Although the pilgrims have to leave the holy city of Makkah, something deep down never goes away: The indelible memories of this spiritual journey, the journey of a lifetime.
I interviewed Reem Al-Faisal in 1996 when she was having her first major exhibition about the port of Jeddah. I was stunned by the choice of subject but could not help but marvel at her immense talent and boundless creativity.
I knew then that Reem Al-Faisal would never settle for anything easy and ordinary.
She became one of the few women to have covered in depth Hajj.
“One is swept away by the sheer motion and size of it and you find yourself moving at another level of your consciousness. As you perform one ritual after the other you slowly discover the rhythm of the universe … and it is hard to leave Hajj without it altering your personality forever,” explains Reem Al-Faisal.
During three years, Reem Al-Faisal photographed the largest gathering of men and women from all nationalities. A keen observer, she followed the pilgrims in their daily lives and took pictures of men and women praying, walking, eating, reciting the Qur’an or simply relaxing.
The photographs were first part of an exhibition and have now been published in a book, “Hajj”, launched recently in Cairo.
The text has been written by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, an eminent professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the author of more than 30 books.
In the preface, Nasr remembers how he made his first pilgrimage 40 years ago in the presence of King Faisal, Reem Al-Faisal’s grandfather.
Nasr and Reem Al-Faisal have produced a book which is particularly moving.
Unforgettable images and powerful words help us understand the inner side of faith. And one can only hope that this book will open the hearts of both Muslims and non-Muslims to the beauty of Hajj.
Reem Al-Faisal admits being shy especially if she is in the midst of a crowd.
However, when she carries a camera, she feels empowered and reacts as if she is someone else.
This inner strength helped her deal with the harsh criticism she faced from pilgrims who were against photography.
The photographs present in the book are divided into five sections preceded by a short introduction: “Arrival”, “The Pilgrims as Tourists”, “Makkah”, “Hajj” and “Departure”.
Reem Al-Faisal’s choice of black and white is particularly well suited to the subject of Hajj.
Black and white photography exudes a surreal atmosphere, creating a void whereby we, the viewers, are disconnected from the reality.
Unlike color, which distracts, black-and-white forces us in a way to focus our attention on the image. Black and white is also a more artistic form of photography which “gives you the metaphysical side of art” explains Reem Al-Faisal.
In the first segment of the book entitled “Arrival”, we are reminded that we tend to believe that it is easier to travel to Makkah.
“But that is not really the case … In the old days all one needed to undertake the journey was the financial means to join a caravan to Makkah and provisions for the way. Otherwise, the road was open to one and all. There were no quotas, no government regulations, no visa required. Now, one spends practically the same amount of time, if not more, to fulfill all the bureaucratic requirements that one would have previously spent crossing vast tracts of land on horseback or on a camel,” writes Nasr.
The section on the “Hajj” is particularly intense.
According to the Hadith: “Hajj is Arafat” and it is there that all the pilgrims gather to pray to God, the One and Only.
“Hajj in a sense is the journey of life itself, as life if well lived takes us finally to the One from Whom we come and to Whom we return,” writes Nasr.
This awesome and touching book on Hajj ends with a final section on “Departure”.
When Hajj is accepted by God, the pilgrim becomes a new person and he brings back the barakah of the centre to the circumference of the Islamic world.
The last picture features a lonely bird gliding through the sky at sunset over Makkah, the Blessed City.
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