Imam Zaid Shakir, writer of the foreword to the rather handy little Guide to Visiting Makka and Madina that we took with us on our travels, doesn't think much of the new hotels surrounding al Masjid al Haram. He describes them as, kitsch towers, designed by architectural firms in Paris, New York and London... That's actually kinder than the blistering comments on them by Ziauddin Sardar in his new book on Mecca: The Sacred City as quoted by Malise Ruthven in his review of the same in the October number of the Literary Review: The skyline above the Sacred Mosque is no longer dominated by the rugged outline of encircling mountains. It is surrounded by the brutalism of hideously ugly rectangular steel and concrete buildings, built with the proceeds of enormous oil wealth that showcase the Saudi vision for Mecca. They look like downtown office blocks in any mid-American city. Ruthven goes on to outline some of the less-than-righteous motivations that, according to Sardar, lie behind this development - most associated with the generating of filthy lucre, and lots of it.
Now I'd read Ruthven's review before setting out and was, therefore, aware that aspects of development of the holy city were open to criticism. But what I hadn't quite expected was that we'd be staying, very comfortably indeed, in one of the hotels being criticised and thus greatly benefitting, not least from their proximity to the sacred precincts. I realised, to my surprise, that I'm one of the rich - well, not quite in the super-rich league that's making all the money, but certainly well enough off to enjoy the fruits of these developments.
It also struck me, as Noi insightfully pointed out, that the new developments were necessary to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors now allowed in throughout the year and not only at the time of the Haj. And whilst the super-rich would enjoy the super-luxurious apartments in the giddy heights well above our rooms with the superlative views of the Kaaba, our travelling companions were quite ordinary folk, who happened to enjoy the luck of coming from a developed nation. So there're genuinely wide benefits involved for a much wider range of people than Sardar's book would seem to suggest.
So now I'm conflicted. Chatting just now to Fuad and Rozita about our experiences I found them sympathetic to a critical view of the new architecture - especially the clock tower - which wasn't around when they visited when Fifi was still a babe in arms, but I felt a nagging suspicion that I was being a bit holier than thou about all this. One thing though is clear, the Haj has to be made affordable and accessible to pilgrims from all over the world, which means to those who aren't necessarily from the comfortably-off middle classes of whatever nation you care to name, and I'm really not sure this is the case at present. Otherwise I wouldn't worry too much about the egregious architecture and the kleptocracy making oodles of cash. Bad taste and greed are always with us. But so is the quiet majesty of the Kaaba, which survives, and will survive, it all.