I was briefly in London yesterday dropping off chocolate brownies at Pan Macmillan’s offices, and decided to head to the British Museum. The last time I was there, I didn’t have time to see the main exhibition, but saw that it was still running. That was Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam.
One of the five pillars of Islam central to Muslim belief, Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must make at least once in their lifetime if they are able. This major exhibition charts the history of this deeply personal journey.
The British Museum is the first of any museum in the world to focus on this epic pilgrimage and, as a non-Muslim, I’d not be able to witness the Hajj in real life.
I’ll admit my knowledge of Islam in general was also not up to scratch really. We in the west are given a funnelled view of it, so I also knew that I couldn’t really trust my instincts on the matter. I went in with an open mind and was rewarded by seeing some remarkably profound items, and by leaving with a greater understanding of Islam.
The exhibition began where many parts of modern life have their roots: in antiquity. Old routes for the pilgrimage were mapped out in the context of former empires, and one can only imagine what this must have meant to those Muslims on the journey. It wasn’t the case of stepping on a jet plane back then, but epic treks from – literally – Timbuktu and beyond. People crossed continents and seas. Cities sprung up on route because of these routes to Mecca, and at these sites a phenomenal number of objects had been uncovered and were on display: from antique compasses to locate East, to old books, coins, combs, as well as beautiful textiles. It was remarkable to see the transition of the pilgrimage over time, yet of course, the fundamentals and rituals have remained unchanged ever since the early 7th Century.
Personally, one of the more lingering points was seeing hypnotic time-lapsed footage of modern day pilgrims walking around the Ka’bah, the black cube structure that has remained on site for centuries, and the centre point of the Hajj. It’s captured resplendently in Ahmad Mater’s Magnetism, which is the artwork you can see at the top of this blog post, and which was one of the lasting images of the exhibition. It shows so perfectly the notion of the overwhelming crowds and their faith, as well as the deep sense of love and peace embedded within the religion.
If the aim of the British Museum is for people to better understand the world, then there is no more suitable exhibition than this. At a time where our often sabre-rattling media would willingly portray Islam in a negative light at every opportunity, this remains a stark and poetic contrast, and rewards an open mind. It is certainly well worth your time (though you’ve not got long left to visit it).
Quite simply the most impressive museum I’ve ever set foot in. There’s a breathtaking array of items, many of which date back thousands of years and come from all over the world. I was struck by the beauty of the Greek and Roman collection (statues, amphorae, armour and so on), as well as the Byzantine art (particularly the chalices pictured above). If you ever do go to New York, this is a must-see destination, though make sure to set yourself at least a day to walk around it all. I can’t think of anywhere quite like it.
Before I stumbled into writing, music was my thing, ever since I was about six years old. I played various instruments over the years – keyboards, bass guitar, guitar, clarinet, and a weird spell on the french horn that didn’t last long. One of the things I loved about music – especially performing it at whatever level, even just in front of friends – was the joys of spontaneity. The kind of connection you get with an audience, mutually acknowledging a sweet note, or just seeing where improvisation leads you.
Writing doesn’t really do that. Writing is something that is done behind closed doors, showing few people until you’re ready; polishing, discussion, labouring the point, editing, proofing – and then, eventually, putting it in front of an audience. There’s a time lag of up to a year between the finished product leaving your hands and it appearing in someone else’s.
Writing doesn’t do spontaneity well. It doesn’t do improvisation. It doesn’t have that two-way interaction with an audience, and it’s one of my enduring frustrations with the art. The little creative thrills are limited to a good scene you just thought of, or a smart line that has you smiling, but even then, the instant sense of self-satisfaction is probably not a good thing (people can easily hear their own good riffs or bad notes, but not so much a good paragraph – one of the reasons terrible writers can’t always see that they’re terrible).
However, something I’m working on at the moment does kind of recapture some of this two-way ground. It brings writing into being a pseudo-performance (even though the delay until publication could be a year or so). I never like talking about unpublished things (because they could forever remain unpublished), but I’m really enjoying creating a plot that revolves around a locked-room mystery.
Becoming conscious – at a highly pedantic level – of deception, trickery, of showing the reader something that’s impossible, brings back that sense of interaction with an audience again, much more so than when I’m writing a standard plot. In fact, the audience is much more central to my thinking because of the locked-room mystery at the heart of matters. It’s not direct feedback from the audience, I’m kind of splitting my mind into thinking on behalf of the audience, but because of that new sense of pseudo-interaction, I haven’t had this much fun in years.