31. The Road to Mecca


c. 1960–1970 CE
c. 1380–1390 AH
Found in a car scrapyard, Mecca, 2012

Made of metal, we’re one and the same – old number plates from vehicles that are no longer in service – red for cars and yellow for buses. We rattled as we raced from the airport in Jeddah to Mecca and back, night and day past the endless deserts. All we could see from our inflexible positions were bags upon bags, the pilgrims’ legs and stomachs, the faces of those in wheelchairs. The cars hummed in the heat, the buses leaked petrol. Once we’d dropped off our passengers, it was round to the pick-up station, and the journey back began.

But that was long ago. Now, as you leave the city through the heavy traffic and hit the highway, you still see desert on each side for about an hour, but you also see billboard upon billboard of adverts for Mecca, for the hotels, for the food – the Fairmont Hotel, the Hilton, Macdonald’s, Al Baik. There are no trees, no wildlife except the occasional goat. Every man, woman, child and elder must take this road, since there are no train stations or airports in the city of Mecca.

When you start to see the mountains on the horizon, you’re arriving in the city and you’ll soon hit the Haram border. Here, it’s Muslims to the right, non-Muslims to the left, for only the Islamic can enter this most exclusive of sites. Non-Muslims may once have snuck past the gates dressed as Afghani or other Arabs, but no more. Without papers the only other way in is to try your luck over the mountains, where you’re more than likely to be caught by the army circling overhead.

We numbers, 928 and 7700, stand as symbols of this journey, this road, which has grown from two lanes to ten as the increasing throngs of pilgrims gather from all four corners of the world. We’ve often wondered what it is they do there. Why the segregation and why the secrets?

This work transcends the objects. Ultimately, what I’m working with isn’t only the artefacts themselves, but the stories attached to them. For me, each tale is the manifestation of the object, and each object is a tangible materialisation of an underlying narrative. The work finds its equilibrium somewhere between the stories and chronology they’re chaptered into, the objects becoming knots or points along the timeline, woven into stories as part of the language of this artwork. Each story draws out a tale that intends to trigger imagination and memory, mixing fact with fiction, with the ultimate aim of straddling, conflating and confusing fixed notions of history to open up the unofficial histories that shape the character of place and memory.
Ahmed Mater
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