The shadow of ZamZam
The Asian News [UK]
LATER this month thousands of north west Muslim will embark on what their religion views as the most important journey of their lives - the hajj.
According to tradition, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the Holy Mosque and the most sacred site in Islam, the Kaaba, should be taken in great humility.
Ostentation, luxury and material inequality are not human ills associated with this pious journey and the thought of the area around the Mecca Mosque becoming a millionaire's playground will seem bizarre and shocking to many of the faithful who emerge from their humble Rochdale and Oldham terrace to set forth on the great journey.
Yet this is just what critics of recent trends in the Saudi Kingdom now fear, and their attention focuses on one of the most gigantic real estate developments in the history of the holy city, a complex of apartments, restaurants, shopping malls and walkways, which include the 31-floor ZamZam Tower, Saudi Arabia's tallest building, so tall, in fact, it casts its shadow across the Holy Mosque itself and the worshippers.
Ironically this leviathan was build by the Bin Laden Group whose 'son' Osama was launched on his path to infamy by his hatred of the way the Saudi Royals were allowing the westernisation of the Kingdom.
Now it is fair to say that a room- with-a-mosque-view in ZamZam is not really for the Muslims who live in northern terraces.
An off-season, one-room, 33 square metre studio, in ZamZam rents at £3,600 a week (or the cost of a two-week all-in holiday abroad for four) and if you want to enjoy the accommodation in the high season, during hajj or Ramadan, it will cost you £93,500 a week.
Apart from these eye-watering prices, another aspect of ZamZam has angered purists. It is being marketed in the UK and Europe as a time-share project. Buyers purchase a chunk of occupation time at ZamZam for up to 24 years which they can use themselves or re-rent, possibly at a profit, to others - thus the spirit of Marbella comes to Mecca!
The promotional literature unsurprisingly gushes the benefits of ZaZam.
Its "residential suites" are "elegantly furnished according to international 5-star standards". There is a "direct connection to the Holy Mosque open space".
If pilgrims get bored with contemplation and prayer there is a "grand shopping centre of 70,000 square meters including a wide range of brand restaurants and shops".
And it's 'on the motorway' too! To lure the car owners, the literature reveals there is a "parking lot with a capacity of 1400 cars" and "ring roads easily linking the complex to the rest of the Mecca area"
The land for this development was made available by the Saudi Royal family and it will revert back to them after the lease is up.
Spokesmen have defended the scheme against its critics. One diplomat said: "People want to shop, somewhere to eat, they have the right to do these things. It is not haraam [forbidden] and we cannot stop them from wanting to do these things. People don't just do hajj and leave any more. For many it may be their only chance to visit so they want to be here as long as they can. They are getting quality accommodation and amenities. We need somewhere to put pilgrims because there are so many coming here. Besides, there are already five-star hotels in Mecca."
Talal Mahmood Malik is chief executive of Alpha1Estates, which is selling timeshares for the 1,240 suites to Muslims in the UK and Europe
He said that business had been a bit slow at first because the timeshare concept was "alien" to Muslims, but trade had picked up during Ramadan. He added: "We've been surprised by the number of young people buying timeshares, but there have been more sales to older Muslims, who want to retire there."
Opponents of the scheme say ZamZam is just the latest building atrocity in Saudi guided by the Wahhabi slant on Islam. These critics claim that Wahhabism wants to bury the remains of the Peninsular's Islamic past. They claim that because of the Wahhabi 'obsession' with idolatry, it is always fears that when holy remnants are discovered they will attract the faithful in great numbers and they will pray there, turning the site into an idolatrous abomination.
They claim it was for this reason that the ancient remains of the house of the Prophet, discovered in Mecca, was filled-in and public toilets built over the site. They say that some Wahhabi imams want to close-up a cave discovered near Medina where Mohammed was said to have prayed during one of his key battles to establish Islam, again, for fear it will attract worshippers, indeed, according to an organisation calling itself the Centre for Islamic Pluralism the ZamZam Towers themselves are built over the Ottoman-era Ajyad fortress, overlooking the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which was demolished to make way for the apartments.
In an Internet article the Centre adds: "The Saudi Islamic Affairs minister, Salem Al-Sheikh, had promised that the fortress would be rebuilt in its original form. (The plot of land earmarked for the Towers was formerly under the control of pious endowments, a form of Islamic charitable institution. Some had been established by King Ibn Saud for the maintenance of the Mecca mosques.) But the sanctity of mosques proved little resistant to the sanctity of profits for the Bin Laden Group and its Wahhabi accomplices. Even more bizarre, the ZamZam Towers are named for the famous well of Zamzam, for which Mecca is known throughout the Muslim world. But the sources of the well have been diverted by Saudi Bin Laden builders, so that the well of Zamzam may soon disappear altogether."
The new timeshare also angers historian Irfan Ahmed al-Alawi, also co-chairman of the Islamic Heritage Foundation, set up to protect sites of cultural and historical interest in Mecca.
He says "This timeshare is the exploitation and commercialisation of a holy city. Marble flooring and five-star accommodation will not enhance your pilgrimage or make you a better Muslim."
Which is a very true statement, though one thing is for sure, a week's hajj in ZanmZam will make you a very comfortable one!
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