If Las Vegas is the city that never sleeps, Mecca is the city that never stops praying. At all moments in the downtown core, you can find people heading to Masjid Al-Haram (or just “The Haram”), the mosque that contains the Ka’bah. In addition to that, it’s also a bustling economic powerhouse with international franchises setting up shop just a short walk from the holiest site in Islam. It feels surprisingly close to a metropolitan city in Canada, like Toronto; people are always moving, always trying to get somewhere or get to something. Mecca never stops.
One of the people I met summed up Mecca brilliantly: “Medina is tranquility; Mecca is the power.”
Blazingly hot and surprisingly humid.
Once, when I was in the Haram, I took my sandals off and put them down (trust me, this is related to the climate). A janitor must have thought they were garbage, because when I came back they were gone. It was early afternoon, when the sun was at its hottest. The courtyard and surrounding area of Masjid Al-Haram is paved with white marble tiles, and so on my walk back to our hotel, my bare feet were toasty, but is was manageable. Our hotel was just across the street from the Haram. The white marble ended and then I was walking on bare, brown sidewalk.
My feet erupted.
It felt like I was walking on the top of an oven. I managed maybe ten steps before the pain became too much, and I turned back, seeking refuge on the island of white marble. So here I was, stranded and shoeless, unable to cross the street to get to the hotel to grab my extra pair of sandals. Mercifully, there was a mall that was close enough to the Haram that I could get in without cooking my feet, and I went and bought a new pair of sandals. But still, I never thought in my entire life that a sidewalk could get that hot.
Mecca during the day is constantly alive. The shopping centres are crowded. Masjid Al-Haram is usually full so the guards block entrance to some of the main gates to prevent congestion. Looking at the guards, I’m amazed that they don’t cook; they are dressed in full army uniform, with beige pants, long-sleeve shirts, black boots and berets.
The crowds in Mecca were huge. Once, after prayer, I could see an army’s-worth of people walking back along one of the roads that lead into the Haram. Life here is much different than Medina. People are constantly on the move. Rarely is it a relaxing atmosphere.
Yet even among all of the trade and bustle, as soon as the adhan (call to prayer) goes off—five times a day, without fault—the shops close, the people file out of the malls, and everyone finds a spot to pray. If there’s a spot open, be it on a sidewalk or on a street, then someone will go to pray there. Everything from traffic to trade stops 5 times a day. When everyone is finished praying, the crowd disperses and the bustle continues.
The shops in Mecca were similar to the ones in Medina. In the malls there were clothing shops just for families. Niqab-wearing women would sometimes be in charge of these shops, or would be proprietors of women’s-only boutiques. In Mecca, there were a few more stores that were similar to stores at home; that is, they were large, took up a lot of space, and sold designer clothing. There was one supermarket chain, called Bin Dawood, that felt very much like a London Drugs in that it sold a little bit of everything; fruits, groceries, clothing, medicine, sandals, and so on.
The currency in Saudi Arabia is called a riyal, but they don’t really use a “cent” in their currency. Officially, a “cent” is called a halalah, but prices there go by riyal only. So when my order came to however-many riyals and some-odd halalah, I was just given the riyals and a small pack of gum instead. I think Canada should follow suite, and replace all cents with packs of gum.
One day I walked away from the downtown core of Mecca. It was a long strip of road with columns of hotels blocking the day’s heat with their shadows. Most of the signs were in Arabic. Unfortunately, a common sight in these parts of the city are beggars that sit in the middle of the street. They are mostly children, girls, and almost always African. Those with missing limbs will sit or kneel on the street, displaying the stumps of their arms and calling out for charity. Most of the time there is an older woman at the end of the line of children, perhaps their mother. This was common even on the roads of Hajj—no doubt, a profitable time to beg.
It was in Mecca that I fully realized the extent of Saudi Arabia’s love of fried chicken.
There was a small mall attached to the hotel we stayed in. One afternoon I went up into the food court to get some lunch and, no word of a lie, there were at least 5 or 6 fried chicken restaurants—some right beside each other. Outside, I saw a KFC, but it was small potatoes compared to the beast known as Al Baik.
I had heard legends of Al Baik’s fame while in Canada. My friends who had travelled into Saudi before would tell me, “you have to go to Al Baik”. And it wasn’t that hard to miss. It’s the only restaurant I saw that was so commercialized and widespread that it even had banners advertising it on street lamps. And so, in spite of the 5 other relatively empty fried chicken joints nearby, almost everyone was lining up at Al Baik. It was like standing in line for security at an airport. People would file into the line-up, and if the line got too big it would be closed for a moment to let the line ease up. When I got to the front, I ordered a chicken wrap which only cost between 3-6 riyals (equivalent to about $1 or $2 here). And for a $1 or $2 sandwich, it tasted pretty good. Not as mind-blowing as the legends claimed. But if a chain started here in Canada, it might give Mary Brown’s a run for its money—just barely though. It wouldn’t be able to scratch the surface of KFC, though. Al Baik over there is like KFC over here. It’s practically synonymous with fried chicken.
Apart from fried chicken, there was a Starbucks-style cafe in our hotel called Costa, as well as a Turkish place. In the core of Mecca, there weren’t many local restaurants. Ice cream was, as expected, a bit of a novelty. There was a tiny shack stationed just outside the Haram that sold it, and after Friday Prayers (jummah) it was swarmed in a sea of people.