“It was literally like something out of a dream. We didn’t see the Kaaba, but upon entering that district with the hotels, all I could see were towers. The huge minarets. And the hotels. And the loud adhan echoing through the city. And buzzing. Constant buzzing. I only caught a glimpse of the mosque, before we entered a tunnel. It was a large tunnel with huge industrial fans. That’s where the buzzing was coming from. It was like some futuristic scene. And construction everywhere—it was so chaotic, but in an orderly kind of way. It’s so hard to explain, but imagine going to a concrete city with ludicrously high towers, passing under large tunnels, coming out and seeing larger structures before going into tunnels again, all under constant buzzing noise.
It was crazy. The entrance to the hotel was also inside a bridge, which added to the surreal scene. We went from a dark tunnel, into a palace. We were in Zam Zam. It’s the one directly beside the clock tower. But that whole complex…is an ecosystem in itself…six floors of shopping and food, little pockets of people and things everywhere, and then on top of all that, these massive hotels. It must have been quite an engineering feat.”
I recalled my friend’s words about entering Makkah from two years ago as I exited the Haram after having performed Umrah, two years later.
Lifting my chin at a steep angle, I looked up at the Abraj-al-Bait, often referred to as the Zam Zam Towers. A structure higher than the Sears Tower, comprising of six different 4+ star hotels, vast levels of shopping and eating, I looked up at Zam Zam Towers with an awe I didn’t have before.
If you were like myself, you saw Makkah from a young age, when there were no big hotels, only small ones with simple rooms—sometimes with a warped mattress, other times with a minor malfunction in the bathroom.
The Haram was surrounded by tiny shops then, and the lights from bazaars twinkled around the perimeter. Getting inside the Haram wasn’t difficult at all. And many, many of our prayers were in the sehen surrounding the Kaaba itself. Even women, all the time.
My parents saw an even simpler Haram. The sehen back then was not fully tiled. Some of it was gravel. And the tiles alternated black and white in color. Today the flooring exists in two layers with a gap in the middle, and water runs through that gap underneath the tiles so that they stay cool. That didn’t exist back then.In Makkah’s heat, if you stepped on one of those black tiles, your feet were in for it.
Over time the hotels grew, and the Haram expanded. And needless to say, when the Clock Tower appeared all of a sudden, many of us found ourselves in a blend of disappointment and outrage.
We weren’t happy. It was obvious that even if it housed a large number, a lot of people just wouldn’t be able to afford staying in those hotels. Under that subtext, the decision to put up the complex seemed extravagant, superfluous.
But now returning after a five-year absence, I looked up at it differently, baffled by its size. It was really big. And I could only think one thing: ‘It must have been quite an engineering feat.’
I told my friend I remembered his statement, and he finished our conversation from two years ago concluding:
“I know a lot of people hate the buildings. But for me it made the Kaaba stand out even more. Because it’s in the center of it all.”
I had never thought of it that way.
For the next few days, the pathways in my brain took an investigative turn. I absorbed what I could, in and around Zam Zam Towers. Its sheer size would not cease to confound me. We took two different sets of elevators to get up to our hotel. And we were tired by the time we made it outside because of how much walking area just the lobbies covered.
It occurred to me that in addition to engineering, this was also a marvel in management. The signage worked great. It showed you exactly how to get down to the lobby, toward the Haram, toward the market. I thought about all the people I’d seen working here: the staff that takes your luggage as soon as you step out of the taxi, the people working at reception, the man in charge of breakfast room count, the pair in the lobby who offers Arabic coffee and Sukkary dates after every prayer—and then disappears like Jinn, the many, many shopkeepers, the people running food establishments, the guard who sits outside the prayer room during congregational prayers, the TV repair man who fixed our channels, the people who change towels and sheets in each room daily. How many people did it take to run this place? It felt remarkable just thinking about it. So many jobs must have been created because of this establishment.
The next day after Dhuhr, we set out in the opposite direction of the Haram. My dad took me into an alley in between the buildings of Zam Zam Towers to show me part of the mountain that existed underneath the hotel it was carved for. Walking past our hotel and others, we made our way through the strip where women sit on the road selling seeds for the pigeons that gather in masses. We walked, and walked, and soon realized everything had changed. The bazaars with little shops, the life of Makkah outside the Haram, were no longer there. In the distance we saw a street way that may have been where some of them got pushed back to. But it was much too far of a walk.
We went back in dismay. They were all gone. Even the few that were left last time, were now all gone, replaced by concrete buildings. I felt so sad. Those little shops were such a vital part of Makkah’s character.
The experience of experiencing Zam Zam however, is a lot like the tunnels and pathways of Makkah. At one turn there is one outcome. At the next turn, another. That evening on the way back from the Haram, I told my mom to take the first entrance into Zam Zam from the side street. I thought I had seen a few shops there earlier. We walked in and took a turn to the right. But it wasn’t a few shops. It was a whole bazaar. The whole bazaar that used to be outside. I walked through the aisles, feeling both puzzled and enchanted. Shopkeepers were reciting “Do riyal, do riyal, do riyal” to us, brilliantly colored tasbeeh beads hung in bunches on walls, the bracelets and necklaces I used to buy sat in large piles, toys walked around doing flips. Other shops had stacks of the most recent scarves and Abayat. A simple tea shop or ice cream counter would take its place in between.
I discovered that the higher up you went in the Zam Zam Towers, the more expensive things got. The tasbeeh that was 2 riyals at the bottom-most level, became 5 riyals a few floors north. Perhaps the 5 riyal one had slightly better quality. But what a surprise! The entire bazaar from outside was in the basement of this hotel now. It had the same character, same feel, the same bargaining.
Later when we decided to look at what the food court on level P3 was like, we met more of the same familiarity. I’ve never seen a food court that takes up that much area. There were so many establishments with shawarma, kabsa, noodles, the regular KFC and Hardees, and in one corner Faisalabad Restaurant. Desi people sat at the group of tables in this segment, eating daal and biryani, everyone seemingly having a good time. It reminded me of the small Pakistani restaurants we would visit down the street in the middle of the bazaars. It was all the same, just in a different way.
My favorite part of the hotel though, was when you go down to the ground level and take the escalator toward the ‘Souk.’ It disembarks you out onto the boulevard to the right of the complex. To get outside, you first pass through a large, tiled veranda that is part of the hotel itself. Two tea shops exist on one side, and the rest of the area is used by people all day long. Some are fast asleep, napping. Others sit together and have tea in the afternoon. Some people are praying, and many offer their fard Salah here in congregation. In one corner there might be a couple sharing lunch together, in another someone may be resting from the heat outside. A cat or two casually walks over people’s prayer mats. People laugh and talk and spend time together.
The boulevard outside is always moving with pilgrims going back and forth from hotels. It’s a wide roadway where cars are not allowed. The other end of the street is lined with tea shops, tiny restaurants selling shawarma, biryani, falafel sandwiches. Other shops sell soft-serve ice cream, snack size bags of popcorn, and fresh juices. People sit on the steps that line that end of the road, snacking on foods, talking with each other, or resting against pillars. It’s wonderful.
When Zam Zam Towers was first built, I didn’t understand it. I feel grateful to have seen Makkah before its existence, and do miss it. However, after remembering the growing influx of pilgrims every year, and reading about the pressures that the government faces about housing all those people, I understand the matter a bit differently. And it feels so wonderful that the spirit of Makkah still retains itself—in the basement bazaar, in the veranda, in the foodcourt, and out in the street.
But the best thing remains. After a day had passed post-Umrah, my mom and I went to do another tawaf around the Kaaba. I walked round and round, raising my hands in praise at the Black Stone corner, and making duaa fervently. I thought about the night I came here, when I stepped down the white marble steps toward the sehen and caught the first glimpse of black and gold. I couldn’t grasp that I was there. After all those years of wishing I could come, searching for that moment when I would see it again, here I was facing the Kaaba. For the first few times around during tawaf, I could barely even look up at it because my tears wouldn’t stop if I did.
I looked up during this aftermath tawaf at the Kaaba, and then Zam Zam behind it. There was no overpowering, no comparison. I wonder now why we got so offended.
Another structure could never have that pull, could never move us to tears, could never be higher in any way. I smiled at what I saw before me and understood what he meant.
It would always be the center of it all.