Where religion and shopping combine

What do you do when you have extreme wealth, it’s one of the holiest times in your calendar, and you have a religious artifact in your country? Well, if you’re Dubai, you put it on show… in a shopping centre.

This is the Damascene Mahmal, a priceless treasure that was used to carry the black cloth put over the Kaaba in Mecca in the early 20th century. You’ll know the Kaaba by sight – here it is as captured by al Jazeera during the hajj, the major Islamic pilgrimage, of 2008:


The question remains, why would you put an artifact related to such a sacred spot in such a public place. Well, part of the answer lies in it being a public space. In the UAE, shopping centres are as much a place to go and meet as they are places to buy things, and given that Dubai has a shopping festival, believe me that the Emiratis know how to buy things. By bringing it to Dubai Mall, the centre operators are making it an attraction and elevating their own prestige.

For me it raises the question of appropriateness. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with having it on display in a shopping centre, where many visitors will see it during a holy month. It’s just not typical (unless you’re in the UAE). A more appropriate place would be a mosque or a museum, amid other treasures. But then that would be to take it out of its original content. The Mahmal was designed to be carried on a camel, so it is by definition a public ritual object. People are supposed to see it move through the streets. But if it can’t move, why not bring it somewhere open where everybody can see it?