Raja Alem :Reading the infidels in Mecca

Banipal magazine regularly invites a prominent Arab author to write about the books and
authors that have had an influential impact on their life and work.
Here, the Saudi author Raja Alem, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction 2011, talks about her passion for reading in her sacred city, Mecca.

Raja Alem 3
Saudi writer Raja Alem

The books I read continue to interest me, and to challenge me to uncover more of their secrets. Each attempt at such an uncovering produces one of my own books. One of these literary doors seduces me with its siren songs, and I know that it leads to the oral dramatic tradition that I was born into, and grew up in, a theatre that is a mixture of Qur’anic chants and human voices performing religious rituals and stories from the 1001 Nights, whose tales cannot be separated from our tales, here in Mecca.
Now, when I look back at what I write, and the place I write from, I find that each word is an attempt to examine a childhood, my childhood, which consists of the tales of a female hakawati [storyteller] recounting stories of love, and the tales of a male hakawati telling the stories of prophets, their miracles, as well as the stories of doomed nations and punishment.
The Qur’an, that text that follows the prophets of the past, is read in Mecca’s formidable inner compound, which is open like a plate held on marble hands, ringed by stones surrounding the blackness that is the Kaaba, the house of God.
This awesome setting was my childhood stage, a place our mothers would bring us each Friday afternoon, and where we would remain until nightfall.
Unlike our expectations of holy sites, the women’s visit to the compound was not so much a religious rite as much as a celebratory social rite. As children, we didn’t move about in the shadow of the forbidden and the foreboding, but we played in the shadow of the mysterious and the sacred, which was contained in the word “Allah”, which we would say as a gasp, and which would bring miracles to life around us, as God led us with his even more mysterious and awesome words. Each time I write the word “Allah”, I hear voices in my head, voices that seem to be the echoes of what I experienced in that wondrous compound that drew women weighted by the tragedies and comedies of their daily lives. It was a stage upon which these women were the main actors and the directors, as, behind them, people circled the darkness of the black Kaaba. Our imaginations were stoked by the scents of the ancient Orient that suffuse the cloth covering of the Kaaba, and would be absorbed into our touch and our feelings when we had the chance to bring our faces and bodies to touch the house of God, and spy on whomever was inside.
A resonant, theatrical voice
In the mixed echoes of the internal and external, the stories told by the women were not a mundane occurrence that we experienced inside our homes, but became epics. There are verbal dynamics in poetic narration; the woman’s voice is no longer her own, but becomes a resonant, theatrical voice which entraps you in the threads of a story serialised from one Friday to the next, a living serial rather like reality television, whose events derive from reality. Often, you could catch a chapter of this series out on the street, such as when you glimpsed the funeral of the disabled son of the woman who had spent a month sleeping by the Zamzam well; or the wedding of the pimp whose wife emerges every Friday and tells her stories between prostrations at the Kaaba; or the mad divorcée, who one afternoon runs past your window, and you know that her show has ended in irreversible tragedy. As children, we played in the courtyard, listening to these tales in which we were the protagonists as they merged with the stories of emerging nations in the recitations of the Qur’an and the calls to prayer.
If you are born in Mecca, your imagination is interwoven with the words of God and men in a dramatic mixture embroidered with mystery and awe. You are invaded by this dynamic oral tradition, and by He who writes all your coming stories. I will never forget how the women would break off their tales with the oath: “God is my witness”, raising their index fingers to the sky. Our eyes followed the trajectories of those fingers with dread; we could almost see that supernatural spectator before Whom the stories were played, and as kids, we felt that all these tales were merely plays performed before the absolute spectator, God. This has inscribed in me the sense of an eternal audience, an infinite power before Whom I present my words, and Whom I expect to take over the reins of my narratives to a point that the human mind may not think of.

An  eternal ritual

This legacy stamped my existential expressions with a Qur’anic musicality, and was strengthened by the deep echoing sound that emerges from the vastness of the desert surrounding Mecca. It is a desert that transforms into a stage and an altar during the Hajj season, the annual rendezvous for the meeting of people of all colours and cultures around us, with the holy valleys around Mecca transformed into a great stage containing humanity in all its guises. From my early years, they appeared to be performing an eternal ritual written by prophets and performed by human beings for centuries.
My father was a mitwaf, a spiritual guide for the pilgrims – recently, my siblings and I have inherited this appointment. He would host them in our home, and put up tents for them on Arafat and Mina, and lead them in the holy rites. The day at Arafat is the most dramatic. From noon, pilgrims of every guise gather in the barren desert, remaining until the afternoon turns to evening. One man’s ancient stand has forever coloured that day, which has now been named the waqfa – the stand. During it, thousands of bare heads are raised before a sky shimmering with chants that are more like anthems until God emerges, hidden by clouds, and with the sun kneeling as it sets, the white-clothed pilgrims set off towards the horizon, a crowd of thousands moving to gather stones to chase away the devil, whom we believe is standing between us and God. If you stone the devil, you unburden yourself of your sins. Pilgrims also perform sacrifices, cleansing themselves with blood in order to lighten their load.
This script that humanity has followed since antiquity, and which is repeated with crowds that renew themselves each year, was fundamental to my psychological formation, tied as that is to textual ablutions, and the strength of the narrative that could dictate the behaviour of people for centuries. I remember the lightness that followed the climb and the sacrifice, I remember that we lived within the Mina camp, an open-walled camp facing volcanic peaks from whose bottom torches and tents rose towards us. The male and female pilgrims were like a sea of whiteness that spread out underneath our doorstep. Suddenly one night, all this whiteness vanishes at once, replaced by clothes of colours so bright they compete with the sunshine. With the passing of the whiteness, stories are released and tales from all parts of the world emerge to infuse our imaginations. Yes, all sorts would bring their stories to Mecca and release them at night-time around their tents, as the lanterns made people and gestures seem like giant shadows.
Philosophical representation
In stark contrast to the dynamism of this oral tradition and its sense of drama, was the stagnant school curriculum. I began trying to escape on my first day of school, trying to outwit the guard and flee into the street; or, by disobeying the strict rules and smuggling in my schoolbag, swollen with forbidden books: translated tomes from East and West. Our school curriculum never wandered further than routine, flat texts, and presented no challenges of any kind until we reached Uqad. Uqad, whose genius (the genius of Mohammad, Abu Bakr and Omar) was to present the human in these men, whom the religious curriculum transforms into strict models, denuded of their humanity and their steady connection to life. By contemplating Uqad’s philosophical interpretation of these Islamic characters, and their behavioural representation of the spirituality of faith, these texts liberated religion in my mind, transforming it from a tool of punishment and terror, into a tool for controlling the self and rising to the pinnacle of human capability. Despite Uqad’s formidable prose – perhaps because of it – I became obsessed with the text, learned it by heart from my unconscious need to hold onto its linguistic intricacies, and its rational, dialectical attempts to prove a phenomenon he describes as psychological. I think he was the foundation for all my intellectual resources, whether Eastern or Western.
From my brother’s schoolbag
How can one have a window on the world from Mecca, with its dearth of bookshops? My narrow opening onto the world came in the form of a series of books I stole from my brother’s schoolbag, Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and some Arsène Lupin books. Perhaps this theft itself was a re-writing of the reality around me; after that, I continued to filch from his bag until I was shocked to find The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, which I never admitted to stealing and didn’t even dare read at the time. But the true opening came with Maxim Gorky’s The Mother, which I found by accident in my maternal grandfather’s drawer. Gorky’s revolution roared through my mind, and forged my vision of the role I had to play as an agent of change in the world around me. Because my mother is of Russian origin, Russian literature, whether Gorky’s The Mother or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, is my way of connecting to my roots, which are spread out across the surface of the Earth, and that pass through the iron curtains put up by political organizations. I read lying down, like one confident of my mother’s connection to the land her father had left behind when he emigrated, escaping to the house of God in Mecca. Russian literature left me with impressions of the harsh climate, the snow that annihilates all signs of life and the struggle of the individual – against climate and regimes – to bring about political change.
At the time, we were not concerned with political matters, which seemed to us luxuries enjoyed by developed countries, exercises to prove the intellectual dynamism of these nations. After a history filled with wars and invasions, freedom was not an imperative for most of the inhabitants of the peninsula. As a society, we were perhaps preoccupied with our sudden wealth, and with investing the oil revenues into building modern cities and infrastructure of all sorts, including the economic and scientific. Meanwhile, as individuals, the educational curriculum spiritually and physically trained us to be content, and to praise the general, untouchable situation as it was, which helped to programme us both as individuals and as a society to be complacent and free of rebellious, freedom-seeking tendencies.
The shock of knowledge and literature in translation became the medium in which I moved from a young age.

The captivating world of books

I’m trying now to reimagine the assault that the adolescent girl I was faced from books, and their captivating worlds that transformed her psychologically and physically at the same time. I began writing not by choice, but because I had been kidnapped, and I had grown to identify with my captors. I was not yet 14 when I was called by Maxim Gorky’s The Mother, and I couldn’t stop, consumed by a desire to connect with the exciting, different Other, who filled my head with positions and countries that became a part of my visions and positions. I would try them on and they would make me more beautiful, more dangerous, giving me access to peoples who, in turn, did not have access to a forbidden place like Mecca. My readings led me to study for and complete an undergraduate degree in English literature; and academic study introduced me to the development of writing in the West, from Homer and Sophocles to the impossible work of James Joyce and the absurdity of Samuel Beckett, with a particular pause by Shakespeare, whose plays we drank in during summer open-air performances in British parks. My father sent us away each summer to learn English, and I soaked up the theatre and English poetry.
From English literature, I set off on adventures with Rimbaud in Africa, fought windmills with Don Quixote, followed Marquez into one hundred years of solitude, and stopped by Borges’ universal library. I was baffled by Miguel Angel Asturias’ brevity in El Alhajadito, and sank into the Japanese rituals described in Yasunari Kawabata’s writings. I believe that whenever we write, we are trying to rewrite what we have read, in an attempt to unknot our need for more, and to uncover what those writers who came before us couldn’t: the cavity of human desire for a lost world, or an ideal world that we lost at some moment in our formation. I think that I continue to write and rewrite Marco Polo’s stand in Kubla Khan’s palace, as depicted in Coleridge’s poem, with his attempts to capture towns and wondrous worlds in the things he brought back from them. I am still searching for witnesses, as I dive alongside D H Lawrence into the alchemy of human relationships, and his autopsies of their complicated balances, which transform each action and each glance into a concoction writhing with contradictions, but which the mind tries to reconcile with itself despite these myriad contradictions. Lawrence’s books are a blind fumbling in the cavern of the human soul at the moment of love mixed with hatred, of instinct confronted with the rational mind’s attempts to hide it, and the crushing transcendence in all of this, which we avoid publicizing except in literary texts. This openness led to him being described as an erotic writer, and led him into voluntary exile, which he called a “savage pilgrimage” and into which we voluntarily enter when we choose to write and we become bold enough to announce this. Lawrence’s Women in Love return and are made flesh in my novel The Doves’ Necklace, and Marco Polo is reborn in Italo Calvino’s poetic Invisible Cities, just as the 1001 Nights re-emerge in Borges’ work.
When I look at the pyramid of my reading, I realise that no matter how much we read, we are cognisant of the universal text, which artists clash over, or try with all their might to integrate into their cultural products. Like other writers, I will continue to be compelled to try and incorporate this into my writings.
The 1.5 million words of In Search of Lost Time, which Marcel Proust worked on until his death, deepened my understanding of literature as a time capsule, or a tool to recreate the everyday and deepen it by connecting it to the past and the present. It was inevitable that In Search of Lost Time would be rejected by every publisher, including André Gide, because it was challenging, endless, continuing to chase the endless memories of a man who described a life that passed by as he spent his days in bed. In one form or another, I see literature not as documentation of the passing of days as much as a challenge, a call to renewal and to once more search for the moment or the event, and the fugitive nature of place.In fact, this book rewrites the role played by the Bedouin women of the Srat mountains in its proposal that people are just holes in time; or, in other words, shows that they occupy a certain chunk of time with their experiences. Literature, music and art are attempts to enter these capsules, to decipher them and the contents of the universal library in order to arrive at absolute truths about being, and to transmit them to others.

Philosophy, science fiction and mystery

As much as one reads, one feels the need for serious content in writing, as well as lightness. A true revolution on my journey towards combining the serious with adventure happened with the novel Atlas Shrugged, which introduced me to the Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand. One may wonder where Rand’s philosophy is placed in the context of my spiritual background, since this philosophy calls for individualism, and for exalting reason as the only way to reach knowledge. But I was captivated by this novel that mixes philosophy, science fiction and mystery. The title refers to Atlas, who in Greek mythology is a Titan, a giant who holds the weight of the world on his shoulders. Ayn Rand explores a dystopian United States where she invites Atlas, symbolising the country’s leading innovators, industrialists and artists, to shrug, refusing to be exploited by society. A call by the charismatic John Galt to stop the “mind” or “motor” of the world thrilled me as a teenager, because a world in which the individual is not free to create is doomed. I, innocently, then considered myself one of those people of the Mind, or mind of the world, and assimilated Rand’s Objectivist Ethics into my writing: rationality, honesty, justice, independence, integrity, productiveness and pride.
On the other hand, my reading did not create an intellectual haven for me, or bring me into the folds of my intellectual tribe; in fact, it made me believe that genius consists of a few moments of intense solitude, moments of soaring high in a private kingdom where we cannot allow society to hold a prisoner or govern. This viewpoint continues to extend over my own being and the world as a whole: if we give the moment of writing or artistic expression this particular sanctity, then we should also give it to the living moment, allowing for freedom of expression in body and soul simultaneously.
And from there emerged my vision of the body, this monster that they scare us into not approaching. The mask was torn off, and my attitude to the physical was revised through an active, silent construction that meant I deliberated over each book that invoked spiritual or physical love, beginning with the platonic love that emerges from listening to evening recitals of the 1001 Nights, to the love in Lawrence’s novels, which is closer to a heightening of the soul and body in order to become one with the Other and with the universe as a whole. It was inevitable that I would be drawn to this exaltation of the physical act at its most physical, when an author like Rand describes it – i.e. sex – as the highest celebration of human values, a physical response to intellectual and spiritual values that gives concrete expression to what could otherwise be experienced only in the abstract.
An act of complete becoming
Thus, physical love was constructed in my consciousness as an act of complete becoming, and in this sense, we can find its deep ramifications in the idea, which exists even in Islam, that we will be reborn in our bodies, not only our souls, on Judgment Day, and that our bodies will be returned after they have wasted away through death. We have not stopped asking: “Why resuscitate the body that we struggle against and fear?” Unconsciously, perhaps my writing seeks to answer this question and leave the body to achieve its everyday mission – not just the final mission of Judgment Day. For this reason, the most important impression on the structure of my books has come from my reading, which has not been confined to realism but also includes literary works that propose a vision of the world and of humanity with their composed artistic narratives – epic, historical, philosophical and existential. From Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which follows a historical humanist moment, to the epics of the contemporary Italian author Roberto Calasso, who dedicates volumes to rewriting the classics of Greek and Hindu mythology and understanding human psychology, as well as to the works of the British writer John Berger. An art critic, novelist and writer, Berger’s writings are the ideal combination for the contemporary intellectual collapsing the boundaries between artistic genres, mixing painting with novels and music in an unabashed manner in works such as Ways of Seeing, which is about how to see and how to read art and thought. Berger has never stopped painting and in his writing he allows his characters to move dynamically between life and death without placing limitations between those two worlds as he searches for new ways to narrate – whether through cinema or books, such as Another Way of Telling, produced in collaboration with his friend  the photographer Jean Mohr, and where they use both photography and the written word to document and understand the intimate experiences of farmers, as well as global issues.
Writing holds me because it is the act of eternal revisiting. This is a continuation, or the necessary result of literature’s early grasp on me, where my reading began as an act of salvation that I undertook in an environment like that of Mecca, as a person who immersed themselves in genius, in soul after soul, endlessly. What was unique was that I was following a line that came from the cover of each book, under the phrase: “By the same author”. I would follow that thread and read everything by that author, as if there were a spiritual guide invisibly leading my steps towards more of what was happening in the minds of the innovators of the world.
The explosive substance – thinking
The philosophers who were considered aberrant in this Meccan environment were the foundational authors of my reading. Their books were not present in bookstores, which only displayed traditional and religious texts. Indeed, thinking was an explosive substance, banned in an environment such as Mecca. However, despite this, we would find ways to get hold of and become inhabited by Nietzsche, Kant, Simone de Beauvoir, as well as by Sartre, Sigmund Freud and Umberto Eco – through our summer travels, and by furtive bartering with hidden readers like ourselves, whom we uncovered through a secret sense of empathy. A reader can be discerned at a glance, like one possessed; by looking into a reader’s eyes, you can see what is beyond the visible, and beyond the veil which surrounds us under the pretext of protecting us from our minds being “tainted” by the ideas of the other, or by ideas in general. It is depressing that these interlopers didn’t succeed in overcoming our minds. They led me back to my people, in a return to books of Sufi mysticism and Arab culture, and I returned to the latter with a discerning eye, broadened by the minds and eyes of the writers who inhabited me. I searched out ancient works such as Qazwini’s Aja’ib al-Makhluqat (The Wonders of Creation), and Jahiz’s Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of the Animals), which are themselves wonderful works of scientific imagination. Jahiz’s book in particular became in its way a guide for conjuring words and knowledge out of letters; his book is constructed of letters, and the beings these letters lead to, and the stories of these beings, as well as cures and historical testimonials. Jahiz’s Kitab al-Hayawan taught me that the letter is nothing but the universal library, and that I could enter it and become lost in it – and create miracles.
Modernity and Sufi Mysticism
Against the expectations of those who tried to entomb us in the official school curricula, to protect our virtue and normalise us so that we wouldn’t surprise them with anything new to challenge their stagnation, my brain didn’t seize up and my vision of the world wasn’t affected and I had no trouble linking Ibn Arabi, Sahrawradi, al-Nafari and al-Rumi with volumes of contemporary philosophy.
How does one compare these writers’ ultimate mysticism with the materialism of Western philosophy? For me, this happened spontaneously, yet logically, forming my identity, which combines modernity and post-modernity coupled with mysticism and a language like that of those mystics who led the fates of the Arabian peninsula through the pre-Islamic period.

The River and its Extensive Quest

It is amazing to discover that my sense of being on the earth is shared by Western writers, such as the Swiss-German Herman Hesse, who is one of the bridges between my Eastern and Western troves, between the material and the spiritual. In his novel Siddhartha Hesse follows the path of his hero towards enlightenment, revealing that Siddhartha does not learn true wisdom from any teacher, but from a river that roars in a strange way and from an old fool who always smiles and is secretly a saint.
This river is the sum of his experiences, both pleasurable and painful, and in this river flow all beings, and the same river is in the Qur’an, which mentions that it will appear in Paradise, and that the souls of all beings will flow in it; everything that lives will be in it, and it is called the “River of Animals”. This river encapsulates my vision of the world and of humanity, which I perceive as a river that includes all colours, religions, and visions, in its extensive quest for enlightenment, perfection or unification with the Absolute.

Translated by Ghenwa Hayek

published in Banipal 42 Autumn/Winter 2011