A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage. Abdellah Hammoudi. Translated from the French by Pascale Ghazaleh. New York: Hill and Wang; 2006. ISBN-10: 0-8090-7609-8. www.fsgbooks.com
I'm writing this review knowing that I'm not going to do the book justice. The number one reason is that I'm far too removed from academia now and far too pressed for time to be able to follow closely and read and reread each passage. The second reason is that I read the first 141 pages more than a year ago. When I put this book up on PaperBackSwap.com, to my surprise it was immediately requested. I'm too cheap to buy a book and not finish it before giving it away, so I finished the book this morning, the 2nd of Shawwal 1429.
When I started reading the book, I was turned off by what I saw as the author's complaining about the endemic corruption of the developing world, similar to the WAWA (West Africa Wins Again) of U.S. travelogs in west Africa. The author's mentioning his disregard for ritual requirements and prohibitions and his lack of reverence for the blessing of Allah's invitation to His house pained me. And I just stopped reading the book.
But from page 142 on, and I don't know if I'm imagining it, it was as if I was reading a totally different book. The participation in the rituals of ziyara, umra and hajj, no matter how "defective" the author's intention, changed the tone of the narrative. It was as if the magnitude of the crowds, the power of the stories the rituals reenacted, the landscape, the buildings, the sounds and the words of the Quran flooded over the dam of the author's preconceived research plan. But this flood was not destructive. Rather, the water initiated the germination of the seeds of Muslim identity lying in a soil enriched, not polluted, by the European-American discipline of anthropology.
Now I may still be on a post Eid al-Fitr high, and I have to say just thinking about Makka is enough to make me cry (even this instant!)-May Allah azza wa jall invite us all there!-but I thought this author made me as a Muslim think about the hajj in ways I had not considered. And is there worship better than pondering Allah's signs in His messengers and His judgments?
For the non-Muslim reader, I hope that the latter half of the book will bring attention to Islam as a religion rather than as a political movement.
This book has by far the best description of the replacement and sacrifice of Ibrahim, Hajar and Ismail alayhim assalaam that I've read. In my brief Internet search, I came across a good article by Carol Delaney's Was Abraham Ethical? Should We Admire His Willingness to Sacrifice His Son? But Professor's Abdellah's discussion is at a whole other level.
The book reminds me a lot of the only other "deep" anthropology book I've ever read, Paths Toward a Clearing by Michael Jackson. I have to read these kinds of books repeatedly to find their rhythm. If you have the time, it's well worth it.