A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage 
by Abdellah Hammoudi, translated by Pascale Ghazaleh.
Polity, 293 pp., £12.99, January 2006, 0 7456 3789 2
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The Jeddah sailed from Singapore on 17 July 1880, bound for Penang and Jeddah, with 778 men, 147 women and 67 children on board. Muslims from the Malay Archipelago, they were travelling to Mecca and Medina for the pilgrimage. Some came from the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia); some from the different Malay states, then beginning to experience more direct British intervention; some from Singapore.

The ship was under the British flag. Seyyid Muhammad al-Sagoff, the managing director and part-owner of the Singapore Steamship Company, to which it belonged, came from a wealthy Arab family, originally from Hadhramaut in south-east Yemen but already well established in the economy of Singapore and the Hejaz, the region in western Arabia within which lie the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Seyyid Omar al-Sagoff, Muhammad’s son, was on board. In addition to its Singapore office, the business had an important branch in Jeddah, the main port of the Hejaz, then part of the Ottoman Empire. It also ran an agency in Aden, since its conquest in 1839 a key link in British maritime influence in the Indian Ocean, and after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 an even more important port on the Europe-Asia routes. This is the high point of 19th-century imperialism.

After terrible weather conditions in the first week of August, the boilers ‘started adrift from their seatings’. The Jeddah had for some days been taking in water. Now it sprang a heavy leak. The water rose rapidly. The captain and the European officers abandoned the settling and heavily listing ship, taking Seyyid Omar with them, and were picked up by another vessel and taken to Aden, where they told a story of violent passengers and a foundering ship. The pilgrims were left to their fate, an apparently certain death.

To much astonishment, however, given reports of its loss, on 8 August another steamship towed the Jeddah into Aden. The pilgrims had survived. They had been abandoned by those meant to protect them. Official inquiries followed into this great scandal of the sea.

One element in the case that added to the embarrassment as well as the outrage of the European and seafaring communities concerned the conduct of the pilgrims. The Vice-Admiralty Court in Singapore, meeting in September 1881 to consider the amount of salvage to be paid, found that the pilgrims became agitated only when they realised that they were being left to die by the crew. They had not threatened violence as had been alleged in defence of the decision to abandon them. Indeed, the judgment says, they did not use their knives to injure anyone. The master had communicated nothing to them and their ‘demeanour’ could be quite reasonably accounted for by the realisation that they were being deserted: the master’s leaving the ship ‘roused the pilgrims to violence in attempting to swamp his boat, and such the Court consider might naturally have been expected from any body of human beings, even Europeans, situated as the pilgrims were’. Moreover, the Malay pilgrims appeared to have acted with great efficiency when it came to working the pumps to clear the ship of water, desperate work they continued when the Jeddah was under tow by the French vessel that had spotted their distress signals. The colonial stereotype of ‘the Malay’ as ‘running amok’ when not being the classical ‘lazy native’ he was held to be by some British authorities could not have been challenged more strongly. The moral reversal – natives behaving properly while being betrayed by white men who violated their own codes of the sea – impressed the inquiry and, no doubt, the devourers of the now fast travelling news between Aden and London and Singapore.

This was the scandal that inspired Conrad, who had landed in Singapore in 1883 after himself being forced to abandon ship, to write Lord Jim.

As a steam rather than a sailing ship, the Jeddah was itself a small part of the transformations which affected the calculations of economy, means of transport and time that Muslim pilgrims (then usually referred to by the British as ‘Muhammadans’) from the Malay Archipelago and elsewhere had to make in the later 19th century. Land and sea transport changed rapidly. The length of voyages shortened dramatically. Caravan traffic lost its dominant place in Africa and the Middle East. ‘The pilgrimage’ was being modernised. Some fifty years later, under Ibn Saud, in the Hejaz itself asphalt roads and buses replaced camels and journeying on foot.

Pilgrims travelled for many motives: the religious duty to make the haj, providing one could fulfil its conditions, was not ill, had the funds, would not leave one’s family destitute and so forth; trade, local or regional; labour and remittance along the way, on a journey whose duration was limited only by God; status. The temporal scale of ‘going on pilgrimage’ was enormously variable. Pilgrims might move and settle and then move on, or not. The process could take years. But by the 1880s, modern boundaries and frontiers were being drawn, territories delineated, wars fought, treaties with native rulers signed, legal systems imposed, ‘races’ scientifically delineated, their supposed characteristics ethnographically reported, their ‘characters’ assessed. The new colonial states demanded ever more documents. The pilgrimage was to be controlled.1 The experience necessarily changed and it has not ceased doing so. In our own day, it is plane and airport capacities that are crucial. Indeed, trips to the Holy Places by land are now forbidden.

The movement of labour in regional and interregional migrations was subject to increasing though variable regulation by colonial states all over the Indian Ocean, Africa and Asia. The economy of the pilgrimage was crucial for pilgrims and for those who managed, financed and/or exploited them. One example. The pilgrimage might involve hajis who had no money to return from Jeddah entering into what one newspaper report of the time called ‘disadvantageous contracts’ in order to get back. The practice appears to have been common. In 1881, a year after the Jeddah incident, Seyyid Muhammad al-Sagoff’s ‘coolie superintendent’ brought a case for breach of contract in the Singapore Police Court against 52 returned pilgrims ‘under Indian Act XIII of 1859, the Masters’ and Workmen’s Act’. Up to a hundred ‘coolies’, some of whom were from the Netherlands East Indies, had signed documents ‘in the Dutch consulate’ in Jeddah agreeing to work out their passage money and ‘certain advances’ when they got back to Singapore. They alleged in response that they had been forced to work on Seyyid Muhammad’s plantation for half wages. The ‘poor ignorant creatures’, in the reporter’s phrase, ‘have to mortgage their labours for years’. In an interesting little clash, the prosecution ‘animadverted somewhat sharply upon the Netherlands consul general, who, he maintained, had gone out of his way to defend the prisoners’. The defence asserted that the consul, ‘in thus seeking to aid and protect unfortunate Netherlands Indian subjects, was doing his duty … his conduct deserved high approbation.’ Seyyid Muhammad vigorously denied this version of events. The newspaper three days later published an apology exonerating him from the ‘least suspicion of coercion’.

Health regulations were one of the crucial forms of ideological as well as practical control sought by the Western powers. Hygiene and order, held to be so contrary to native social systems, were to be imposed. The control of not uncommon epidemics became a central symbolic marker of what Western science and enlightenment might bring. The powers, many believed, had a duty to ‘protect’ and safeguard their new subjects and to show what a difference in kind there was between their civilised forms of regulation and those of the sultans, rajas or chiefs they subordinated.

The pilgrimage was perceived by colonial officials in this period as a major political threat, bringing together as it did thousands of Muslims from places as far apart as Africa and South-East Asia, people who might learn or diffuse dangerous ideas about nationalism as well as about Muslim reform movements. At the same time, it presented a way into that source of so much colonial suspicion and unease, ‘Islam’, one of whose defining ‘pillars’ could thus be protected and organised by Western officials who might show themselves more concerned for Muslims’ welfare than other Muslims were. It could be used to show the superiority of the modern scientific and progressive order. So when D. van der Meulen, a young Dutch colonial official who was later to write a great deal about his voyages to the Hadhramaut, arrived in Jeddah in 1926, just after Ibn Saud’s troops had captured the city from the British-backed Hashemite ruler, his mission was ‘to take charge of the tens of thousands of Indonesians during their great yearly Pilgrimage to their Holy Land’. This was in part for their protection: to stop the slave trade, the killing and robbing of ‘our pilgrims’. But it had other purposes too. ‘This contact with the hundreds of Indonesian students and their religious teachers became of growing importance when anti-Western feelings and activities began to spread among them.’

Given Dutch anxieties in the Netherlands East Indies, it is not surprising that they – the only foreign government with a vice-consulate in Mecca as well as a consulate in Jeddah – claimed more ‘comprehensive care’ for ‘their’ pilgrims than other European powers. Each had to have a special pilgrim’s passport and a return ticket for the sea voyage. (Remember those labour contracts that were signed in the Dutch consulate.) ‘Every one of them was registered at our consulate on arrival and booked out on departure,’ van der Meulen wrote. The men (not the women) were taken on the day after their arrival to the consulate, ‘where a page with a photograph of the whole family and relevant information was taken from their passports and placed in our files’.

In the consulate photographs the pilgrims are defined by their place of origin: ‘aus Mandar (Celebes)’, ‘aus Malang und Pasuruan (Java)’, ‘aus Sumbawa’. Many are holding up their documents, proof of their legal identity, as they squat down to be photographed against a standard backdrop. Some look extremely poor. Men of distinction are photographed in ones and twos rather than in groups. They are not only dressed differently, but labelled differently: ‘schech für malaiische Pilger’; ‘sohn des Sultans, Oheim des Prinzen und ein Priester’. All stare fixedly at the camera.

The competing imperial authorities were concerned for their subjects. Campaigns against slavery and prostitution, and for the rights of women and widows, were all part of the new moral superiority of the new political economy. The British could indignantly point to the exploitation of the pilgrim trade, stressing the importance of the measures they wished to take. The Dutch had a double viewpoint: they could emphasise the exploitation of Asian pilgrims by other Muslims who ripped them off, took advantage of their ignorance and not seldom reduced them to a penury which only debt servitude could relieve; and they could sardonically contrast hypocritical British concern for the pilgrims’ welfare with the realities of coolie exploitation and indentured labour in the Malay Archipelago and elsewhere. In this context, the Muslim pilgrimage became in part a stage on which ‘superior’ Western forms of organisation were played out in opposition to the Ottomans as well as in competition with each other.

Jeddah was a good place for gathering intelligence and for reporting on ‘Islam’ in its greatest yearly gathering. Both ends of the journey had their opportunities to regulate and judge who was travelling and why. The pilgrimage, with its enormous and increasing numbers, presented both an opportunity for and a problem of surveillance of a very pressing kind.

It still does. Since 1998 CNN has brought its own contemporary media vision to an increasingly spectacular event. ‘Cameras will be in the haram for the circumambulation of the Holy Kaabah’; reporters will look at the ‘massive planning undertaken by the government’; there will be ‘live updates’; the ‘coverage will explain to the whole world the rituals of haj’. Television transmits Mecca and Medina to you, believer and unbeliever alike.

Security is an all-pervading factor. The bureaucracies of pilgrimage are more complex than ever. National quotas are intensely argued about. In many ways, it is a state – or states – project. The infrastructure of world transport is tested as much as the vast civil engineering projects the Saudi government has undertaken, from the expansions of the Grand Mosque to roads, airports and facilities. Municipalities in Europe worry about the slaughter conditions of the sacrificial sheep. Intelligence agencies, preoccupied with money flows and the proliferation of networks of Muslims in a globalised world, might well take the haj as a symbol of all that they most fear.

For Muslims, returning as a pilgrim is in part a matter of status, status that is often marked by more than just the new title. A room may be decorated with images of the Holy Cities, the Grand Mosque and other mementos. Large coloured designs of the Grand Mosque with the pilgrims’ names below may adorn a wall. Houses are hung with lights on the pilgrim’s return, celebrations and communal eating mark the occasion, congratulatory visits by other families are expected, gifts are distributed, stories told, photos passed around in bulging albums. For the rich, chartering a ship to take large groups has been replaced by chartering a plane. For those of more modest means, a package tour, organised by a specialised agent and under government regulation at home as well as in Saudi Arabia, is the norm.

With all the contemporary media and political noise about Islam, the changing nature of the pilgrimage and the individual experience of undertaking it are in danger of being lost or relegated to a few lines in a local newspaper or glimpses of family videos and photos. How do different pilgrims now live the pilgrimage, more than a century after the Jeddah? What stories does a pilgrim tell of such a regulated and, for many, exhausting as well as transcendent experience? What kinds of reflection does the haj provoke after more than a hundred years of transformation?

Abdellah Hammoudi’s narrative, A Season in Mecca, offers one response. It is as much a subtle, complex meditation as it is an example of the ‘art of reportage’ (for which it won a Lettre Ulysses Award in Berlin in 2005). It is a commentary on one Arab intellectual’s modern dilemmas as well as on the haj as he experienced it in 1999 and as he continues to apprehend it in his writing. Perhaps it would be better to say, as he struggles to apprehend it, because this sense of struggle gives the writing much of its deep interest.

The book records ‘the eruption’ of the event of the pilgrimage into his life, the sometimes violent ways in which that life was disturbed, and the changing shape of the anthropological project in which the pilgrimage had its seemingly conventional beginnings: the Guggenheim Foundation Award, the conversations with friends at Princeton, the professional rites and trappings of research carried out by a distinguished anthropologist.

The ‘malaise’ that surprises Hammoudi as the date for leaving Princeton and his family draws near haunts the whole book, between the lines as well as in intense episodes of self-questioning. Who was this person who was ‘going on the pilgrimage’, ‘en anthropologue’, as he initially imagined, for research? There are obvious schematic answers. A Moroccan trained academically in Morocco and France, he has lived in Princeton, ‘this magnificent, chilly campus’ where he feels himself immured, where ‘nothing speaks to me,’ since 1991. A Muslim who had not practised his religion since adolescence, he could in some senses fit in easily enough in France, America and on return visits to Morocco without having to make specifically religious accommodations of body, diet, dress, ritual. The new project, however, so much more than a project, sparked its own more profound interrogations.

He had already been confronted fifteen years earlier in a Moroccan village by the direct challenge: ‘And you, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you with your own folks on this day of sacrifice?’ (The French uses tu, which in context might be taken to accord little respect to the addressee.) At that point, the response that he simply wanted to observe different ways of carrying out the celebrations in different places seemed sufficient. He studied rituals, did not perform them, the intellectual’s distance with its occasionally acknowledged and suspect envy of those who do. The questioner politely did not pursue the matter, did not ask ‘what sort of a person are you? With whom and to whom do you identify, belong?’ But now Hammoudi faces quite different interlocutors (as well as a changing inner dialogue with himself). How might other pilgrims interrogate him and what answers might he give that would make any sense to them?

It was one thing to conceive the project in terms of reporting on the slightest details of what people said and did; attending to the sense pilgrims gave to their sequenced acts; deriving new theoretical points of view from what the pilgrims recounted about their experiences. Quite another, this time around, to be in the pilgrimage, performing its rites. Moreover, what exactly was the role of intention here, personal, anthropological, religious? Certainly, in religious terms the nature of one’s intention (niyya in Arabic) is crucial to the acceptability of one’s pilgrimage to God. Fellow pilgrims might have their own sharp opinions, too, about someone who said he was ‘studying’, despite the Muslim injunction that God’s is the judgment.

By 1999, the world had shown itself far more challenging than the Moroccan peasant. ‘Islam’ had become a matter of intense, sometimes vitriolic debate and polemic, especially in the United States. Princeton, like other universities, is not immune from wider politics, especially concerning Israel-Palestine relations. Anyone who teaches anthropological approaches to the study of Islam in America knows that the classroom is an increasingly fraught place. Challenging the concept of an eternally existing ‘Muslim mind’ is just the beginning. Not much comfort in the university, then, for the deracinated Moroccan intellectual. Given Hammoudi’s understandable contempt for Arab politics, there was no comfort to be had in that direction either: marginalised and exiled intellectuals scattered around the world or in jail, hypertrophied autocratic Arab states, and the accelerating ‘fragmentation of national structures and norms in the post-colonial period’ accentuate only too painfully the triumphalist and militarist strength of the US and Israel.

Given his doubts about his place in America, his feeling of being ‘the ghost of myself’ (fantôme de soi) and his position as someone whose friends knew he was not pratiquant, the coming pilgrimage threw its brutally relevant ‘and you, what are you doing here?’ at Hammoudi in a highly charged personal and socio-political context. Add to that the sudden awareness that in terms of what had once been his own Moroccan cultural and social context, he would not know, as he told his wife, ‘how to behave in this piece of white cloth’ – the ihram garments betokening the state of purity into which pilgrims enter, essentially two pieces of seamless white cloth for men – and one can see with what force the pilgrimage might erupt into a life in and around which powerful forces were already roiling. The decision to take on the project must itself have been a response to impulses beyond the intellectual, perhaps the unconscious hope of an eruption.

By early 2005, when Une saison à la Mecque was published, the question ‘Et toi, que fais-tu là?’ had an even sharper sting. The gestation of the book took place over the years following the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the years of the ‘war on terror’ declared by an American administration that sees (or saw) itself as world-mastering. And our reading in 2006 is in the context of the ‘war on terror’, the invasion of Iraq, acute US-Iranian tensions, the continued marginalisation and domination of Palestinians under Israeli military occupation, and all the wider tensions around ‘Islam’ we know too well. All of these shadow Hammoudi’s narrative, though it is only at the end of the book that he makes them explicit. He also makes explicit the ways in which he lost the courage or the desire to write as he had before.

As Hammoudi’s pilgrimage proceeds, anxiety, sadness, disquiet and unease are compounded by dizziness, fever, exhaustion and frailty. The physical strain caused by the climate, endless delays in transport, hellish bus rides, stifling crowds, absent guides and organisers, buzzing helicopters, officious Saudi policemen and corrupt Moroccan officials, voracious merchants, overflowing toilets and abysmal food are linked to illness, insomnia, vertigo and a pervasive sense of being at the end of his tether. He is, in a sense and at times, out of his mind as well as out of his place, wherever that place might be construed to be. Most strikingly, at a key later phase of the pilgrimage, his boyhood memory of the stench of animal blood will flood back when he sees the millions of sheep penned before the sacrifice.2 ‘Slowly, the horror that always seized me when I heard a beast’s final death rattle came back. Once again, something familiar was catching up with me in a new, unbearable guise.’

The initial stages of his journey, similar to those faced by many across the Muslim world, appeared simple. Not for long. All must begin with a rather different but essential pilgrimage, through the state bureaucracies. Pilgrimage is a scarce good. There are quotas; not everyone can go. Hammoudi finds himself in the hands, or rather the folders, of the Moroccan bureaucracy and what one might generously call its gift economy. Fondly imagining that he could benefit from a friend’s influence and his own status, he does not quite grasp his powerlessness in front of the caid, the convoluted problems of obtaining a residency certificate when you live in another country, the need for a boucle, a sweetener to secure the deal, a ‘present’ which his friend tactfully delivers in Hammoudi’s absence. The anthropologist worries scrupulously whether this everyday way of getting things done does not taint the ritual on which he is embarking.3 It’s how you get along, is the slightly surprised response, the government’s ways of doing things, the mauvaises habitudes (translated rather awkwardly as ‘cursed customs’).

The gift only gets him through the entrance and into the maze. There he finds himself entrapped in a universally practised modern habitude: the constitution of the file (Hammoudi’s italics) or rather, the multiple files. Twenty-four photographs, then 30, copies of his birth certificate, copies of his national ID card, forms, validating signatures, medical certificates etc, proving and proving again in seemingly endless circuits at whose mysterious workings one can only guess, that he is officially identified as this person, from this rural or urban or other unit or subdivision of Morocco. (We have come a long way from the days of a photograph in a Dutch consulate.) Pilgrims must be organised for the pilgrimage according to all the appropriate state classifications of residence and place of origin, just as later in Saudi Arabia they will live in areas arranged by nationality. And pilgrims should pay a little baraka along the way. If they do, then they have no registration problems and can fulfil the conditions of the Royal Commission on Pilgrimage and Umra (shorter visits to Mecca that Muslims can make at any time of year). If they do not, and Hammoudi again does not grasp this early enough to save himself a lot of trouble and many, many days of effort, then, naturally, nothing happens. He risks not being one of the authorised 24,000 (plus 5000 reserved for travel agencies) that year.

Small wonder that he becomes obsessive about his photograph and the many eyes that scrutinise or glance dully at it: the Moroccan police, the interior services, the sanitation department, the royal commission, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, border control, customs, smuggling and drug-control officials, the Saudi embassy, the Saudi Ministry of the Haj.

This is all part of learning what it is to go on a modern pilgrimage. You have to learn about bureaucracy and corruption, to discover what it is to be ruled by those who guard the ways to salvation, to know how to wait, to submit: ‘The point was to await the awaiting.’ That is only one part of your training. More obviously, you also have to be taught specific religious duties, exactly what to do at each phase of the haj, by members of the Rabat Ulema Council. There is a lot to learn. But it is not made any easier by the teachers’ accents or the way they mix up classical Arabic and the Moroccan colloquial. The audience is made up of people from all over the country of very different levels of education and class, the message sometimes not quite clear even to someone with Hammoudi’s training. To much general relief, though some hesitation on the part of his colleagues who disapprove of such matters being spoken of in the common tongue, the chief scholar chooses the ‘lower’ colloquial for an address. He exhorts his listeners to pay the strictest attention to the avoidance of commerce between men and women, to purity in all its signs and forms, to dress, to the exact detail of each part of the rites. Failure to perform these rites ‘properly’ is sternly warned against. A store of anxiety is laid up for those who lack confidence in their understanding.

Following the traces of the Prophet Muhammad, of Ibrahim, Hajar and Ismail, involves for some a constant worry about rite and regulation: have they done this or that act in exactly the way prescribed? Saudi religious law of the Hanbali school is different from the Maliki practice of so many from North Africa. Some younger North Africans are attracted by the apparent rigour of the fundamentalist legal view and are more than willing to hector their compatriots about their inadequacies. Ironically, given his unease, when he is in Arabia, the professor who teaches in America finds himself consulted as an authority on proper behaviour by some of his companions. How can they tell if they have really done everything right and that their pilgrimage is acceptable to God?

There are plenty of people around to tell them when they have not. Wahhabi teachings ferociously criticise the practice common in many regions from Morocco to Indonesia of visiting the tombs of holy figures or the graves of ancestors, or making the haj on behalf of deceased parents and relatives. The Saudi teacher’s denunciation of those who timidly ask for guidance is swift: ‘Those who committed such deeds are wood for the fires of Hell!’ The despair this judgment brings is only slightly mitigated when Hammoudi reminds one man that he says the name of God before sacrificing an animal at a holy figure’s tomb, so he puts God first, doesn’t he? A companion is more robust, less theological: ‘Are they really ulema? Yes, we can see their beards and the towels on their heads. But what’s underneath?’ Always a good question, and the stuff of many satires on the authorities in many traditions. It is also true that Saudi attitudes to other nations do not always leave the warmest impression with visitors. Muslims of my acquaintance in Indonesia or Malaysia have frequently expressed indignation at being treated as second class by Saudis who appeared to consider them marginal cases of Islamic purity, not to mention racially inferior.

For Iranians, the denunciations may be harsher, the problems greater. Like all Shia, they are beyond the Islamic pale to many of their fellow pilgrims. This is especially true in Saudi Arabia, which has its own Shia population, its political problems with Iran, its preaching of an exclusionary Sunnism and, no doubt, memories of the 1987 battle in the Grand Mosque between the police and pro-Iranian demonstrators in which 402 people died.

For the Saudis, guardianship of the Two Holy Places brings with it the enormous administrative and organisational – not to say political – task of trying to ensure that the needs of more than two million people are met without disaster: the stampede beside the Jamarat bridge in January, a fire in a camp in 1997 and stampeding crowds in 1990 are only three recent calamities. The vast security apparatus and the health, fire and safety agencies are fully stretched, and have to operate under the lenses of the world’s news cameras. The Saudis are in no mood to tolerate deviances, let alone people they see as schismatics.

Hammoudi has little time for their version of Islam or for the Saudi version of modernity in general. The barren concrete cities have demolished the past almost as effectively as gravestones have been smashed. But in the rites, at certain moments and in certain places, he finds an ‘irreducible archaism’ that frustrates the policing of body, thought and organisation: ‘The serene crowd’s prayer flowed out to the horizons. Nothing could touch it – not the urban security grid around it, not the incessant buzz of surveillance and rescue helicopters circling above … not even the exploitation of the pilgrims for business and as political pawns.’ No amount of garbage strewn across the Mount of Mercy can break that spell. The notorious avarice of the Meccan merchants, the dedication of many pilgrims to shopping and buying just enough suitcases of just the right kind for the journey home, the blind struggles over food rations after solemn prayers, do not diminish the quite different force of observing the endless circlings of the Kaaba, the circumambulation that induces a kind of vertigo, the mystery of the Black Cube.

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Vol. 28 No. 21 · 2 November 2006

There is an error in my review of Abdellah Hammoudi’s A Season in Mecca (LRB, 19 October). Trips by land to the Holy Places were forbidden in 1999 in Morocco but that prohibition is not necessarily true of all states in every pilgrimage season.

Michael Gilsenan
New York University

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