The Key to the Labyrinth: Boundaries and Spaces in Raǧāʾ ʿĀlim’s Novel The Dove’s Necklace

In: Quaderni di Studi Arabi
Richard van Leeuwen Lecturer in Islamic and Arabic studies, University of Amsterdam Amsterdam The Netherlands

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As an urban structure, Mecca is inscribed with several layers of meaning. It is the place where the Divine revelation of Islam took place; it is the setting of the life and preaching of the prophet Muhammad; and it is the location of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage, with its sacred and ritual sites. These complex domains of signification are related/separated by various kinds of boundaries, which are made even more intricate by the strict Wahhabi regime of religiosity and social segregation and Saudi policies of urban reconstruction. All these influences result in a fragmented spatial structure, and, concomitantly, in a fragmented social structure, which are both to some extent hidden in the folds of the urban landscape. In this contribution, the boundaries between the various domains will be discussed as they are portrayed, and contested, in the novel Ṭawq al-ḥamām (The Dove’s Necklace) by the Saudi author Raǧāʾ ʿĀlim. It will be explained how several characters are described as either upholding, breaking, preserving, and challenging the diverse boundaries vested in Mecca as a container of a profound religious heritage.


As an urban structure, Mecca is inscribed with several layers of meaning. It is the place where the Divine revelation of Islam took place; it is the setting of the life and preaching of the prophet Muhammad; and it is the location of the hajj, the annual pilgrimage, with its sacred and ritual sites. These complex domains of signification are related/separated by various kinds of boundaries, which are made even more intricate by the strict Wahhabi regime of religiosity and social segregation and Saudi policies of urban reconstruction. All these influences result in a fragmented spatial structure, and, concomitantly, in a fragmented social structure, which are both to some extent hidden in the folds of the urban landscape. In this contribution, the boundaries between the various domains will be discussed as they are portrayed, and contested, in the novel Ṭawq al-ḥamām (The Dove’s Necklace) by the Saudi author Raǧāʾ ʿĀlim. It will be explained how several characters are described as either upholding, breaking, preserving, and challenging the diverse boundaries vested in Mecca as a container of a profound religious heritage.

Any list of the most peculiar places on earth would certainly contain Mecca, the Holy City of Islam, which is situated in one of the most desolate desert areas of the world. It is a town in which a rich historical and cultural heritage has accumulated, but it is also a small enclosure of human residence within a relentless environment, where life has always been precarious, and where natural resources are extremely scarce. It is perhaps because of these anomalous conditions that Mecca has always had an extraordinary attraction for the human imagination. It is certainly the main reason why space and spatial characteristics have acquired deeply vested meanings during the course of time, accentuating its uniqueness and regulating its potential as a habitat for a community. The spatial contrasts are so overwhelming, that the boundaries between them have become saturated with various kinds of signification.

Evidently, the main contrast, in this respect, is derived from the tension between its isolated location and its vital importance as the cradle of Islam, where the Prophet Muhammad received his revelation and where a religion was hatched that spread to large parts of the world. Subsequently, Mecca became the focal centre of a world religion and of a powerful religious imagination. As a place where the Divine revelation occurred, and where God communicated with humanity, Mecca became the location where a form of transcendence was impregnated into a material, earthly, environment. Henceforth, the history of Mecca, as a social and geographical place, was inextricably interwoven with this transcendental dimension, which perhaps remained extant within its confines, and could still be evoked by believers from the visible traces it had left behind. Perhaps communication with the Divine remained possible here, but in order to explore this possibility, its spatial condition had to be consciously and carefully constructed, both in the material and in the discursive sense.

The tension between the material, historical and social aspects of Mecca on the one hand, and its transcendental potential on the other hand, is the main theme of the ambitious novel Ṭawq al-ḥamām (The Dove’s Necklace) by the Saudi Arabian author Raǧāʾ ʿĀlim, which focuses not only on the rich religious heritage of the town, but also on the interventions in its urban structure in recent years.1 In a previous article, I have outlined some intertextual connections in this work, which embeds it in the tradition of modern Arabic literature and trends in (post-) modernity.2 In this contribution, I will concentrate on the spatial aspects of the story, which, I argue, is the main narrative framework structuring the narrative on both the formal and thematic levels. Before embarking on a discussion of the novel, it is convenient to first briefly sketch the historical and religious contexts which have defined Mecca as it became in modern times, and in which its imagined significance was consolidated. In ʿĀlim’s novel, too, the convergence of history and religion is of primary importance in the portrayal of Mecca’s destiny.

1 The Discursive Context

As observed above, the symbolic significance of Mecca was first of all established by the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad and the subsequent formation of Islam as a new religion. During the course of time, this prophetic “event” was embedded in a wider religious discourse which included the incorporation of Mecca into the general history of Divine revelation. First, in accordance with the Qur’an, the Kaʿba in the Great Mosque was defined as the House of God, marking God’s connection with the earthly realm. It was stated that it was built by Ibrāhīm, the patriarch of all monotheistic religions, and was situated straight beneath God’s throne. Together with Adam, who was reunited with Eve on the Mountain of Mercy at ʿArafa, near Mecca, after their fall from paradise, Ibrāhīm confirmed Mecca’s incorporation into the history of prophets and Divine revelation and secured its link with the very origins of monotheistic religiosity. Several places in and around Mecca became associated with this legendary pre-history, such as the Zamzam well, which was found by Hāǧar and her son Ismāʿīl when they were banned to the Arabian desert, and thereby enabled the foundation of Mecca as a permanent settlement.3

Second, the space of Mecca witnessed, contained and preserved the various events of the birth of Islam and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, ranging from the cave of Ḥirāʾ, where he received his revelations, to his birth house, the house of Ḫadīǧa, his spouse, the houses of his companions, and the places where famous incidents occurred. In Mecca the believers can walk “in the Prophet’s footsteps”, which clearly contributes to a significant religious experience.

Third, the status of Mecca had to be defined in religious discourse more generally, as a component of the faith. It was elevated to the rank of “sacred precinct”, or Ḥaram, which was topographically defined, and which imbued it with a set of privileges and taboos. On the instigation of the Prophet, who continued an age-old custom, Mecca was designated as the destination of the main pilgrimage of Islam, the hajj, which henceforth remained mandatory for all Muslims. The regulations of the hajj and its various rites were carefully described in Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), and the infrastructure of the town was dominated by the facilities and ritual procedures connected with them. Because of their pivotal importance, Mecca and the pilgrimage became the subject of religious debates about orthodoxy, but also of historical and geographical treatises, travel accounts, and spiritual works. The town was inculcated in the collective imagination as an object of “longing” (šawq), a destination of one of the religious obligations (farḍ), and as a source of spirituality and symbolism, which emphasized its potential for religious experience, moral admonition and mystical allegory.4

These transcendental, historical, and religious assets of Mecca were quite explicitly projected into its space, which was organized in a detailed “sacred geography” and the settings of the various ritual acts. They transformed Mecca into a huge repository of symbolic capital which self-evidently situated it in the intricacies of political interests, especially since through the pilgrimage it was connected with the Muslim community worldwide and thereby transcended local and regional political struggles. This generated another of Mecca’s contradictions; although it was isolated and barely sustainable in the economic sense, Mecca was also tightly linked to the world outside. Pilgrims from all over the Muslim world flocked to Mecca each year for the hajj, and many settled there and formed migrant communities. Because of its desolate surroundings, the town had to be provided with food and commodities from outside. Conversely, it emanated significant religious charisma, which could be exploited for pious and ideological purposes. The great Muslim empires of early modernity, the Mamluks and Ottomans, were eager to establish their hold of the Hijaz and act as guardians of the Holy Places. For the Ottomans, in particular, the incorporation of Mecca into their empire in 1517 became one of their main political and administrative concerns.5

It was this “cosmopolitan” side of Mecca that generated tensions with its direct environment, particularly the Bedouin tribes for whom Mecca was both a source of income and a centre of intrusive authority. In the second half of the 18th century these tensions resulted in the Saʿūdī-Wahhābī revolt against the Šarīf of Mecca and his Ottoman overlords. This revolt was guided by the strictly orthodox ideas of the reformer Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1703–1792), who threatened all those opposing his ideas with excommunication (takfīr). The Saʿūdī family of Najd adopted his mission and succeeded in occupying Mecca and Medina between 1806 and 1811. They were defeated and routed in the 1820s, but they resumed their struggle during World War I, and finally shook off the remnants of Ottoman authority in 1924 and founded the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Once again, their campaign was harmonized with the Wahhābī interpretation of the faith, which was combined with a vision of a modern society and an independent nation. In practice, this implied a symbiotic relationship of the Saudi rulers and their associates with the religious scholars of the Wahhābī conviction, led by the al-Shaykh family, the descendants of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb.6

The new historical developments had a great impact on the status of Mecca as an urban constituency and as a religious centre. The cosmopolitan community of Mecca was put under the authority of a more inwardly directed regional dynasty which had sprung forth from the Arabian tribes, which were culturally and socially completely different. The town was incorporated into a political entity in which it was, to some extent, a Fremdkörper, but in which it still fulfilled vital functions as a centre of pilgrimage and religiosity. Moreover, the strictly orthodox religious ideology of the regime resulted – as it had in the previous Wahhābī interlude – in the demolition of a large number of buildings and historical monuments, such as the birth house of the Prophet, the houses of Ḫadīǧa and several companions of the Prophet, and the mausolea of historical figures and rightly-guided caliphs. The argument was that these buildings could become sites of veneration and thus could harm the doctrine of the unity of God, who, after all, was the only legitimate “object” of veneration. Apart from this systematic destruction, the regime of the pilgrimage was transformed to accommodate to the new religious and “modern” requirements.7

After the consolidation of Saudi and Wahhābī power in the 1950s, the interventions in the urban space of Mecca became a regular phenomenon, ranging from the expansion and renovation of the Great Mosque to the construction of hotels and other facilities for pilgrims. Over time, these projects contributed to the emergence of a group of real estate developing companies that became tightly connected with the regime. These companies not only acquired enormous wealth; they also enabled the government to strengthen its grip on Mecca and its inhabitants by transforming the spatial environment in accordance with their interests, and gradually marginalizing the Meccan socio-economic elite. After the Gulf War of 1989–1991, in particular, ambitious programmes for the reconstruction of Mecca were launched aimed at completely reshaping the urban structure of the city and changing its social fabric. These projects were legitimated by the argument that the facilities for pilgrims would be improved and that sites of illicit veneration had to be destroyed. It was clear, however, that the projects were primarily intended to suit the interests of investment companies and to rebuilt Mecca as a space reflecting the historical role of the Saudi family in the foundation and development of Saudi Arabia. Traces of the Ottoman past and several sites of religious symbolic value had to be erased, to recreate Mecca in the regime’s image.8

The reconstruction of Mecca can be seen as an example of gentrification linked to the interests of an economic elite that has developed under the conditions of globalization and late-capitalism. It was legitimated by the regime partly by referring to its task to serve the Muslim umma as a whole by improving the accommodations for the hajj. This claim of religious universality obviously clashed with the interests of the local population, whose daily life, both in the social and in the religious sense, was disrupted by the combination of Saudi capitalism and Wahhābī puritanism. The traditional spatial structure of Mecca, which had been shaped by age-old cosmopolitan interaction, was sacrificed to enable the regime to finalize its trajectory towards turning the town into a Saudi domain.9 It is at this point that ʿĀlim’s novel begins.

As observed in the previous article on The ring of the dove, the story of the novel is complex in sometimes daunting ways. It can be argued that its core is a hidden mystery that is akin to mystical spirituality and that cannot be disclosed in a straightforward manner. The narrative is a system of clues that, in the mystical fashion, reveals and conceals simultaneously, and that alludes to an ineffable secret that can only indirectly be experienced. Therefore, in this article, I will not attempt to search for a consistent spatiotemporal structure which tightly organizes the narrative; it will suffice to indicate how spatial motifs are mobilized to point out a trajectory towards the core of the narrative as an intriguing, and partly intuitive, work of art.

2 Meccan Spaces

Spatiotemporal references are not only omnipresent in texts, as an essential means to organize their contents, and to provide a framework for interpretation, they can also function as an incentive for stories. This is especially the case when continuities in the spatial organization are disrupted, when boundaries are crossed, eliminated, or installed, or when the congruency of “real” and “discursive” differentiation between spaces is deleted. It can be argued that in The Dove’s Necklace it is the disruption of a spatial organization that has grown within a tradition and within history, which sets the story in motion and provides it with its ongoing dynamic. As observed above, Mecca is marked by a distinctly complex configuration of spatial divisions and boundaries. It is a town surrounded by an almost impenetrable arid region; it is a sacred precinct on several levels, both as a town, and in its various ritual and holy sites; it is divided into quarters that accentuate social and ethnic differences, as they developed over the centuries through migration and political struggles; it is strongly impregnated with the segregation of men and women, which, of course, is a prominent feature of all Muslim societies, but made more rigid here by the Wahhābī ideology; and, finally, it is built on a rather paradoxical interaction between its isolated location and the vast world outside Arabia, through trade, pilgrimage, and migration. The boundaries demarcating these differentiations, both in the topographical sense and in the sense of discourses supporting them, permeate the lives of the protagonists of the novel.

The prominence of the theme of space is immediately indicated in the Preface of the book and its opening sentences. It is remarked, first, that houses marked with a red cross are destined to be demolished, to make place for a parking garage, which is seen as an “apocalyptic” event; second, the story is dedicated to the author’s great-great-grandfather, most probably the person embodying the family’s migration and settlement in Mecca, and their subsequent integration into the city’s social fabric and tradition. Third, in the first paragraph of the novel it is stated that it is not “I”, the Narrator, who is writing, but the “Lane of Many Heads”, a small alley which is devoid of particular religious, ritual, or social distinctions. The alley is both a topographical, material, place, in the centre of Mecca, and the setting of the lives of the main characters. In spite of its apparent triviality, the Lane harbours the “secret” that is connected with the mystery of Mecca as a whole, and it is the demolition of the Lane that not only disrupts the fabric in which this secret is preserved, but also touches upon the very core of Mecca’s spirituality, and what may be called its “soul”. The Lane is a microcosm encompassing the essence of Mecca as a sacred town, and is indissolubly linked to its spiritual heart, the Great Mosque and the Kaʿba, the House of God.10

The main characters who personify the dynamic inherent in this spatial process are Yusuf and inspector Nasser, and two young women, Aʾisha and Azza. At the beginning of the story, the naked, mutilated, body of a young woman is found in the Lane. The body is unrecognizable and, to add to the mystery, two young women from the Lane, Aʾisha and Azza, are missing. Inspector Nasser is assigned with the task to resolve this mystery and to unravel the conditions that resulted in this tragedy. Yusuf is a young historian, living in the Lane, who seems to be connected not only with the incident and the many persons involved in it, but also with the broader process of destruction and reconstruction of the city, and, importantly, to what is gradually revealed to be the hidden secret of its spirituality. Whereas Yusuf personifies the “mystery”, inspector Nasser acts as the prying investigator, interrogating the characters about their affairs and penetrating into their private spaces. Both figures conduct a search that affords the reader a glimpse of the hidden essence of Mecca on various levels.

The impossibility to identify the corpse as belonging to either Azza or Aʾisha, draws attention to the strict segregation between the sexes, and the severe restrictions imposed on the lives of women. Both women led secluded lives and were subject to a regime of social codes and male, patriarchal, authority. They find their own ways to escape from their seclusion, either by upholding contacts with the world abroad or by marrying a powerful owner of one of the large contractor companies responsible for the reconstruction of Mecca. In both cases, although they make use of the small breaches in the social fences surrounding them, they are ultimately still imprisoned in spatial and social confines, which deprive them of their freedom. It is this social boundary, imbued in space, which is one of the main themes throughout the narrative. In several ways, it obscures the true course of events and hampers both Yusuf and inspector Nasser to fully comprehend the mystery. The two women were deprived of their identities and thereby transformed into “blind spots” in society.

Yusuf personifies the interactions between various spaces and the exploration of the boundaries between spatial domains. He is involved in the disappearance of the key of the Kaʿba, which, of course, symbolizes the sudden impregnability of its spiritual symbolism. For some time, he hides in the Great Mosque, which is a sanctuary and a place of refuge for persecuted persons. He is familiar with the people living in the Lane and the topography of the city and writes journalistic articles and a diary about them. He opposes religious hypocrisy, but also the role of the greedy contractors, who mutilate Mecca’s appearance, and, like inspector Nasser, he searches for his previous beloved Azza, whose disappearance seems to symbolize his loss of his beloved Mecca. However, above all, he is the historian who attempts to grasp Mecca’s past and to prevent the disruption of its historical continuity through the intervention of unscrupulous capitalists. He treasures Mecca’s past not out of nostalgia, but because for him it contains the essence of the town’s spirituality.

The bond between Yusuf and Mecca is represented by the collection of photographs in the deserted house of the deceased photographer al-Lababadi. The pictures are a record of Mecca’s ancient architecture, and thereby show the changes it underwent in the course of time. For Yusuf, the house is “a condemned space, a holy sanctuary where old Mecca had come with its history, its people, and its stone houses to take refuge”.11 He examines the pictures with a “historical eye”, to expose “hidden Mecca”, and strengthen his bond with the city. But his aim is more ambitious: “He would either bring the outside into the house so that it could become a new pulse for the city or he’d take that pulse out into the pulse of the modern street and let them blend together”,12 in order to halt “destruction and decay”.13 The photographs reveal a town that is alive and dynamic, whereas the city is now a “dying world”.14 It is Yusuf’s dream to eliminate this boundary between the past and the present.

Yusuf is obsessed by the Ottoman stronghold on a mountain outside Mecca, which was destroyed to be replaced by a huge mall named “Grand Billion”. It was built by Elaf Holding, one of the large contracting companies, led by Sheikh al-Sibaykhan, who possesses three quarters of Mecca and is “an octopus in the name of development”.15 It is this company that will demolish the Lane of the Many Heads, to build a tower containing offices, a hotel and a shopping mall, as part of a reconstruction plan which entails the destruction of more than 300 historical sites.16 It is al-Sibaykhan who is destroying Mecca with his bulldozers, making it look “like life itself had been chased outside the circle of the Holy Mosque”.17

To some extent, al-Sibaykhan personifies the connection between local economic interests and the world outside, and the broader process of globalization and capitalism, epitomized by the materialism and lack of spirituality of the West. He is married to Nora, which is the new identity of either Azza or Aisha, and who, in the second part of the book, is followed during a journey through Spain. For Nora, Madrid is an example of the way in which tradition can be preserved and incorporated into modernity, in contrast to her hometown:

It stemmed from the aridity of the place she came from, a place that was becoming amnesiac even though it knew that the rest of the world was testing and examining and building itself through debate and criticism, that there were places like Madrid where arts and sciences and architecture and music collided with people going about their everyday business in a civilization that had managed to retain its noble exterior.18

In Mecca, the past is erased in a haphazard and opportunistic way out of greed and selfishness, to such an extent that Nora doubts whether she will return. At home the city has completely changed:

Nothing was waiting for her exactly as she had left it; she wasn’t even the same person who’d left. She was in the place best suited to her new and shockingly modern configuration, an island that had shot up to the surface from the bottom of the sea, propelled by a volcanic eruption. She could do nothing except continue to live in places that resembled her, and it was by no means given that the place that resembled her would be the city in which she’d been born.19

It is in Toledo, in particular, where she finds a reconciliation between past and present, in which a form of spirituality, Christian, Jewish and Islamic, is preserved.20

Although Nora’s search to retrieve a form of spirituality that is in harmony with an acceptable present is partly successful, because of her trip abroad, and Aisha’s communication with a German friend brings her some kind of relief, in general, the contacts between Mecca and the West are governed by materialism, illusions, and a counterfeited modernity. Yusuf’s “museum” of photographs is contrasted with a collection of plastic mannequins imported from abroad, while Khalil, who has returned from the United States disappointed and frustrated, spends his time watching Western movies as a surrogate for real life. These developments are all part of a process in which authenticity is replaced by illusions, which in turn are instruments for manipulation and the exertion of power.

3 The Key to Mecca

The private spaces and the ways they are linked through the wanderings, the searching and the thoughts of the protagonists reveal a spatial pattern in which life in Mecca is embedded for the core segments of society, as it developed over a long stretch of time. It is a pattern in which social differentiation became anchored in boundaries and spatial hierarchies, and in which the diverse components of social life acquired a place within the configuration of spaces. In The Dove’s Necklace, the Lane of Many Heads is presented as a microcosm in which this configuration has taken shape and has been preserved. It is a semi-closed space, in which social relationships are constructed between the inhabitants in a relatively protected environment. Still, at a certain level, all the personal and social domains within the Lane are connected with the broader space of Mecca. This semi-permeability of the Lane is repeated in the town as a whole, which is a relatively enclosed and secluded place, with a strong internal dynamic, but also with a structural entwinement with the outer world, which penetrates its space through its status as a Holy City.

The adventures of the characters show how the spatial dynamic of Mecca is generated by the interaction between closed personal spaces – homes, female spaces, storage rooms, deserted buildings – to privileged spaces – the Great Mosque, shopping malls, hotels – and open spaces – the nomadic desert, Spain, Germany, the Internet. It is of course no coincidence, first, that a tragic incident is required to break down the “walls” between these spaces which had been built over centuries. The death/ disappearance of Azza/Aʾisha demands an intervention and the disclosure of hidden relationships and behaviour that may have led to the tragedy. It is inspector Nasser who is charged with the task to draw a map of this “invisible” layer in society, which was for a long time successfully hidden by social conventions, hierarchies of power, and personal inclinations. At the same time, Yusuf, too, roams through the secluded spaces of the town, in his search for a hidden connection with history and tradition. He, too, attempts to draw a map of what is lost and destroyed, what connects the present with the past, and what can still be preserved for the future.

It is the play between concealment and discovery, personified by Yusuf and inspector Nasser, which is the incentive and dynamic of the narrative. However, the actual core of the narrative is represented by the idea of “absence” and disappearance from the spatial configuration. It is the death/disappearance of Azza and A’isha which disrupts the regular interaction between enclosure and visibility, private and non-private spaces. This event breaks up a spatiotemporal equilibrium that sets the story in motion. After all, the spatial pattern constructed over time implied the strict separation between men and women, and it can be argued that the novel suggests that this exclusion of women and the denial of their public role and freedom, impregnated into spatial boundaries, contain the potentiality, perhaps even the inevitability, of the collapse of the spatial configuration, because it is unable to restrain the energy and force of their inner agency. Both young women attempt to escape from their confinement by attempting to establish contacts with the world outside. Their strategies differ: whereas one of them seeks refuge in a largely illusionary relationship with a German friend, in an attempt to explore and cultivate her sexual identity, the other is more pragmatic and seeks relief in art and a marriage with a wealthy, powerful man. Both attempts fail to provide salvation, because what is arguably the strongest boundary in Meccan society, the one between the sexes, cannot be overcome.

The interaction between closed and (semi-)open spaces is presented in the novel as being steered and supported by a power structure that is partly imposed from above, and partly inherent in the system of social conventions as it evolved through time. This artificial construction of spatial relationships results to a certain extent in an incongruency between individuals and the spaces assigned to them. This friction between individual urges and needs for freedom and responsibility on the one hand, and the spatial confines on the other hand, is projected on a continuous struggle between the forces of authenticity and what is called “displacement”:

There’s an eternal process of displacement, a constant concealment, in which people are forced to hide their religion, their loyalties, their pregnancy, their reality, their battles, even their gender. People disguise themselves as something other than what they are: man as woman, genius as idiot, Muslim as Jew or Christian, debauchee as prig, fundamentalist as liberator, so they can guarantee they’ll be accepted, or so they can worm their way into people’s hearts or places or positions of power, or just so they’ll be left alone to live in peace.21

This fraught and incongruent relationship between personal lives and spaces is expressed by the recurrent motif of lost and missing persons, aliases, wanderings, escape, and hiding. But whereas most people are forced to suffer from loneliness, frustration, illness, and even death, the privileged few are able to re-invent and reorganise the spatial environment to serve their particular interests and social well-being. It is this privileged elite which is able to redraw some spatial boundaries and consolidate others, making use of the possibilities offered by Mecca’s symbolic capital, but also by the tensions inherent in its spatial differentiation. The businessman al-Sibaykhan emerges from the episode unscathed, while all the other characters are steeped in disillusion, suffering and social deprivation. It is only the characters who are prepared to “sell” their soul who survive and participate in the new trajectory to the future.

All these vicissitudes are thus far described as belonging to the realm of human endeavours and struggles. However, as observed above, the space of Mecca is not restricted to the domain of social relationships; it stretches much further because it is intrinsically linked not merely to religion, but even to the transcendental realm of the Divine. This is stressed in the narrative on several occasions. Mecca is described as “a dove whose neck is streaked with colours that surpass the spectrum of humanity”.22 And while Yusuf is looking at Mecca from a hilltop, he ponders: “Below [him], Mecca spread out from the foot of the mountain, and in the centre, a single ray comprising all human existence streamed up towards the heavens from the Kaaba.”23 For Yusuf, Mecca contains the essence of his identity, not only in the sense of being a descendant of Meccans since ancient times, but also in the sense of his spiritual awareness, his nearness to the Divine, and in the sense that he is initiated into a mystical secret that lies hidden in its spatial appearance. He is in search of this epiphanous insight and hopes to retrieve it before it is wiped away by the bulldozers of innovation.

But even for the pragmatic inspector Nasser, who is not a native of the city, Mecca is more than just a spatial setting for his life:

Since he’d taken on the case, Mecca – the city he’d left his birthplace, Ta’if, for – had stirred in his heart; more than once, now he’d driven around aimlessly at night, for no other reason than to check that his Mecca was still there and that the angels hadn’t carried it away to punish its unworthy residents.24

For him, too, the search in the secluded spaces of Mecca is not only an effort to find out the truth about the tragic event, but also an attempt to find his self-image in the spatial labyrinth. This self-image is not only enclosed in the social space of Mecca, but also in its connection with the forces of the Divine, fate, and morality. The recent transformations of Mecca have alienated him from himself and brought an ominous uncertainty over the town which he feels encroaching upon his life and sense of belonging.

It is this abstract Mecca, which is felt in the hearts of the characters, and which is part of the Divine revelation, which is being destroyed. For Yusuf, the secret of the city’s spirituality is accumulated in the Kaʿba, which represents God’s presence on earth. His connection with the Kaʿba, and with its spiritual potential, is symbolized by the key to the building, which is traditionally in possession of the al-Shayba family since the time of the Prophet, but which is lost at the beginning of the novel. The key symbolizes access not only to the Kaʿba, but to a deeply felt secret: “We always come back to the key, the epitome of my nightmares. I’m searching for the keyless lock to everything that’s shut off from you and me.”25 In spite of Yusuf’s attempt to prevent it, the key is stolen by a masked man and disappears. This is seen as a bad omen: “What will happen to the Muslims of the world if we don’t find the key? Does that mean that God has shut the door to His house in our faces? Are we cursed?”26 Clearly, the key does not just give access to a space, a space saturated with religion; it also symbolizes the bond of the Muslim umma with God, enabling their communication with Him. As long as the key is lost, the relationship with the Divine is broken, and the source of God’s grace and spirituality has become inaccessible.

Yusuf has heard a story from his mother that in the past the key of the Kaʿba was stolen and lost for several generations. It was believed that it had been taken to Andalusia and that it bore the seal of Solomon. It was Yusuf’s father who took upon himself the task to look for it, and Yusuf now feels the responsibility to assume this task as well. However, he discovers that the key is not merely a material object, but also symbolizes a “word”: “Now you understand the secret orbits of a single word and the power of resurrection that lies within it. The key that can unlock the entire universe lies within the most basic word. Don’t let locks and borders stop you. Gather your will and go forth.”27 The mystical symbolism of the key is continued in Andalusia. In the past, an ancestor of the Shayba family travelled from Yemen to Andalusia in search of the key, where he encountered a Jewish woman, who said to him:

My father was the great-great-grandson of the man who bore the key to God’s House on Earth, the Kaaba in Mecca, and he went to Solomon’s Seal to search for the stolen key to the Kaaba. He settled there often falling in love with the moon-shaped birthmark on my mother’s hand. I was born there, on the mountain tops of Happy Yemen.28

Later, he “reincarnated” into a member of the al-Shayba family and retraced his steps to find the key:

They said the Meccan was possessed by what they called the “master of all keys”, whose bow was shaped like three interlocking mihrabs. It pursued him in his dreams, but he never managed to find it when he was awake; and yet, al-Shaybi never stopped predicting that soon there would come a time when God would close His house and His mercy in the face of erring believers, and no treaty could open them back up. Only that key, in the hand of the right man, could re-open the doors of heaven, and the doors between life and death.29

Yusuf discovers that he, too, belongs to the lineage of key-searchers. However, when he comes in possession of the key that fits the door of the Kaʿba, he is pulled away and “felt he was being ripped from the Kaaba; he suddenly understood the meaning of death: his entire being was sucked away while spectres of universal life bled on the walls of his brain, flashing in the distance and disappearing like lightning bolts.”30

It is clear that this whole universe symbolized by the Kaʿba, as an enclosed spatial construct, which can only be opened with a symbolic key, is threatened, encroached upon and demolished by al-Sibaykhan’s reconstruction project. In the reflections of the main characters, the moment of truth has already passed: the old Mecca is destroyed, and the new Mecca is unrecognizable; as a punishment by God, the sacred heritage is irretrievably lost. Inspector Nasser indefatigably looks for the Mecca he was familiar with; Nora asks herself if she should return to the town which has become a travesty of its former self; and Yusuf keeps hoping to find his place in an environment that has separated him from his past. Mecca has become an empty space, a non-space: “That evening, the Meccan sky looked like an empty, colourless mirror that didn’t reflect the person looking into it.”31 Mecca has become a space which offers no clues for any identity which is profoundly felt by the characters. The sacred precinct is devoid of life, and the Kaʿba is replaced by an obelisk in postmodern style. Who can open this Kaʿba, and, more importantly, does it contain anything? It seems that the last enclosed space harbouring the spiritual secret, and the symbolic essence, of Mecca, is sacrificed to the materialism of capitalist entrepreneurs. As a punishment, God has withheld the Muslims His spiritual grace.

4 Conclusion

In his important book Desert of Pharan, the Saudi photographer Ahmed Mater has published his pictures giving the visual evidence of the massive devastation and reconstruction of Mecca in recent years. It is a dramatic documentary of the loss of historical monuments and sites, and the appearance of concrete buildings, roads, fly-overs, parking lots and luxury hotels. It documents the destruction of residential areas for the sake of constructing huge hotels, the famous Abrāǧ al-Bayt, with the Makkah Clock Tower, and the infrastructural requirements for the hajj. The harsh materiality of the images, dominated by ruins, debris, concrete structures and disconnected spaces, testifies to the loss of coherence derived from a long and dynamic history. It not only reveals ugliness and lack of taste, but also an effort to create a city that has no past, neither in the sense of urban space and architecture, nor in the social sense, of a population which shares a social and cultural heritage as a framework for their relationships and identification. All people define their social role and individual self-image by situating themselves into spatial configurations; in Mecca, these configurations were abruptly demolished, leaving the population without the markers of their social identity.

It can be argued that by reconstructing Mecca, the Saudi government conformed to the idea that the Holy City is not just the location of local society, but a religious centre for the Muslim community worldwide. According to this view, the town should be stripped of its local specificities, and be accommodated to a universal, abstract, and timeless ideal, in which all Muslims, from all ethnic and social backgrounds, can recognize themselves. This view, which was part of the Saudi “mission” from its inception in the 1920s, is buttressed by the Wahhābī interpretation of the faith, which abhors material symbols of sanctity or spirituality, and which has always attempted to deprive places of their historicity and local cultural significance. Mecca, as a Holy City, should become an “abstract” place, a mere idea, reflecting the “abstract” nature of God, instead of a social community that has its own form of religiosity and its own connections with the sacred. By removing the embedment of the Kaʿba and Mecca in their local, historical, space, the Wahhābīs have deprived them also of their meaning, which is anchored in history and culture, and thereby turned them into non-spaces, whose spirituality is devoid of its emotional, sensual, and even intellectual incentives.

In Raǧāʾ ʿĀlim’s novel The Dove’s Necklace, this process is reflected in the wanderings and interactions of a group of “common” Meccans, connected through their attachment to a single space. Their lives are disturbed, first, by the strict religious regulations imposed on their social lives and spaces; and, second, by the disruption of spatial and social boundaries through the destruction and reconstruction of Mecca as a town reflecting the ideological pillars of Saudi rule. This disruption of social life epitomises a much more far-reaching erasure, which consists of the loss of the historical and spiritual heritage of Mecca, in which its enormous spiritual potential is squandered to serve materialist interests. The protagonists of the novel loose their aims and their sense of direction; they try to flee the newly created dystopia, but at the same time they are looking for ways to “return”, and to find a way to re-situate themselves in their new environment. It is clear that any “return” would also involve a sense of displacement and alienation, and of a loss of something that can be put into words only with great difficulty.



  • Alem, R., The Dove’s Necklace; a novel, trans. Katharine Halls and Adam Talib, New York/ London, Overlook Duckworth, 2016.

  • Alem, R., Das Halsband der Tauben, trans. Hartmut Fähndrich, Zürich, Unionsverlag, 2014.

  • Alem, R., Le collier de la colombe, trans. Khaled Osman and Ola Mehanna, [Paris], Stock, 2012.

  • Alem, R./ T. McDonough, My Thousand and One Nights; a novel of Mecca, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2007.

  • Alem, R., Il collare della colomba, trans. Maria Avino, Venezia, Marsilio, 2014.

  • ʿĀlim, R., Ṭawq al-ḥamām, al-Dār al-Bayḍaʾ/Bayrūt, al-Markaz al-Ṯaqāfī al-ʿArabī, 2012.

Secondary Literature

  • Augé, M., Non-places; Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe, London/New York, Verso , 2000.

  • Bsheer, R., Archive Wars; the Politics of History in Saudi Arabia, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2020.

  • Faroqhi, S., Herrscher über Mekka; die Geschichte der Pilgerfahrt, München, Artemis Verlag, 1990.

  • Leeuwen, R. van, “Intertextuality in Rajā’ ʿĀlim’s The Dove’s Necklace”, Qamariyyāt: oltre ogni frontiera tra letteratura e traduzione. Studi in onore di Isabella Camera d’Afflitto, Roma, Istituto per l’Oriente C.A. Nallino, 2020, p. 489506.

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  • Mater, A., Desert of Pharan; Unofficial Histories behind the Mass Expansion of Mecca, ed. by C. David, Zürich, Lars Müller Publishers, 2016.

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  • McMillan, M.E., The Meaning of Mecca; the Politics of Pilgrimage in Early Islam, London, Saqi Books, 2011.

  • Munt, H., The Holy City of Medina; Sacred Space in Early Islamic Arabia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2014.

  • Peters, F.E., Mecca; a Literary History of the Holy Land, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1994.

  • Rasheed, M. al-, A History of Saudi Arabia, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2002.

  • Redissi, H., Le pacte de Nadjd ; ou comment l’islam sectaire est devenu l’islam, Paris, Seuil, 2007.

  • Willis, J., “Governing the living and the dead: Mecca and the emergence of the Saudi bio-political state”, American historical review, 122:2 (2017), p. 346370.

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  • Yamani, M., Cradle of Islam; the Hijaz and the Quest for Identity in Saudi Arabia, London-New York, I.B. Tauris, 2009.


Recently retired.


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām; English trans.: Alem, The Dove’s Necklace; a Novel; German trans: Alem, Das Halsband der Tauben; French trans.: Alem, Le collier de la colombe; Italian trans: Alem, Il collare della colomba. ʿĀlim’s novel My Thousand and One Nights; a Novel of Mecca is mainly about traditional life in Mecca; Alem/ McDonough.


van Leeuwen, “Intertextuality”.


See about the early history of Mecca, and its historical legends: Peters, Mecca; a Literary History of the Holy Land.


McMillan, The Meaning of Mecca; see also: Munt, The Holy City of Medina; Sacred Space in Early Islamic Arabia.


Faroqhi, Herrscher über Mekka; die Geschichte der Pilgerfahrt.


See: Al-Rasheed, A History of Saudi Arabia.


Willis, “Governing the living and the dead”.


Bsheer, Archive Wars; the Politics of History in Saudi Arabia; I am grateful to Nesrien Hamid for drawing my attention to this excellent study.


Yamani, Cradle of Islam.


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 5–9 (English translation: p. 7, 11–12); in the following I will add the references to the English translation between (); I will follow the transcription of the names of the English translation.


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 152–5 (137–140).


Ivi, p. 189 (170).


Ivi, p. 188, 228–9 (169, 203–4).


Ivi, p. 228 (203).


Ivi, p. 295, 298 (261, 263).


Ivi, p. 412–3, 557 (356–7, 467).


Ivi, p. 560 (469).


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 456 (390).


Ivi, p. 470 (401).


Ivi, p. 471, 490 (402, 415).


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 487 (413).


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 25 (27).


Ivi, p. 302 (267).


Ivi, p. 217 (194).


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 27 (29).


Ivi, p. 49 (48).


Ivi, p. 403 (349).


Ivi, p. 502 (424).


ʿĀlim, Ṭawq al-ḥamām, p. 506 (427).


Ivi, p. 409 (354).


Ivi, p. 192 (171).

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