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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel


Lost in the Crowd

Jalāl Āl-e Ahmad

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To purchase Lost in the Crowd

Title: Lost in the Crowd
Author: Jalāl Āl-e Ahmad
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1966 (Eng. 1985)
Length: 148 pages
Original in: Persian
Availability: Lost in the Crowd - US
Lost in the Crowd - UK
Lost in the Crowd - Canada
  • Persian title: خسی در میقات
  • Translated by John Green, with Ahmed Alizadeh and Farzin Yazdanfar
  • With an Introduction by Michael C. Hillmann
  • With an extensive Bibliography, by John Green

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Our Assessment:

B : revealing hajj-account; useful supplementary material

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 13/4/1986 Donne Raffat

  From the Reviews:
  • "(R)anks among his finest works. (...) The writing -- for Moslem purists itself a form of sacrilege on the hajj -- preserves and reintegrates the self, a process confirmed in his final notes on the flight back to Teheran." - Donne Raffat, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lost in the Crowd is a hajj-account -- basically a travel diary of Āl-e Ahmad's 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca. The son of a Shi'i cleric, Āl-e Ahmad was always a (politcally) engaged writer, briefly active in the (communist) Tudeh Party after the Second World War, when he finished college, and he admits that he has strayed far from his religious upbringing. Praying at the airport before leaving for Saudi Arabia, he acknowledges it's the first time he's done so in ages:

I probably quit praying during my first year at the university. Those were the days ! [...] Frankly, it isn't the same anymore. I feel like a hypocrite. It just isn't right. If it isn't hypocrisy, neither is it faith. You just do it to blend in with the crowd. But does one go to Mecca without praying ?
       The sense of setting out for a different kind of trip is already evident at Tehran's Mehrabad airport too, Āl-e Ahmad noting that the hajjis have their own terminal, separating them from the travelers bound for: "Paris, London, or New York" -- as:
Of course the man of made-up woman headed for Europe must be protected from the sight of these people who have answered the primal call of a desert religion.
       Conditions and infrastructure for the pilgrimage are still poor in 1960s Saudi Arabia, and Āl-e Ahmad is highly critical of how the Saudis manage all this; repeatedly he insists:
Medina and Mecca must be set free from the disgrace of these gentlemen and be declared two international Islamic cities.
There's no alternative but to internationalize these shrines, Mecca, Medina, ʿArafāt, and Mina, to place them under the management of a joint council of Muslim nations, and to remove them from Saudi Arab control
       A fundamental difference he has with Saudi attitudes is towards the historical -- not just a lack of preservation of the past but an active (and anything but wanton) destruction, coupled with garish new 'development', reinforced concrete at every turn. (Man, if he could see Medina/Mecca/etc. now .....) So in Mecca he finds:
Neon fills the streets everywhere. It's even on top of the House's minaret and the Kabba itself. When it pleased God to have a house built on the surface of this land, he should have realized that land would one day fall into the hands of the Saudi government, and that its doors and walls would be covered with neon because of the exigencies of oil exploration.
       One of Āl-e Ahmad's reasons for coming is his brother, who died here: "I mainly came on this trip looking for my brother", he writes at the end of the book, which also brings into focus the very different Saudi and specifically Wahhabi attitude towards the past and the individual. Going to the cemetery, looking for "traces of tradition" -- and of his brother --, he finds all the marker stones "smashed to dust":
The work of the Wahhabis of 40 years ago when they came to power in Saudi Arabia. Did they do all this simply out of Wahhabi prejudice ? At one time every grave had a dome and courtyard. Now there is justice and equality in death such as I have never seen !
       Visiting the ruins of an Ottoman fortress, he admits the attitude is more widespread:
All through the Muslim world we trample the remnants of those who've gone before, and wipe their traces off the face of the earth, so we can blossom ourselves.
       Even as the general sense is one of Āl-e Ahmad more as observer than participant -- with fairly little coverage of the devotional acts -- he does, however, also find himself very much caught up in the hajj, and being part of this communal experience. There is boredom and a great deal of irritation, but there's also very much the feeling of a being only one among so many -- a fundamental, everyday struggle that here is at the very fore:
Can you keep your wits in the midst of such self-abandon ? And act as an individual ? The pressure of the crowd drives you on.
       Lost in the Crowd is more travel diary than careful examination of the issues that Āl-e Ahmad raises, but much is brought up along the way, at least incidentally: there's a great deal that he's forced to confront, whether from infrastructure failures (right down to the backed up toilets) to broader questions about the individual and society. There's minutiae of the hajj at the time, half a century ago, that is certainly of considerable interest -- complete with shocking details, such as the horrific animal slaughter: Āl-e Ahmad understands the symbolic sacrifice, but not how its carried out ("Seeing it once is the best possible advertisement for vegetarianism"), or the gross waste that results. Persian-Arab (and Shi'a-Sunni) tensions, and the differences between long-cultured Iran with its great historical heritage and a newly oil-wealthy Saudi Arabia that thinks nothing of tradition beyond belief also simmer throughout the narrative, with Āl-e Ahmad's contempt for pretty much everything Saudi seeping constantly through.
       His sharp, occasionally grumpy humor can be downright cruel, but for the most part his frustrations are understandable. Still, he doesn't shy away from hitting below the belt, either:
I was thinking that you can't blame the Saudis for having more homosexuality than any other place in the world. There probably haven't been more than one or two unveiled women since I left Tehran, and even fewer who were pretty.
       Lost in the Crowd is an interesting account on its own, but this volume is also particularly well-packaged: Michael C. Hillmann's Introduction is a very good overview of and introduction to Āl-e Ahmad and his work, and the extensive Bibliography (twenty pages worth), while slightly out of date now, is a very useful starting point as well. Certainly an essential volume for anyone interested in Āl-e Ahmad.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 February 2015

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Jalāl Āl-e Ahmad: Other books by Jalal Al-e Ahmad under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Seyyed Jalaloddin Sadat Al-e Ahmad (جلال آل احمد) (1923-1969) was a leading Iranian author.

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© 2015 the complete review

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