 8,000 Yemenis had died, at least sixty percent of them killed by Saudi air strikes. Much of Yemen is on the brink of famine.
In this light, it’s not surprising that Madinah was attacked. It is terrifying and reprehensible, and in the magnitude of the symbolic breach, staggering—but it is not surprising.
What makes a war our war? The Iraq Wars. Are wars named only after the home team? The War on Afghanistan. Is its name the measure of who is doing the killing and who the dying? The War on Terror. If the dead die far from where we can see, are we still at war? The War of Terror.
Our pilgrimage was hemmed on both sides by carnage. At once a site of faith and war, this feels like a central tension in being Muslim in the era of the nation-state. Across the world, we are tied to cities we love in countries we fear.
This article originally appeared on Hazlitt.net.