Crowds and Experts: An Interview with Omer Shah

Hisham Awad

Crowd - Hatem Imam
Crowd - Hatem Imam

In the following interview, Omer Shah, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, at Columbia University, expounds on the ethnographic work he carried out in Saudi Arabia, in and around the holy city of Mecca, between October 2017 and August 2019. By attending to historical and contemporary formations of the crowd, expertise, knowledge production, and the kingdom’s national transformation campaign, Shah provides an account of the experience, governance, and future of pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Hisham Awad: Your dissertation project, Made in Mecca: Islamic Knowledges, Expertise, and Technology in the Post-Oil Holy City, is an ethnographic inquiry into the knowledge work, technological and urban infrastructure, and ethical and religious considerations shaping the city. Can you give us a brief overview of the project?

Omer Shah: An essential backdrop for my work is the Vision 2030 national transformation campaign.  The Vision 2030 plan seeks to prepare the kingdom for a post-oil future, by diversifying the Saudi economy, but also strives to repair, if, not produce, an image of an increasingly moderate and secular kingdom.  The “vision” of the Vision 2030 campaign is associated with the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, as well as what some have called “the Ministry of McKinsey”, in reference to the central role this consulting firm has played in imagining the campaign. The plan involves a movement from oil as a “natural resource,” to a new idea of “human resources,” thus demanding al-sa’wadah,or Saudization, of various industries and sectors, encouraging entrepreneurship and intensifying a knowledge economy. But what is often ignored, in discussions of Vision 2030, is a more regional transformation happening around the holy cities and its attendant pilgrimages systems: hajj and umrah. By 2030, Saudi Arabia is planning to increase the number of annual pilgrims from eight million to thirty million. The hajj itself thus becomes another “human resource” for the kingdom.

The project itself is based on two years of ethnographic research conducted largely around Mecca’s university and its plans for a new science and technology park, if not smart city, located on the outskirts of the holy city, just beyond the haram or sanctuary boundary. The outlines of this format should be familiar—the university both escapes from the city, but also attempts to drive a certain urban project. But there is also a unique spatial fix here, wherein the boundary of the haram comes to produce a new urban form, one that allows access for non-Muslim experts, entrepreneurs, and others. The project, known as Makkah Techno Valley, buzzed with a new class of hajj experts and entrepreneurs building new technologies of “smart” urbanism: crowd and traffic management, and logistics. In line with the Vision 2030 plan, the Makkah Techno Valley project was in many ways committed to an “image” of Saudi technology, but the project was still in many ways animated by tech-workers, engineers, and programmers from South Asia.

In my work I thus explore how this university, once deeply associated with the shari’a, becomes essentially a laboratory for hajj risk-management, as the pilgrimage comes to be intensified. I’m also interested in how this project of nationalization encounters the unique grammars of the holy city. It is a way of asking, what does kafala look like in “the sanctuary?” In my work, I document this consistent and ultimately tragic attempt to make Mecca coterminous with the nation and its economy. The hajj and the forms of Islamic belonging it instantiates must now be made to circulate as technologies and techniques of crowd control, logistics, and surveillance. Ritual comes to be described in a language of “crisis” and “risk”, and its attendant solutions of management, standards, public relations campaigns, etc. In all of this, my main argument would seem to be how Mecca’s cosmopolitan logics and histories are dulled, even as hajj and umrah is to be intensified— where the rigor of belonging is traded for the intensity of movement and economy.

HA: The crowd seems to be a figure, question, and historical formation that is central to your research.  Authors such as Gustave Le Bon, Charles Baudelaire, and Siegfried Kracauer, writing at the turn of the twentieth century, were preoccupied with the psychological, cultural, and sociopolitical facets, and powers, of the crowd, as it emerges in and shapes urban modernity. In what ways have these texts informed, interacted with, and clashed against the articulations and management of the crowd you have encountered in your historical and ethnographic work?

OS: This literature is of course both essential to my work, and somewhat extraneous. In part, it hinges upon a determination of when “the crowd” in Mecca is “the crowd.” Reading this new emergent literature on “crowd sciences,” Le Bon and others are absent in terms of a citational practice. There might be tonal references wherein “the crowd” is made to seem mob-like, processing some uncontrollable energies or potentialities. For others, the crowd is more innocent, its failures and collapse being a marker of poor management or otherwise some technological failure. And so, this earlier literature was interested in “diagnosis” while this new literature is much more invested in statistical prediction and the establishment of standards and “best-practices.” And so, more than LeBon, it is anthropologists like Edward Hall who came up with cultural classifications based on notions of “personal space,” or Stephen Pheasant, whose work on anthropometry, ergonomics, and “body ellipses” is often cited towards similar ends, or standardization bodies like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials that end up being cited.

Ultimately, in my research, I am also interested in excavating Islamic genealogies and grammars of “the crowd”, which, of course, persist. For example, one of the old names for Mecca used in the Qur’an is “Bekka,” which is derived from an old Arabic word meaning “to crowd” or “to gather.” Another name used for Mecca is um al-zuhm, or “Mother of All Crowds.”  A hadith, or saying of the Prophet, reports that when pilgrims are less than six hundred thousand, the angels perform the ritual in their stead. And so the crowd and numbers are completely essential to the holy city. But the crowd in Mecca is not reducible to the image of “the crowd” that has plagued and fascinated Western social theory. In Mecca, the crowd is not necessarily a mob, nor is it an audience tethered to the cinematic apparatus. It offers an alternate and decidedly religious genealogy. And so, in my work, even as I attempt to illuminate the technical administration and arrangement of bodies with the sanctuary, I also take seriously the notion that this is some articulation of the community of believers, or the ummah.  It is onto this language of the ummah that new discourses of the crowd adhere. But of course, since the 1990s, “the crowd” in Mecca has been the scene of horrific crowd disasters and stampedes. The crowd, then, is not only the scene of Islamic belonging writ large, but also, increasingly, the scene of fear, anxiety, and threat. As part of my research, I’ve been reading different fatwas on this issue of crowd anxiety, and the different ways in which Islamic scholars have acknowledged and dealt with this problem, or failed to do so. The shadow of these disasters also vivifies the political gamble involved in hajj management and using “the crowd” as this nexus of Islamic diplomacy and public relations. Now, in this age of Covid-19, and in the absence of “the crowd,” or “that kind of a crowd,” this gamble is all the more explicit, as with crowd monitoring techniques, another opportunity to intensify forms of surveillance and monitoring.

In my research, I gravitated towards a host of diverging scenes, settings, and practices beyond the crowd as laboratory—or ummah for that matter. As an ethnographer, I spent relatively little time in the scene of “the crowd” itself.  Rather, I was more interested in office cultures that purported to manage these formations. I was interested in seeing how “the sanctuary” bled through these new non-spaces and half-built middle-class neighborhoods occupied by university folk. As a result, I came to occupy different kinds of publics and audiences—the university, hajj field offices, conferences, trade shows, “hackathons,” governmental workshops and trainings, etc. In these spaces, I became interested in a different set of collectives, circulations, and practices, like the work of “human resources,” internet rumors and accusations, anxieties about the multiplicity of fatwas on the hajj, the status of an ancient guild, and who gets to be “Meccan,” in this age of secular equality and national suspicion. Running through the project, there is a low-humming interest in what gets done in the name of “the crowd”—the destruction and flattening of Mecca’s mountainous and sacred landscape is compelling to me in this regard.

HA: These spaces you occupy, and practices you trace, point to an epistemological rupture—a rupture with “tradition” and Islamic knowledge and management of Hajj. But this seemingly clear and decisive rupture, between a pre-technocratic pilgrimage, and a technocratic one shaped by managerial logistics, is perhaps misleading.

OS: Right, this is a tension I explore most explicitly in and around my interest in the ancient guild of pilgrim guides, known as tawafaTawafa is an essential Meccan institution, one which, I argue, constitutes a unique set of experiential, urban, and cosmopolitan knowledges, techniques, and etiquettes. Classically, the mutawif would travel the Muslim world, cultivating relationships with potential pilgrims, learning their language, madhab, custom, etc. The mutawif would often times marry into the communities of pilgrims he served. Historically, then, tawafa has engaged the residents of Mecca in forms of global intimacy and ethical care of, and for, foreign pilgrims. Their knowledges included the technical requirements of the hajj ritual—how to approach Mecca, how to exit the sanctuary, the when to be and how. While all this is internal to the shari’a, there is something else beyond it, something like an ethnographic-logistical worldview, one that played no small role in making the Meccan pilgrimage global, and in building something like the global ummah.

HA: How do the mutawif and the new class of hajj experts/entrepreneursoperate, as state actors? What forms does their interfacing take?

OS: With the rise of the Saudi state, tawafa’s formalization into mu’asassat or “institutions”, and the rise of mass pilgrimage, tawafa has changed fundamentally.  Tawafa increasingly operates as a massive bureaucracy, mutawifs’ labor largely executive and unfolding in mass conditions. As one mutawif lamented to me in an interview, “I am forced to deal with them [pilgrims] as numbers.” This sense of ruin is exacerbated by the fact that tawafa is to be made completely public—open to all Saudis, that is, not just Meccans carrying the genealogical mantle of tawafa. The figure of the mutawif is compelling because he or she embodies a different grammar of knowledge, expertise, and work—one that stands in contradistinction to the figure of the “entrepreneur” and the sciences and technologies which exuberantly proclaim innovation, smartness, etc.

Many mutawifs thus insist on the grammars that for long have animated their guild and their broader sensibilities as Meccans. It is one that I see reflected in statements made to me, such as— “we work for the pilgrims, dayuf al-rahman literally “Guests of God”, not the minister.” However, the relationship to the state is much more complicated than these sort of claims might suggest. Grammars of care also slide into grammars of surveillance. For example, the mutawif holds the pilgrim’s passport and is often made financially responsible if a pilgrim under his care attempts to overstay his or her hajj visa. The mutawif is also entangled in operationalizing many of these new smart technology schemes and other crowd management projects, whether it is “smart systems” of vehicle tracking, or convincing pilgrims to adhere to mass scheduling, or tafweej, wherein pilgrims must conduct the ritual according to certain time frames in order to avoid overcrowding and traffic.

While working in Mecca, it became apparent to me that it is necessary to identify and analyze the ways in which these secular knowledges and technologies interact and collaborate with more Islamic forms of “knowing” the hajj, its “crowds,” and its very particular sacred geographies. I’m also sensitive to how more Islamic projects like tawafa, and certainly the hajj itself, become attached to more statist practices. This is something I attempt to deal with in reading deep histories of Mecca and this guild. I also approach more recent histories. For example, I examine the rise of a group of architects and engineers then known as the Hajj Research Center. The group was highly critical of Saudi planning efforts, which, in their view, increasingly apprehended Mecca as a global city, and not as a “sanctuary.” In this, I became interested in their efforts “to plan” a sanctuary. This involved a certain reading of technology, wherein automobility was vilified for being poisonous to the environment and largely disruptive of the “ambient spirituality” the sanctuary requires. But the group also ushered in a world of cybernetic thinking, cameras, and computers. Importantly, the Center was also founded by a mutawif. And so I became interested in how the grammars of tawafa come to be articulated in and through planning, architecture, and infrastructure—but also their limits. More ethnographically, I’m interested in the current work and expertise of the mutawif, but also how tawafa is being remade, and how the urban, intellectual, and cosmopolitan prestige of the Meccan is made untenable in this nationalist age which demands speed, anonymity, and a smooth, secular “equality.”

Omer’s research was made possible by support from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Social Science Research Council’s International Dissertation Research Fellowship, with funds provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.