November 18, 2017

“In Mecca with eye, iPhone”

Published: 11/17/2017

Publication: Times Union


Siri is confused. She and I are riding on the Wifi network kindly provided by Osama bin Laden’s family, who own the biggest construction conglomerate in the Holy Land. She does not seem to know where we are, geographically speaking. Siri thinks we are in Doha in Qatar, my previous stop, but I am with my iPhone 4s and pocket Quran in Mecca.
I am transfixed by an ancient sight — hundreds of thousands of chanting pilgrims from nearly every nation, circling a large black cube called the Kaaba. We are here for Islam’s highest calling, the Hajj. From my vantage point, on the second level of the Masjid al-Haram (the Sacred Mosque) the pilgrims seem to float. This is the largest mosque in the world and one sixth of humanity are commanded to face its direction when they pray, five times a day.
I return to my Halal iPhone. Weeks before I came, I Islamicized it. I replaced my wallpaper with the Saudi flag, and its menacing white sword. Grindr and Scruff were banished. Now apps promising soothing Surahs from the Quran populate it.
Within my iTunes app I smuggle a secret — Azealia Banks, the rapper/singer/songwriter whose potty-mouth Harlemspeak gives me a forbidden connection to home. Several baton-wielding Mutawwa, the religious police, stroll, seemingly waiting to accuse my headphones of blasphemy. The foot-soldiers of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice have found me at the wrong ends of their batons during my recent phone-filmmaking attempts here in Mecca. I hastily tune into Surah Kafirun (the Quran chapter of The Disbelievers).
Exiting the mosque that houses the Kaaba, I am surrounded by an unnerving capitalist landscape. Skyscrapers and cranes leap into the heavens. I wonder if the crowds of pilgrims, transformed into eager shoppers, recognize the destruction. Chinese workers who have hastily converted to Islam are amongst the burgeoning armies of builders. Slaves from India, robbed of their passports and hope, also toil here. The Saudis have even built a row of toilets over the home the Prophet shared with his first wife, Khadija.
As I am swept by the mass of pilgrims into the Abraj-al Bait shopping center, I enter Mecca Vegas, the garishly transformed ancient city its own prophet would not recognize. But when in Mecca, you do as modern Meccans do. You kill time between prayers in shopping malls equipped with every imaginable form of Islamic tchotchke — all made in China.
Male pilgrims, still wearing the Ihram, the Spartan dress of the Hajj, indulge in a smoke and coffee break at Starbucks. Do any of them notice the shop’s logo has been edited? The very un-Halal mermaid has been obliterated.
Parvez Sharma lives in New York City and is a filmmaker and writer. On Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Sanctuary for Independent Media in Troy, he will discuss his film, which he shot with an iPhone, and his new book, “A Sinner in Mecca: A Gay Muslim’s Hajj of Defiance,” from which this column is an edited excerpt.
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