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Friday, 31 March 2017

It's not just Nine Elms - even Mecca is suffering at the hands of property developers

View from the Abraj al Bait tower while it was under construction, looking down into the sanctuary of
Mecca's Holy Mosque. Note the areas cleared for more construction in the background.
Photo: Basil D Soufi via Wikimedia Commons
Unless you are a Muslim, your chances of visiting the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia are approximately zero. But a short film, shown at last week's BBC Arabic Film festival, reveals that even this most sacred of places is being ravaged by property developers - remarkably similar to the ones working their grim way along the south bank of the Thames.

What this film, Prayer for Mecca,  brings home so sharply is how rampant redevelopment - which has the full support of the government and presumably the religious authorities - has already wiped out parts of the medieval city, and in doing so has also destroyed a slice of communal memory. A recent Guardian article reports local anger at the way their neighbourhoods are being erased to make way for new roads and hotels.

Directed by Matteo Lonardi, the film follows the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater as he attempts to document the rapid change being inflicted on his city. This young man - clearly at some risk to himself - is photographing what he can of the old city, as well as the redevelopment.

Much of the film, like the city itself, is dominated by the gargantuan Abraj Al Bait hotel complex, a grouping of massive skyscrapers which loom over the most sacred part of the city, the Masjid al-Haram (Holy Mosque) and its courtyard where millions of pilgrims gather each year, to circle the Kaaba, the most holy cube-shaped shrine at its centre.

A famous ancient Ottoman fortress was demolished to make way for these new buildings, which contain shopping malls and office premises as well as ultra-luxurious hotel accomodation, car parks and even helipads.

The central tower, with its huge clockfaces and spire, looks a bit like a kitscher version of the already kitsch Big Ben, but for its height - at 601m about seven times as tall - and the crescent moon at the tip. The forest of cranes surrounding the central area is painfully reminiscent of the Battersea to Vauxhall riverside development.

Of course it's the massive increase in numbers of pilgrims which provides the main justification for this redevelopment, along with some tragic incidents when the old city's infrastructure could not cope with the crowds.

But it's the brashness and show-off style of these buildings that is upsetting for some locals, according to Ahmed, who notes that they seem entirely at odds with the spiritual nature of the place. Apparently there's even a Starbucks in there somewhere. The minarets of the great mosque are dwarfed, and the new sykscrapers throw deep shadows across the courtyard.

The area where he grew up - an old quarter, with a maze of narrow alleyways - has been bulldozed.

Makes you wonder what Canterbury might look like if they had 14 million pilgrim-visitors going there for the same week every year....


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