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Mecca Today

Mecca, Saudi ArabiaMecca, Travel

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Writer Hamza Serafi Photographer Sal Kurdi-Serafi, Ahmed Mater and Arwa Alneami

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Beyond its holy sites, modern Mecca is a pulsing centre of creativity, full of colour, culture and great street food

The Holy City of Mecca attracts an estimated 13 million visitors a year from across the world, who flood into its streets and religious sites; three million Muslims alone arrived last year for the annual Hajj pilgrimage. But what about the contemporary and creative life of the city beyond its famed landmarks? Once a small town named 'Bakkah' fringed by five hills, today’s Mecca residents spread from the heart of the city into the mountains, with the cool black granite of the Holy Kaaba at its epicentre. Beyond the borders of Al Haram, the holy mosque, the contemporary life of Mecca is pulsing, chaotic and visually rich. Inhabited for more centuries than Rome, the multitude of cultures who have passed through the city has left a permanent imprint on its soul. Only accessible to Muslims, some visitors to Mecca never leave, and you can find vibrant sub-communities of different nationalities in the city's outskirts.

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“I feel happy when I’m in Mecca. I don’t take food with me – I take food from here and there. It’s very bohemian”

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“Beyond the borders of Al Haram, the holy mosque, the contemporary life of Mecca is pulsing, chaotic and visually rich. Inhabited for more centuries than Rome, the multitude of cultures who have passed through the city has left a permanent imprint on its soul”

The mass myriad of cultures that influx Mecca every year – whether from Burma or Burkina Faso – also make it a great place to enjoy perhaps an unsung aspect of the day-to-day life of the city: its street food. Kabab miro is a traditionally found dish, consisting of finely minced camel meat that’s mixed with cracked wheat and fried in a wok. Found in the side streets of Mecca, it’s a favourite among the locals, and a generous meal costs a little less than seven dollars, and is served in kitsch looking restaurants. You can also take kabab miro home as takeout, and wise Meccans often order the meat raw so it can be cooked later at home.

Kaki Bakery is the most well known bakery in the region and another example of Mecca’s beloved food culture. With multiple branches around the city, its central factory produces many types of breads, rusks and other pastries. The most traditional rusks are scattered with poppy seeds. Mentioned numerous times in the narrations of the Prophet, the tiny black seeds are said to have healing powers. The name Kaki, like so many other professions in Mecca, is likely taken from the name of the family who first began the bakery, which has now served generation after generation. As one of the oldest bakeries in the region, it occupies a special place in the heart of Mecca’s residents.

Mantu is another gift from Mecca’s multicultural make-up. A traditional dish from Central Asia, particularly the medieval city of Bukhara, the love for mantu has spread all over Mecca. Nearly every district has its own deli-like mantu shop, where the doughy parcels of steamed meat or vegetables are stuffed until plump, and arrive smothered in deliciously herby dressings. A full meal costs roughly eight dollars a plate; the perfect pit stop to refuel before heading back into the human flood that fills the city's streets every weekend.

For those living outside of Mecca, weekend visitors and pilgrims must enter via taxi, leaving their cars behind in the car parks scattered outside the city. Only residents of Mecca have permission to drive through its streets, although canny Hejazi neighbours from Jeddah, a short 70km drive away, use back roads and short cuts instead, parking in secret spots or even valeting at a nearby five star hotel. Those who do choose to enter via taxi will find that ‘taxi’, as in many busy Arab cities, is a term used fairly loosely.  The cars’ drivers are often chancers looking to make some extra cash, and the roads inside and outside of Mecca are often frantic.

‘My sister and her husband parked their car and took a taxi while visiting Mecca during Ramadan. It was after sunset, but the guy was still driving like a lunatic and she was freaking out,’ explains Maha Alkhalawi, a young Saudi-American graphic designer who visits Mecca every weekend. ‘It turns out that the reason he was driving like that is because he’d placed an order at Al Beik. And he had ten minutes to take them there and go back and pick it up. It was his way of making some money while waiting for his food!’

This sets the tone for the rapid pace of Mecca. There is the story of the late Sheikh Abdul Wahab Al Fadl who, born and raised in Mecca, struggled to find his favourite ‘Akel Jawi’ restaurant after returning to his beloved hometown after living abroad for 35 years. The Indonesian restaurant was a popular spot among locals while he was growing up, and as he asked locals for directions, one man sarcastically replied, ‘Yahou! Which cave have you been sleeping in?’ He was referring to the Quranic verse of the ‘cave sleepers’ (Surrat al Kahf), in which young men hide in a cave to escape the wrath of the Roman emperor Decius, only to fall asleep and be woken again 300 years later. In the street life of Mecca, a decade can bring a century of change.

Ironically, my experience of Mecca is not very different from that of the cave sleepers and Sheikh Abdul Wahab. A lot of my childhood memories from the Holy City have been relegated to just that: memories. I visit Mecca every Friday, and within just one short week I notice the difference in the city. These changes are inevitable, put into place to better accommodate the city’s residents and the millions of visitors that flock here every year.

However, these changes bring with them a new dynamic for the social fabric that makes up the community. Many families collect memorabilia, either from the city itself or from their ancestors, to decorate their homes with – a way for human nature to cling to memory and tradition while so much change occurs us. The house is transformed into a ‘home museum’ in homage to this ever-changing environment. In one family’s home, who have lived in Mecca for three generations, I stumble across a typical collection: from the first telephones used within the Kingdom to oil lamps and irons made from heavy metal, once used to smooth the creases in traditional garbs.

In recent years, artists have also been doing their part to hold true to their memories and experiences of Mecca as well. Ahmed Mater, a leader in contemporary art, attempts to capture the essence of Mecca in his large-scale photography, while sculptor Saddek Wasil, who was born in Mecca, collects discarded metal to form his spiritually inspired sculptures.  Dr Sami Angawi is making admirable efforts to create a conscious catalogue of the city’s architecture. The work of Nasser Al Salem, who grew up in Mecca, is heavily influenced by the traditions of Islam, such as the abstract representations in his Kaaba series. Although diverse, each artist is using their work as a way of coping and expressing their grief or excitement for the new future that is being drawn for Mecca.

‘I feel happy when I’m in Mecca. I don’t take food with me – I take food from here and there. It’s very bohemian,’ artist Ahmed Mater shares. ‘Mecca is full of tunnels – something unique to Mecca because it’s mountainous. It’s a disaster and it’s full of life.’ One of Mater’s projects, a series currently still in progress, is a collection of 100 found objects Mater has picked up from all over Mecca’s streets. ‘I collect everything about Mecca,’ he says. ‘I’m telling the life of the street.’ 

Objects include an old plastic viewfinder with postcard images of Mecca, old cassette tapes, the laminated TV channel list taken from a room in the Fairmont Hotel, a 1917 copy of National Geographic with a cover story titled Mecca the Mystic, and a 1979 edition of Time magazine featuring Mecca under the title Islam, The Militant Revival, which Mater found on Ebay. ‘I bid 10 dollars... and I won,’ he laughs. The collection awaits to be curated into a historical timeline, but provides a more material view of Mecca’s vibrant visual culture. Mater describes the city’s chaotic streets, from the kamikaze mopeds to the neon-lit shisha cafés that attract a mix of young people and more affluent classes.

Of course, Mecca will always be a city full of traditions. Calligraphy schools, once part of the social fabric of Arabian cities, are slowly fading, however private tutors and group lessons still exist to ensure the art form is kept alive through future generations. Likewise, some items from the traditional wardrobe, such as the umama (turban) may have faded out of fashion, but there now seems to be a revival on the street. Mecca has always been known for its flamboyant flair; the colours and fabrics for men’s outfits are limitless, as are the options for headgear. There are many specialised shops that sell all kinds of fabrics and accessories for men. The real shopping in Mecca, however, is its plethora of souvenirs.

As low-rise courtyards, narrow streets and cultural sites are continually swallowed up by the city's multi-billion dollar developments, it’s an interesting time for Mecca. Indescribable to many, and one of the most expensive places on earth per square metre, the city continues to inspire creativity as well as faith.

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