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Islam's Encounter with Reality TV

Islam's Encounter with Reality TV

Issue 1 Sept / Oct 2003

In February 2003 a documentary about Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, a central pillar of Islam, was screened on Channel 4. Sefraz Qayyum, a 23 year old father and care worker from Middlesborough, Kosser Sheikh, a young mother and career woman from London, Aamer Chaudhary, a Pakistani  ewspaper editor performing Hajj on behalf of his deceased father, Hallalah Hasam, an African American bank worker from Kansas city in Missouri, and Mohammed Alawadi, a 20 year old Kuwaiti were all followed from their homes in Britain, Pakistan, America and Kuwait to Makkah the birthplace of Islam by a Channel 4 TV crew lead by producer and director Navid Akhtar.

 When filming the documentary, Akhtar was aware the presence of a TV camera amidst the crowds would invoke a varied response. Some people seemed interested and would wave cheerfully. Others refused to be filmed, for personal reasons or in the presence of women. Some even tried to sue.



“We understand and we do consider people’s feelings. Hajj is believed to be personal and intimate for many people,” says Akhtar. “Personally, as a Muslim I would never take a camera to the dua’a (prayer). For me, it is a sacred act. Some people have done it before. But I think it is going too far."

 Ninety percent of the world’s Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language. Yet in daily prayers, when reading the Qur’an, or even in  imple conversations with each other, Arabic rolls off any Muslim tongue readily. “It is amazing how you would hear different languages during prayer,” says Fouad Mehad, a Saudi pilgrim, “personally I pray in a mixture of Arabic and English and I know that God will understand.”

 “During Hajj, it was easy for me to pray and follow all the rituals,” Kosser Shiekh remembers. “It was when I returned home and started to apply it to my everyday life, that was challenging. But I knew I had to be tested for this so I always managed to put my prayers before anything else. Even before my kids.”

 Negotiating the crowd and traffic jams was a challenging task for the Channel 4 production team even though they were assisted by Saudi officials called ‘tashets’ who helped with translation and security. The team experienced great difficulty following the pilgrims as they performed their rituals. “The camera could get damaged and we could have lost track of them,” says Akhtar. “An incident happened at Arafat where we lost all our pilgrims and so had to walk in the baking sun for two hours. It was disastrous. The thought of losing a film for a day and therefore having no show made us head for the British camp as a final attempt to find two pilgrims amongst 20,000. Fortunately, they came out of the crowd.”




 The documentary captured emotional scenes as the pilgrims made the trek to Arafat, south east of Mina. This marks the climax of the Hajj as pilgrims stand in the open and beseech Allah (S) for forgiveness. “People pray for peace of mind, peace with each other and peace on earth. I think especially this year, this kind of prayer will be more dominant than any other prayers,” commented an Iraqi Hajji, “everybody is aware and concerned. Everybody does not like what is happening in the world.” “In England your whole life revolves around where you work” reflected Serfraz Qayyum “It is all materialistic, God is kept out of the social circle but everything here revolves around God.”

 Surrounding the Mount of Mercy on all sides, tents are pitched in acres of quadrangles arranged by nation. As the camera crew strolled through these sites, the images resembled a series of short-cuts around the world. A quarter mile of Africa leads into a tract of Pakistan, giving way to an Indonesian district. The Moroccans are sipping mint tea. The Syrians are serving chicken schawarma.

 “I understand now why people want to come back for Hajj,” muses Sheikh. “When I shut my eyes I can see everything again, and I can feel what I felt in that particular moment at that particular place. It is like a love that pulls you, and that is what makes people go back. I had the unique experience of being filmed during Hajj and can live the experience many times over.”

 “When can you stop being a Muslim to be a film maker?” says Akhtar. “We try not to get attached, but in this project it was impossible, even though we didn’t perform Hajj we felt like we had. We were praying with the people, making dua’a with them. It was the first time where we actually stopped working for prayer.”Did the production team feel they had achieved something very profound? “This was our aim,” according to Akhtar. “Our main concern is to take the viewer in with the people so that they can feel what the pilgrims are feeling, understand what they are understanding. We needed to get personal and do what they are doing, not get some pictures from the comfort of a hotel like most channels do. Other channels, for example, just get the news stories and take some general shots. That only takes an hours work, and then they can get out in the sun, relax and wait for the next information that comes along. As for us, we have to keep rolling, we managed to get 90 rolls of tapes. Our concern was to keep with the group.” Hajj can be perilous due to the sheer volume of people who attend. Through agencies such as the Hajj Research Centre, the Saudi Government has implemented procedures and taken precautions to protect  the burgeoning crowd but many say that as the Hajj continues to grow, tragedies are inevitable. “It is human nature,” says Akhtar. “How can you change human beings?” Some pilgrims take intensive training courses and walk around a full size Kaa’ba back in their homelands. Others, the elderly in particular, aspire  to die on Hajj but would not strive for it because suicide negates entry to Paradise. “I’ve come here every year for the past five years,” remarked an old Tunisian man, “but God hasn’t called me to him yet.”

 “In the UK, when people hear that seven people died or 30 people died, they get choked,” says Akhtar. “When they go there, and see the massive scale of the event, they would say thank God it wasn’t more.” “It was very hard to leave,” says Sheikh. “I remember just wanting to stay there and pray and be close to God. But I had to go back. This is my life.”

 On the streets of Makkah, people throng around the markets and shops to buy souvenirs for family and friends or tokens to remind themselves of their spiritual journey. The most popular items are prayer beads, water from the Zam Zam well and dates from Medina.

 “You meet amazing people” remembers  Akhtar. “Some memories I will cherish all my life. There was a moment in Arafat where the cameraman had to stop filming because of all the tears in his eyes.” Channel 4’s editing team were non- Muslims, staying in Jeddah for the duration of the project. They all spoke of being touched by the beauty of the experience. “I am not religious.” said production manager Kirsty Hunter, “But if I believed in God, it would be Allah.”


words: Naufal Riyadh

images: Peter Sanders

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