For love & loss in Makkah

Pushing backward, I attempt to protect their frail bodies. ‘You’re killing them!’ I scream…

(I first read this piece on a contest site called FieldReport. Over the years I’ve looked for it, but the site vanished and I could never find the author and his work anywhere else online. Fortunately, my husband had a cut and paste copy that I sent him all those years ago, so that when I heard of the deaths in Mecca, I could read this piece again and share it with you, and slip into the mystery that is humanity and devotion and art…)

The Dust in God’s Eye
Thomas Joyce
March 2001

cubeKaabaBlackStoneMidnight. The moon is full overhead, a flat white disk in an onyx void rising above the maelstrom. A swirling sea of potential accretes into patterns of motion, congeals into protoplasmic organization, dissolves into a sound, an all-consuming idea, a single word that cannot be grasped by intellect.

My teacher, Yassir, told me the Arabic word qutbmeans “axis,” the spiritual center, the point upon which the whole world and all the dervishes spin in perfect tranquility. Not so much a place, he explained, as a state of mind. Fixing my attention on the black Cube, the meteorite set like a great jewel into its Eastern corner—Hajar al-Aswad—is just visible above the newly shaven heads of a hundred thousand ecstatic hajjis spinning around the tranquil eye of the cyclone.

Finally, I understand what Yassir was talking about.

Toeing the line of dark marble that cuts diagonally across the plaza to al-Ka’bah, I salute the meteorite in its silver setting and prepare for tawwaf al’wadah—my farewell circumambulation of Al-Llâh’s house in Makkah—neither spelled or pronounced “Mecca” by any Muslim worth his prayer rug.

Slipping into the interstices between sweating pilgrims, I’m drawn in toward the Cube’s magnetic vortex. By the time I’ve completed the fifth circuit, I’m only twenty feet from the structure, close enough now to see the details of its kiswah,the elegant black-on-black verses from Al-Qur’ân embroidered into the finely woven veil, gently undulating in a breeze generated by heat rising from the whirling bodies beneath its hem. Al-Ka’bah beckons me closer, invites me to reach out my hand and touch its silken veil.

Rounding the horseshoe enclosure called Hijr Isma’il, I look up to see a golden rainspout jutting from the northwestern rooftop of the Cube. As that thunderstorm blew across the Plain of ‘Arafat several days ago, hajjis danced beneath the deluge of water pouring from this spout, baptized in a fountain of bliss. It was the first time in 25 years that rain fell during Hajj. A sign from heaven, everyone said.

Extruded through the transient gaps between bodies, I suddenly find myself pressed up against the cool, sloping foundation of al-Ka’bah. Enormous brass mooring rings are fitted into the stone, and through their holes, a rope—at least ten inches in diameter—is threaded around the perimeter beneath the roughly chiseled granite blocks. Hajjis are perched like circus performers on the rope’s slick hemp, hugging the wall beneath the kiswah, adoring the structure as if it were the very source of life. Laying my palms flat against the wall, I run my fingertips over the strips of yellow-beige marble that appeared from a distance to be golden mortar. The construction is impeccable, every detail crafted with love, every stitch on the veil’s surface inserted with a prayer for perfection—art elevated to the level of worship.

Within ten feet of the meteorite, determination builds to frenzy, an excruciating crush of flesh against flesh. I’m barely able to breathe as a human tidal wave breaks against my chest. At the corner of the Cube, where the silver bezel protrudes from the granite foundation, an eddy of pilgrims washes back against the flow, pressing in all directions at once. But I hold my ground, keep my sites fixed on the glittering silver “eye” into which Hajar al-Aswad is set like a black diamond.

Two feet now—so close—almost within an arm’s length. But there is an old Tajik hugging the silver eye for dear life, his head inserted into the orifice as if he would die of grief were his gnarly fingers to be pried loose. A dozen hajjis are tugging at him, pushing against his brittle, brown body, but he remains rigid, intransigent, obsessed. Watching the old man, feeling his agony as if it were my own, I lose focus, feel myself being ripped away from the wall. The “Nigerian Wedge” thrusts into the gap—a well-practiced, fluidly incisive team of glistening black bodies—shears through the dense pack of pilgrims, finding space where space had not existed a moment earlier. An unstoppable force of nature.

And I scream like one of those absurd cinematic slow-mo sequences where the hero can’t reach the bomb in time—”Nooooo!”—but cannot even hear my own plea above the synchronized chanting of the Nigerians. A human riptide spits me into the eddy beyond the stone and carries me like a helpless shard of driftwood out to sea. I glance up to the soldier on duty above Hajar al-Aswad, clinging for dear life to his leather lanyard, watching indifferently as the old Tajik is brutally slammed backward and sucked into the maelstrom.

But it’s as if some magnetic field draws me back into al-Ka’bah’s shadow, close in beneath its great golden door. Hajjis climb on the ledge beneath to touch its sublime surface, grope upward toward its embossed medallions as if it were Heaven’s own gate. Squeezed against the horseshoe curve of Hijr Isma’il once again, I’m shunted along on the current, beneath mirrored sunglasses masking the watchful eyes of Sa’udi guards. A Turk who has fainted from exhaustion is lifted onto the low wall out of harm’s way by his fellow pilgrims, given water from the Zamzam well beneath the plaza by a soldier in black beret. Rounding the Yamani corner and flattened against the Ka’bah’s eastern wall, I glance upward at a line of pilgrims balancing tentatively on the thick rope skirting its foundation. A Sudanese man smiles blissfully down at me, touches his brown hand to the silken kiswah and then places it on my sodden head like a blessing, a sanction of renewal—a green light.

Six feet to go…four feet…two…Twenty minutes pass in agony; nothing moves. There is only pressure, only an unrelenting equilibrium. A crush of Iraqis men, wearing orange caps and vests, slams in from the south attempting to break through the crowd. Right in front of me, two tiny Bosnian women in delicate whitehijab and lacey decorative bands across their furrowed foreheads are smashed between my chest and the silver eye of Hajar al-Aswad. Pushing backward, I attempt to protect their frail bodies from the onslaught, but all I can do is watch helplessly as their little mouths gasp like drowning birds, their pleas swallowed by the ubiquitous sonic violence. “You’re killing them!” I scream for mercy, but no one cares or hears. Yassir’s face flashes across my overloaded synapses, his fatalistic explanation echoing through my inner ear.

This is Hajj, Tâ-Hâ.

There is no choice but to surrender to the eye of the storm, let go any hope of control. And suddenly—miraculously—the little Bosnian women reach the silver cradle and kiss the black meteorite within like a baby. And then they disappear, swept into waves of groping arms and contorted faces as my fingers wraps around the stone’s silver eyelid, cool to the touch. Other hands try to pry me loose, but that is impossible. No one but Al-Llâh can move me now.

Inches away… all my strength is focused singularly on the point where the metal flange blends seamlessly into the surface of the black meteorite. I can see it clearly now—the stone that fell from heaven—irregular chunks of taupe and flecks of silver glittering in the synthetic halogen sunlight, suspended in a charcoal matrix torn from the recesses of deep space by the same irresistible forces that have drawn me here. The metacarpal joints of my left hand extend beyond their previous range until I feel the smooth irregular surface beneath my fingertips.

And then I slip into the gap, that space between each thought—the still center of the universe—and find myself staring directly into the tranquil qutb, which whispers its secret into my surrendered heart.

Tâ-Hâ, look around you—all these specks of dust, turning and spinning and going nowhere at all. Do you see yourself? But wait! Who is looking? Ah, it isyou—here at the very center of everything—the answer to all your own questions.

Moments before I’m swept back into the vortex, my teacher’s face appears, his smile as bright as the sunrise. And with that light comes the answer I’ve been seeking all my life.

So I scream it at the top of my lungs to every breathless pilgrim scrambling for blessings in the great Haram of Makkah. I scream it to the black meteorite in its silver setting, to the white moon in its boundless heaven, to the One who constantly creates and moves it all. I scream it in laughter and in tears, with a clarity I’ve never felt before. I scream it to everyone who ever doubted me, everyone who thought me a pretender. I scream it to the teacher who saw through my hubris and ignorance, through the dust that clouded my vision until right now.

And mostly, I scream it to myself—so I will never forget. Because, even if only for this fleeting moment of eternity, I know what saints and sages discovered at the end of their long dark nights, what heroes and heretics came to know at the end of all their exploring.

The Truth that shines eternally beneath the dust in God’s eye.

(The Dust in God’s Eye, Thomas Joyce)

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