75. The Noble Recorders


2010–2011 CE
1431–1432 AH
Given to the artist, 2011

We are small – we fit in your pocket – yet we hold the world. We are scribes of the truth, for nothing we record is not right there in front of us. The destruction and mess of bricks and debris; the shouting of the workers; the glee on the faces of some of the onlookers: we look on in awe and bemusement, revulsion, and yet we cannot stop recording. We present the response of each of you who has taken us, the noble recorders, to do your bidding.

IMAGES PENDING FOR BELOW – I don’t have the screen shots from the phones, we will need to allocate these in the design.

Jibril and the crowd

Bluetoothed to the artist by a labourer on the demolition site, who was filming on his mobile phone, 2011

Swooping and swinging, suspended from the crane that heads up to the skies, I am perched here like an angel. Hanging above the tower decorated with Arabic inscriptions, I swoop down with my crescent-shape finial. This can happen only once: putting the final touch to the tower. From here I can smell the city. As I move further and further away from my friends, I feel closer to the man on the moon. To see life from this distance changes your perspective and I sense that I will never be the same again, for nothing could possibly be more awe-inspiring than this. I swing around the top at a dizzying height and imagine I am flying. This must be how Jibril sees us as he comes down bringing blessings. Or how the Prophet would have felt, riding on his Buraq. Or how those in power must feel when they hover above the masses, the wind in their faces, experiencing the distant silence of Mecca, save for the deep whooshing of crisp white material moving as one, like lead falling, like water through a vacuum, like a giant’s intake of breath, as the air rushes through the movements of prayer, from ankle to knee to hip bone to heart then head, and up to the skies, so that they feel it on their faces.

I swing the spire of the Makkah Clock Tower into its final position and hear the people cheering. The sound echoes across the mountains, spurring me on, taking me higher and higher.

Demolition site

Blutoothed to the artist by a labourer on a demolition site who was filming on his mobile phone, 2011

The buildings:

At first, they couldn’t find a way to take us down. We felt safe in the knowledge that we were impossible to destroy. Then, the Dowan arrived on the scene. We were never sure where he came from, dressed like the wizard that he was. We almost felt that he must have been born of some tower himself, the way he knew how we work, our weaknesses, our strengths. Then, as we were felled like trees in a forest, we knew that we were all going to go. It was just a matter of time.

Abdullah Dowan

I am Abdullah Dowan. The buildings call me the Dowan, as though I am a lord or a king. I hear their walls whispering to each other as I plan their demise. Don’t think for a second that I enjoy this. My father himself laid many of these bricks, set these foundations, committed his life to the construction of this great city and these communities. He would talk to me day after day about what he did, how he made the buildings stay up, their weaknesses and their stubborn points. My father always said that the key to success was knowledge, and it is this knowledge that has made me a millionaire. For one day, when the demolition men were struggling, bricks and dust flying in every direction, jeopardising the Zam Zam Well, I proposed to the council that I would deconstruct Mecca for free, as long as I could keep all the scrap. So whilst the buildings believe that I am their murderer, I am actually their keeper. For all the love and attention that was placed into constructing these bricks is now spread throughout the lands and re-used for other purposes: new homes and new palaces. When I am on site, I feel like a sculptor. I place the ropes carefully around my buildings. I can see how they will fall before others can. I cannot draw it or plan it; I run on my instincts. This is my art. By hand, I bring this city down and oh, the ruins! The money they bring, the riches contained within, obscene yet also poignant and so raw, I can barely speak of it. As small toys and abandoned belongings meld into the debris, I let children run through and reclaim the things they forgot to take. For I am not a pirate. I am a businessman, yes, but I love this city and its histories as much as my neighbour does.

Riots of workers

Bluetoothed to the artist by a labourer on the demolition site who was filming on his mobile phone, 2011

Parveen from Bangladesh, twenty-two years old, deported after the riots

There is a secret history relating to the deconstruction and reconstruction of Mecca, this sacred city. It exists in the minds and the memories of us: the unwanted, the unwashed, the unloved workers. Here we were, labouring day and night, unpaid and unfed, and they wondered why we rioted. Our wives, mothers, fathers and children were waiting for the money we’d promised them to feed themselves – the money that never came. Our families received not a word from us, since we were no longer allowed to phone home. Or at least, it was made too difficult and expensive. I know now that no media ever heard about the riots. They were never spoken about. Is it so hard to believe, when to us, it was a crisis? Total and utter desperation led us to it. I would have died for my right to be a paid labourer. I did not sign up for this. This was not my decision. Who in their right mind would sign up to slavery? Had I only known. I was always quiet at school, in my home, and it’s a wonder I was ever even married. At home in Bangladesh, whilst we may not have the riches of the West, we were loved for other characteristics. I know I seem weak. But on that day, I am proud to say that I showed my inner courage. Yes, I was at the front, my skinny body lifted easily by my comrades. They thrust me to the front, above their heads, as I shouted and screamed: ‘It is our right to be paid! For we are not slaves! It is our right to be paid! For we are not slaves!’

Moosa from India, forty-four years old, the oldest worker in the camp

I was kind of relieved when they put Parveen in the room with us. He was quiet and monosyllabic, which is good in a room that sleeps twelve men. I’ve been here the longest, in Saudi that is, and working for this company. I paid off my loan to them years ago. But I daren’t return to my village. There’s a history there that I’d rather not go into.

So, this Parveen: he was given the bed above mine and at first it was a relief to have him there as opposed to the fat slob before him. I hate having to sleep on the bottom bunk, but my legs aren’t what they were. I try my best to move as fast as the rest, but it’s tough. The last thing I want is for them to send me home. This is all I know now, and the hills of my hometown are but a memory, a dream I wrap myself up in when I’m sleeping. Anyway, what was I saying? … Ah yes. So, Parveen. What a pest! Silent he may have been, but what a nervous wreck! All night he would fidget, creaking around on the broken bed planks. Not the swift movements of someone in a deep sleep, shifting positions, but small, conscious scratches on the wall, the ledge, his feet tapping incessantly, as though to a song. But what a boring song it became to me.

Then one day, the riots broke out. I couldn’t believe it. I kept my distance, of course, and watched from the sidelines. I’d been here long enough to know that they wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference. Then, as though rising from the dead, I saw Parveen, his hair bathed in sunlight as they pushed him up, up and over their heads like a god, while his repetitious tapping was transformed into a relentless chanting: ‘It is our right to be paid! For we are not slaves! It is our right to be paid! For we are not slaves!’ I never saw him again after that. While I’m relieved, I must say, to sleep again through the night, I do wonder: did he die for his rights, this man I once thought so pathetic?

Mohamed from Egypt, twenty-five years old, recently arrived in the labour camp

I’ve been here two weeks now. Two weeks and already counting. I can’t recall exactly how I got here. I know that must seem like madness to you, but it happened so fast and although for all intents and purposes I chose this fate, it was a reaction to a situation I was out of control of. At least by making this move, I felt in charge of my own fate. I realise now that fate had me by the throat. I wonder what you are doing now, Kamilah, Kamilah? First my employer, then my wife before becoming my lover. So much wiser than me, you have always been. What must you think of me now? Perhaps if I let this man film me on his phone, somewhere, somehow you’ll see me on the TV or the internet and know that I didn’t die but fled for fear of my life.

Bilel from Tunisia, thirty-six years old

It is my responsibility to lead these men. Contrary to what many of them think, we are not helpless; we are free. I know from experience that it is possible to fight for your rights and win. The masses do have a voice if only they have the courage to use it. I nurture my men and guide them to be the best they can. I do this to appease my own anger, I guess, for I came here with one purpose in mind: to reach the heart of Saudi society and incite unrest. To empower men and give them the tools to fight. But they caught me at the gates and gave me two choices: this life or a gaol in Tunisia. So I take this life, the day-to-day toil. I do not care about the pay, or lack of it. I care about the people. Take Parveen, for example: he was my protégé, my apprentice if you will. I watched with pride as he slowly found his voice, was lifted to the skies and pushed forward for his shouts to be heard. These people, this government harbours the biggest criminal of all to my mind. Fleeing his home country, fleeing his people and the anger he is responsible for. No work, no food, a corrupt system, no freedom of speech, living conditions not much better than these. And to think he now roams these streets, a free man.

Murad from Yemen, thirty years old

I’ve never had so much fun! I love my comrades. Yes, the work is hard but I’m wily, always have been. I make it look like I’m working, but actually, I’m telling jokes, introducing people to each other: Parveen to Bilel, Bilel to Mohamed, Mohamed to Moosa. What has been a disappointment is that we’re rarely allowed out of these work sites. I arrived with a bag of sweet Yemeni coffee, but soon ran out. I’d love to visit the old coffee houses of Mecca. Tales of these places, the gatherings in preparation for the long nights of prayer, have been told to me so many times. So now I just pretend to drink a coffee, using my little ibrik packed by my mother. I fill it with water and sip. Then with a surge of energy I set off to work with a skip in my step and a joke shimmering under my breath.

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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