Book Review: Christmas in Mecca tells a story of a journey like no other!

Hesham Taha, Sunday 5 Sep 2021

Book cover
Book cover

Krismas fi Maccah ("Christmas in Mecca"), by Ahmed Khairi Al-Omari, Cairo: Aseer Al-Kotob Publishing, 2019, pp.331

Christmas in Mecca is a novel by the Iraqi author Dr. Ahmed Al-Omari, which discusses a number of topics, including the generational gap, the self-and-the-other, Sunnis and Shia, the homeland and being abroad, Arab authoritarian regimes and of course religion at large. The novel unfolds with every narrator remembering the past, as if there are layers of truth peeled back with every retrospection.

The intriguing novel’s title is based on Iraqi family members who reunite in Mecca to perform the Umrah (lesser pilgrimage) at Christmas. Some family members, who were obliged to live abroad, use the Christmas vacation in order to carry out this trip.

The novel consists of eleven chapters moving in rotating manner, starting with the young woman Maryam then her mother Mayyada then other characters. Maryam, who emigrated at the age of seven with her mother from Iraq after her father was killed during vicious sectarian strife, is studying architecture in Sheffield University, the first female Arab to do so. She begins to gradually realise that she has nothing to present during her university education as far as architecture is concerned except her Arab Islamic identity. This has in its turn distinguished in the eyes of her professors.

Al-Omari then moves to Mayyada, the Shia mother and computer engineer who was obliged to work as a bathroom cleaner on arriving to England in order to make ends meet. She eventually got a job in a bank with the assistance of her brother Haider, who helped her look for work. Before emigrating, she fell in love with Haider’s friend, Dr. Omar, who took care of her father on his deathbed whilst Haider was in England. They married and after Maryam was born Mayyada insisted upon leaving Iraq following the American occupation and the flare-up of sectarian strife. Omar was kidnapped, brutally tortured and killed, seemingly at the hands of a Shia gang. The same happened to Mayyada’s other brother, Maithem, at the hands of a Sunni gang.

Uncle Saad, Maryam’s paternal uncle, travels to Mecca with his wheelchair-bound ex-military general father, Ahmed. He used to be sharp-tongued, but has been totally transformed by the time of his journey, to the astonishment of Mayyada. He obtained his PhD in architecture, but after the international embargo imposed on Iraq made matters worse in his field of work, he resorted to religion. He embodies a facet of the the Arab intellectual middle-class in crisis. He is sterile and divorced, thus keen on reuniting with his only niece, Maryam, to give her inheritance out of religious duty.

The novel’s most complicated character is Haider, Maryam’s maternal uncle, who personifies the climax of conflict between the self-and-the-other, albeit within himself. He was on a summer holiday in England when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait so he decided not to return and complete his medical studies there. At that moment, he cut all his religious and cultural ties with his homeland and became fully assimilated into the West. He married an English woman, Emily, and brought up their daughter, Sarah, in Western culture. However, he is shocked when she becomes pregnant with her black boyfriend, Luke, and they obstinately refuse to marry. He gets mad verbally clashes with Sarah, objecting to Luke because he is black. His past is beginning to catch up with him. He remembers when he used to call his Iraqi self "Hyde", as in the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is also the pet name by which Emily used to call him. Meanwhile, he is going through a professional crisis due to accusations of medical malpractice. So, he goes to Mecca to be away from all the pressure inside and outside his home.

Ahmed Bakr Agha, the ex-military general, is the epitome of military dignity and knowledge for he was educated at the prestigious British Royal Military Academy Sandhurst; he always insisted on dressing in a three piece suit. He was dismissed when he objected to the military's performance during the Iran-Iran War. The author points indirectly to the way Arab authoritarian regimes always prefer loyalty over professionalism and the way they wasted talent across all fields in their countries!

In belonging to the British occupation period in Iraq, Ahmed Agha is mirrored by Soad Al-Dabbagh, Mayyada’s mother who was a very strict headmistress. Her imposing character represents the past with all its weight. Although she is a harsh critic of her daughter, she is nothing but pleasant with her son Haider.

There is a historical thread drawn between Ahmed Agha and Ahmed the paternal uncle to Al-Musta'sim Billah, the last caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate. The Abbasid Ahmed was imprisoned for ten years by his nephew, the then-caliph, after the latter suspected him of aiming to dethrone him. Ahmed escaped following the cataclysmic fall of Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols in 1258 and fled to Cairo. This echoes the fall of Baghdad during the American Invasion in 2003. This link becomes quite obvious when the ex-military general grandfather, plagued with Alzheimers, is said to be an expert on the fall of Baghdad and tried to see all the alternatives to evade this fall. To top it all, he begins to sign hotel receipts under the name of Ahmed Al-Mustansir Billah instead of Ahmed Bakr Agha. The Abbasid Ahmed named himself Al-Mustansir Billah and was installed as Caliph in 1261. Encouraged by the Mamluks driving the Mongols from Syria, he attempted to recapture Baghdad in a foolhardy undertaking only to be butchered along with his small army by the Mongol forces.

Maryam can be considered the novel’s hub. Her mother brought her to get to know her relatives from her father’s side and her maternal uncle had to go with his sister and niece as mahram (a male guardian, generally related by blood). Meanwhile, her paternal uncle is keen to see his niece since he is sterile and Omar, his only sibling, was killed; she is the only living offspring of their family line. Maryam was always a victim to Muslim stereotypes whether in Middlesbrough or in Sheffield University. Although her mother’s influence and tight control is felt throughout the novel, Maryam has a strong, independent and obstinate character. For instance, she insists on celebrating Christmas in the hotel room in Mecca, preparing the decorations with what’s available as well as getting both the traditional western and Arab food for dinner. As usual for Iraqi family meetings, the meal turns into a heated verbal exchange between Saad and Haider about the East and the West before Mayyada vehemently stops the nonsensical argument.

Maryam came to perform Umrah with the sole purpose of acquainting herself with the architecture of both Al-Masjid Al-Haram in Mecca and the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, trying to make a conceptual design that is more fitting than the original. Her journey ends with a more mature outlook towards Islam’s two holiest sites, as she is imbued with a sense of serenity and humbleness, albeit mixed with a feminist touch, especially following her prayer in the Prophet’s Mosque. Part of this transformation can be attributed to meeting her uncle and grandfather for the first time and the caring, compassionate and tender way Saad treats her. It also helps that he has a PhD in architecture himself, narrowing the gap between the two immensely. She begins to remember memories, to her mother’s bewilderment, of when she was very young in Baghdad, especially of her grandfather’s perfume. Her grandfather dies when she is sleeping on his shoulder on the trip to Medina, dreaming vividly of her father for the first time in her life.

One of the novel’s most moving scenes is when the grandfather, Ahmed Agha, loses control of himself, claiming to be searching for his son's eyes. It transpires that when Omar’s body was handed over to him and Mayyada in the morgue, it was without his green eyes. This explains why the grandfather was attracted to Maryam when he first saw her, for she had inherited her father’s eyes.

Almost all of the characters went to Umrah for certain undeclared purposes. Mayyada wanted to reconnect with her late husband’s relatives twelve years after his death to ensure that her daughter will receive her inheritance. Haider wanted to escape the stress brought by his daughter’s pregnancy out-of-wedlock and malpractice investigation. Maryam aimed to acquaint herself with the architecture of Islam’s two holiest sites in a way that benefited her university research. Saad is probably the only one who wanted to perform it for religious purpose, as well as seeing his niece.

The generational gap is illustrated when Maryam comments about her mother and Saad’s way of mobile texting with two hands instead of one and the instant possibility of Googling things while they are thinking about a vague piece of information. The sectarian angle is strikingly evident with the atrocious killing of Omar and Maithem after each being kidnapped by the opposite side. The self-and-the-other dimension was exemplified by Haider and his dilemma on how best to treat his daughter. The effect of Arab authoritarian regimes was shown in the description of futile wars and the crushing of their people along with their intelligentsia, which were faced with the choice to either emmigrate or stay in their homelands to be oppressed or killed.

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