Pillow of Air

A Monthly Amble Through the Visual World

by Lawrence Weschler

As I was reminded this past October, the hajj, the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, which every devout Muslim is required to undertake at least once in their lives, begins with the Tawaf, the first of seven ritual actions taken during that week, consisting of a counterclockwise circumambulation around the Kaaba, the holy of holies, a massive black cube building slotted in the middle of the vast interior plaza of the Al Masjid al Haram mosque (said to be the first house built for humanity to worship Allah, indeed long before the days of Muhammed, all the way back to the time of Abraham, who was said to have worshiped there).

The pulsing, well-nigh mesmeric quality of the mass devotion evinced during the Tawaf was gorgeously and hauntingly evoked a few years ago at a show on the hajj in London’s British Museum when the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater placed a simple cuboid magnet amid a field of iron filings.

But the Tawaf is only the beginning. Subsequently, the pilgrims (numbering upward of six million a year) make their way out of town to Mount Arafat, where Muhammed is said to have made his farewell sermon during the first hajj. Then on the way back they pass through Mina, where three tall pillars symbolize the torments the devil visited on Abraham as he proceeded toward the sacrifice of Isaac; there the pilgrims engage in the Ramy al-Jamarat, the ritual stoning of the devil, literally casting stones at each of the pillars in question before returning to the Al Masjid al Haram mosque for one last farewell circumambulation about the Kaaba.

Or, anyway, that’s the way they used to do it. Since 2004, when the swell of crowds became too vast to contain, the pillars have been replaced by long walls, with catch-basins below to collect the pebbles. But that’s the way the young Osama bin Laden, son of a billionaire construction magnate whose domain conspicuously included the holy sites in Mecca, would have done it as, year by year, he found himself becoming more and more devout.

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Lawrence Weschler’s more than fifteen books—running from political tragedies through cultural comedies—include Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees (on artist Robert Irwin); Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (on the Museum of Jurassic Technology); Vermeer in Bosnia; Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences; and, most recently, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.

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