‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide

An eighteenth century Safavid depiction of the Ka’ba, around which our story’s protagonist wanted to circumambulate; here Majnūn and his father behold the sacred precints. From a copy of the Khamsa of Niẓāmī Ganjavī (Walters W.609).

Probably for as long as there have been pilgrims and tourists (with the line between the two categories often indistinct) there have been people who sought to make a living off of pilgrims and tourists, through means both licit and less so. Tour guides in both the form of written (and often illustrated) manuals and in the form of individuals knowledgeable of a given site are both venerable features of travel from the medieval world to the present. And just as most travelers in the present, self included, have had both good and bad experiences with guides, a range of responses to guides and guidance, solicited or not, can be found in the historical record.

The story translated below, which comes from the autobiographical section of a work by the Safavid Shi’i scholar ‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī (d. 1692), reflects the sometimes tense encounters pilgrims and tourists down to the present (well, pre-covid at least!) can have with self-appointed tour guides and their claims of expertise. The story takes place when a sixteen year old ‘Alī, whose family was from the important Shi’i center of learning Jabal ʿĀmil (located in what is now Lebanon), made the ḥajj for the first time, a few years after the death of his father. His story is largely self-explanatory (though see this helpful essay and images for background on the rituals and sites of the ḥajj if they are unfamiliar), and will no doubt resonate with any reader who has had a similar unpleasant experience negotiating unsolicited offers of guidance in a new place.

Ardabil Carpet

When I entered Mecca the Noble I preceded in front of the ḥajj caravan along with a couple of companions, riding mules from ‘Usfān [1]. When I reached Mecca the Noble I went to the Ḥaram in order to perform the ritual circumambulation (ṭawāf) of the ‘umrah (the ‘minor pilgrimage’). I was alone. First, I circled around al-Bayt al-Ḥarām so that I would recognize the designated locations which one needs to know during the circumambulation [2]. Then I wanted to start on the circumambulation, but a man from among those who there lead the people in the circumambulation came up to me and said, ‘I will take you on the circumambulation!’

But I replied to him, ‘I am a man from Syria and I arrived ahead of the Syrian ḥajj caravan, so I don’t have any dirhams with me right now to give to you—I’ve got nothing on me save what a pilgrim needs in his ritual state. Now, if you’re alright with it then instruct me for free, otherwise, leave me alone and I’ll perform the circumambulation by myself!’

Then he set to arguing with me and saying nasty things, until, while we were in the middle of it, a man approached and drew the man aside, saying to him, ‘Leave this one alone to circumambulate by himself! You want to instruct him in the circumambulation—but he and his father before him have themselves instructed a thousand people like you in the circumambulation!—’ or something to that effect— ‘so leave him alone so that he can perform the circumambulation.’ So he left me alone and I performed the circumambulation as I wished. Continue reading “‘Alī ibn Muḥammad al-‘Āmilī and the Aggressive Meccan Tour Guide”

Tourist Guides of Jerusalem, Circa 1641

The guild [of Jerusalem tourist guides] had ten members, one of whom was the head; it was very zealous in guarding their vested interests. They apparently had ample reason to be anxious: in 1641 it was reported to the kadi that unauthorized guides were meeting the pilgrims outside Jerusalem’s walls and showing them around holy sites, their faulty knowledge not withstanding. Moreover, other individuals were selling the visitors figurines made of clay, allegedly taken from the cave situated beneath the Dome of the Rock and representing historical figures—claims that were baseless factually and harmful financially. Thus the kadi instructed “stock ‘Abd al-Qadir,” the head of the guild, to stop anyone who tried to behave in such unauthorized ways, and if necessary, bring them to the court where they would be punished. All guild members were to be equally treated by the head, but each guide was to be left alone to handle his own customers, without interference by others. The head was also to stop any sales of the kind just mentioned, as well as insist that each of the staff of the Temple Mount stay within his allocated area and address the visitors there, while refraining from showing them around other areas. However, if high-ranking individuals wished to vist these places, their tours should not be conducted by ordinary guild members; only handpicked top staff of the Temple Mount (the deputy shaykh al-haram and the deputy nazir) could guide them there. And finally, no one was to be allowed to intercept the pilgrims outside the town gates and monopolize them.

Amnon Cohen, The Guilds of Ottoman Jerusalem (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 79-80.

Swept Under the Rug

I was changing trains on the Madrid Metro when I noticed a large advertisement splashed across the tiled walls of the subway tube. There are, of course, numerous ads of all sorts on the Madrid Metro, but this particular one caught my eye: it portrayed a European- Spanish perhaps- woman reclining on a couch, with a look of contented pleasure on her face. Well she would be- her couch was set in an airy-looking room of a vaguely oriental feel, with a view of the ocean out the windows, palm trees and sand dunes leading out to the azure sea. Coming from under the rug, behind the furnishings, and from the edge of the scene were brown hands, holding food, a telephone, clothes, and so on- all the comforts, I suppose, a well-heeled person needs whilst on vacation. The sign was advertising tourism to Morocco, the country I had only recently departed from. While I’ve forgotten the exact words that were splayed across the top of the picture, their gist was to describe an enchanting, comfortable Morocco- that is, not only exotic, but accessible, unlikely to jar or in any way disturb the average Western visitor. Finally, the ad was produced by a Moroccan tourism board- a government agency, if I remember correctly.

I reflected further on the ad’s message as I made my way south from the airport to the bus station, passing several more copies along the way. Perhaps my conclusion reads too much into the ad, but I don’t think so- rather, as so often happens, advertising and art (which seem to merge into one these days anyway) reflect the popular image, by defining and re-offering it in order to sell a product- in this case, a whole country. But here’s what I saw in the image:

There were Moroccans in the picture, to be sure- they were vital to the ad’s message- but they were utterly invisible, at least as real people. Each of the Moroccans depicted in the ad was nothing but an extended arm, offering a service to the wealthy tourist- services that merely existed as services, delivered by ‘natives’ hovering out of sight, who need not interfere with their particular personalities- all that was swept under the exotic-looking rug. Their existence is necessary, the ad implied, for without them Morocco would merely be exotic and not comfortable- but only so far as the natives both existed and were faceless, unobtrusive, offering whatever was needed. They were not even allowed to be a part of the scenery- not even as quaint natives in turbans or head scarves, dancing and playing music. Even this stereotyped role was denied the nameless, faceless servants. Not even bodies were allowed- only arms protruding from the dark. The message was clear: come to Morocco, and no native will disturb your experience. No threatening Other need disrupt your exotic vacation by intruding his presence. Our natives are only here to please, and only in a very particular and completely non-threatening, comfortable way. There is no room for, say, sexual tension, for cultural tension, of any sort- bodies, souls, all, are removed from the scene.

Is this image ‘true’? That is, does it represent the actual experience of the Western tourist to Morocco? I don’t know, to be honest- my traveling in Morocco was of the ‘budget’ sort, which meant I traveled and stayed, as a general rule, with Moroccans. Even if I had wanted to, I could not escape experiencing Morocco and its people, on some level, on the terms of the place and its inhabitants. I was- thankfully- hard up against the ‘real’ Morocco quite often, which was, as in any country, at times deeply satisfying and enriching, and at other times frustrating and wearisome. But Morocco never appeared faceless to me; the ‘natives’ were not background filler- and nor would I desire (or be able to afford!) such a thing. But perhaps for the tourist with greater financial leeway, the image has a good deal of truth: from the vantage point of the tour bus and the five star hotel behind walls and gates, Morocco- the flesh-and-blood Morocco- becomes a mere backdrop, a barely existent thing, that flashes by in a two-week tour of tourist sites and fancy hotels, flitting from airport to beach to Marrakech to Fez and back to the airport. The goal, perhaps, is to avoid unnecessary contact with ‘natives,’ except those few who are ‘presentable.’ Whether or not the individual tourist wants this, it is the pre-packaged experience, no doubt genuinely desired by many.

Perhaps this is an inevitable process for all places that are so deluged with the tourist industry: the ‘local’ is squeezed further and further into a proper role, or, as in the ad- and I daresay in all to many tourists’ actual experience in Morocco, and elsewhere- out of the picture altogether, except as a completely anonymous provider of services, and a blur out the window or at the edge of the tour group in the Medina. And if tourism tends to begin by making the native a part of the scenery, perhaps its culmination is to push him out of the scenery altogether. This has been the process in the creation of many a game preserve or national park, here in the United States and across the planet: the local must in the end be reduced to the background, non-existent at the centre, relegated- if at all- to the edge of the preserve, selling handicrafts and t-shirts, lest he spoil the view we pay to come and see.

That brings up one final, disturbing aspect of the ad in question: it was produced by Moroccans, albeit from an official agency of some sort. Indeed, all over the world, the imaginative and often times literal marginalization and exclusion of the ‘native’ is carried out, not by foreign conquerors or even business interests, but by the compatriots of the ‘natives.’ Why is this? Part of it, no doubt, is in fact a reflection of the ‘colonization of the mind’ spoken of by post-colonial theorists: the assimilation and application of European stereotypes and mentalities by the colonized themselves. But perhaps more often, it is simply an outworking of the realization by the powerful that this sort of marginalization can work to the benefit of pre-existing powerful interests, both in business and in the State. And it is defensible, particularly to the very Westerners one is courting: the guilty Western’s conscience can be salved by telling him that his tourism is somehow aiding the poor, developing the economy (lining tax coffers and supporting the bureaucracies as well, of course). Sure, the government ran poor farmers off of their land to build a national park for rich Westerners to admire endangered species in, but in so doing they’re protecting the Earth, preventing global warming no doubt. And besides, there is plenty of land elsewhere- what are a few disenfranchised poor people? With time they will disappear from the scenery anyway. If the State, as it does in Fez, seizes common ground in the Medina and uses its citizens money to host high-brow ‘cultural events,’ well, the common ‘native’ can’t appreciate such things anyway. And for many States, they would prefer that foreign visitors not pay much attention to the locals anyway, and certainly not listen to them- they might hear too much. Adopting and reinforcing the stereotypes of the West can be quite beneficial for the powerful few.

But coming back to the ad in the Metro: I think the faceless servers are ultimately indicative of the whole sweep of our globalized world. We managed to avoid so many faces: the worker who puts together our cheap goods, the high-school kid taking our order at Wendy’s, the telemarketer trying to sell us insurance, the commuter in the car next to us on the way home. It’s easier that way, Lord knows- less messy, as dealing with people to their face, even in our own comfortable cultural space, is difficult. How much more difficult in those exotic countries that we’d like to vacation in, if only the natives would be unobtrusive. Our neighbor at home is nearly invisible- it only follows that we would truly reduce our neighbor across the sea to invisibility. We avoid, mostly unconsciously, the faces of our neighbors, whether at home or abroad: and if do not even see our neighbor’s face, how are we to fulfill the command to love our neighbor?