9. Mahmel


1853 CE
1269 AH
Donated by a family in Mecca, 2015

I am the tattered old tale told by Sir Richard Francis Burton of the journey from Cairo to Mecca (or Makkah as you insist on calling it now) with the Mahmel, a pilgrimage that is now rarely followed. Like my friend on previous pages, I am a story that has been told time and again, each version providing a different view, and if I say so myself, I believe I can give you a few details that others may have missed!

I feel that my author was best placed to tell this story, for he sat on a higher pew, coming as he did from the West. I consider myself an honest account, but these days my author is accused of being something of an Orientalist. Read of me and find out for yourselves, because I can assure you that my author’s studies and wealth have meant that I am rich with detail, with honesty, in warning those who might attempt the journey. The paths were much less travelled then, and there was an earnest yearning to explore, and of course, it was before the times of the great wars, the discovery of oil, the shifts and changes through which you read my pages now.

My author journeyed from Cairo to Mecca, dressed as an Afghan to ensure he made it all the way to the Ka’aba, at a time when you didn’t need papers to prove you were Muslim. When I talk about the sterility of the Arabian land, it was very different from what it is now, and poorer. For example, the motawif literally accosted my author when disembarking from our boat – desperate to make a penny from guiding him through his pilgrimage. These days, I’ve heard that the motawif own large companies with investments in electronic guides that take you to the heart of Islam. If you can believe it, mine was a time when Mecca could only be approached by camel. The most memorable moments were gazing towards the Qibla and performing tawaf, which brings you close to the mystery of the earth’s perpetual motion.

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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