Redefining the Fourth Estate –Snapchat’s #Mecca_Live

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 21, 2015. Click here for the original version

Photo – Caren Firouz/Reuters

Photo – Caren Firouz/Reuters

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt – Susan Sontag

On the 13th of July 2015, a sizeable chunk of the globe’s youth population, marked at more than a 100 million, witnessed live scenes from a part of the world that is also the birthplace of a popular yet widely misunderstood religion – Mecca (or Makkah) in Saudi Arabia. The date coincided with the 27th night of Ramadan – the most blessed night in the Islamic tradition, and a time where Muslims try and spend the bulk of the night in prayer and supplication. On this night, a staggering 2 million people were estimated to have been at the Grand Mosque, and they were joined by a proliferating Snapchat community through the media platform’s ‘Live Stories’ feature.

According to Snapchat’s website –

“Live Stories are a curated stream of user submitted Snaps from various locations and events. Users who have their location services on at the same event location will be given the option to contribute Snaps to the Live Story. The end result is a Story told from a community perspective with lots of different points view”

The Live Story from Mecca – couched in #Mecca_Live – did not just create points of view, but also broke existing ones. Pilgrimages to the heart of Saudi Arabia – the country home to Mecca – have exponentially risen in statistical feat over the years, often warranting massive expansion work to accommodate the numbers. What it was unable to capture so far for the global audience was the individual relationship of pilgrims with the place and the stories that a moment at Mecca can weave. Coming at the back of some controversy hours prior to #Mecca_Live went viral, this movement rose as the Muslim world’s rare opportunity to steal the narrative from mainstream media’s violence & extremism show-reel, and tell the story of a religion little understood through the lens of people who lived the faith on the most auspicious night.

Mecca in Snapchat pictures – a compilation of the #Mecca_Live Story

The background story – what made #Mecca_Live click

  • Media’s manufactured consent

We have stories that define our lives, and then stories that define story-telling. The mainstream media with its political and editorial baggage has often been vehemently criticized for portraying Islam in a grim light. Though sometimes valid news, the majority of its airtime and newspaper space consists of covering violent acts with marked enthusiasm and profiling self-professed ‘Islamic’ terrorists. This in turn has bred a strong aversion amidst the majority moderate Muslims and deep cynicism of their agenda. It’s common to spot ‘what media won’t tell you’ posts that celebrate the many moments of glory for the faith of over 1.6 billion.

  • A window for the youth

The generation of yesteryears risk bringing their preconceived prejudices to organised religion. The young, on the other hand, are open to sharing and embracing new ideologies, even as they form their own independent ones. Across all platforms, Snapchat has the highest active users who belong to the quintessential Generation Y – making it a luring channel for brand communication and media houses alike.

Snapchat has the highest users in Age 18-24 category

Snapchat has the highest users in Age 18-24 category (Source: netimperative.com)

What is an elderly’s morning with The New York Time’s editorial section is another lad’s Snapchat session the whole day in real time. The editorial pages of a paper are what the government, PR machinery and advertisers want it to be while Snapchat is what people want it to produce. The result is greater response to snaps and a willingness to share amongst the community.

The reactions to #Mecca_Live quickly leapt up in popularity as much as the hashtag –

  • Mecca makes for great pictures

Religions and rituals provide great photo & video opportunities. Some of India’s greatest photographers would have in their portfolio a moment captured from one of many public festivals of the country. Being a communal religion, Islam’s imagery evokes large gatherings and synchronisation of much of its rituals. In a world of individual selfies and single-frame sunsets, pictures and short-format videos of all imaginable races and nationalities gathered in prayer and the circumambulation around the Ka’aba – believed to have been built by Abraham and his son Ishmael – is a scintillating treat for the eyes.

Mecca Collage

Mecca Collage 2

Everybody loves stories

Especially when you have 2 million people playing protagonists to it. Controversies, conspiracy and ominous facts presented by mainstream media breeds more of the three things mentioned. Islam has been riddled with challenges and controversies over one’s outfit to a Muslim’s relation with violence in the world. In such times, showing the human side of the wider picture and a wider picture of the human side is not just pleasing to the eyes, but also intriguing to the mind. The fact that Mecca is restricted to people of a faith also adds to its interest & intrigue. Stories like these convey greatness in ordinary lives opposed to the sensation of a few incidences. They are the conjunctions at a time rife with interrogatory exclamations and question marks.

Snapchat’s Live Story captured little moments from Mecca that contributed to one grand moment of truth that escapes the usual narrative – unity. The compelling images lived through the lens of smartphones allowed the viewer to interpret what leads to that moment on camera, and what follows after the video stops.

And for once, this interpretation was not led by the suggestive powers and motives of the ‘Fourth Estate’.

 

 

 

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Beyond Biryani – Humbling moments in Ramadan

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 16, 2015. Click here for the original version

Blessed are the people fasting in Dubai, and a special blessing is for the ones who spend Ramadan with family. It’s as if even the watch observes the holy month, the hours and minutes synchronized to reach the phase of dusk quicker than on regular months.

The Ramadan in the year 2011 was my first in India, without parents, and without a lot other things that otherwise made Ramadan “complete” in my regular Dubai life. The watch was not just going to adhere to a new time zone, it would cover a different experience from dawn to dusk – one that I would miss later.

While I was going to experience first of many things in India, my first Iftar at a mosque in Pune (a city where I received my undergraduate studies and a lot more), provides an endearing reflection on the holy month. Walking through unkempt bushes and an expansive area turned into a landfill for trash, I reached a building that could be passed on as a decrepit villa maintained with middle-class earnings. I was ushered to the floor above – I never wondered if Biryani tasted better on higher altitudes.

For starters, the mosque was a blatant contradiction to my idea of a prayer place I had grown accustomed to – big, spacious, endowed with cushioning carpet, even state-of-the-art and an endless flow of delicious food for Iftar. I compared mosques in Dubai and ranked them on where you got the best Biryani.

With no more than 6-7 large plates shared by men engrossed in supplication, the volunteers at the mosque hustled in and out of the room to fill the plates with snacks and fruits. The plate displayed an exciting array of colours, but colours don’t bring taste after all. I darted my eyes on other plates around, wondering if mine went biryani-less because I didn’t make it on time. Where was the real stuff?! There wasn’t any – looked like everyone was united before God, just before breaking the fast, even in the content of their plates.

As the call for breaking the fast went off, the men first ensured that the dates were equally divided amongst all and then tucked into their plates. The food received their reverence as they carefully peeled the fruits and ate it down to the seeds. The few fried snacks (pakoras) dotted the plate like rare stars in the solar system, spotted by all but touched only to be distributed equally. The plate was cleared of any edible residue – from stray fruit pieces to tiny bits of the crust of snacks that barely carry any flavour.

In stark contrast to my “regular” Iftar in Dubai, the whole eating session spanned barely for 5 minutes. No second servings, no passing around of the extra meat, drinks reserved to just water in a canister rather than a portfolio of water, juice, laban and Rooh Afza in sealed packaging as collectables for home.

Failing to satiate my gastronomical calling, i.e. Biryani, made me realise that the “real stuff” lay not in that which wasn’t in front of me, rather in what was happening around me at the moment. It was in the sharing of what was available and not in the hoarding of what was not. In less than 5 minutes, the men around the plate had fulfilled some of the prophetic traditions – eating from what’s near and ensuring that the neighbour has eaten as much as they did. While many of us in Dubai blatantly go against the spirit of Islam by wasting food, that mosque with few facilities managed food supply efficiently.

It’s worth taking a step back and evaluating how mosques work in India. Most, if not all, depend on philanthropic handouts and donations (through Sadaqah and Zakat) from the public to sponsor activities such as Iftar meals. It wouldn’t be difficult to guess that mosques have their challenges prioritising areas of expense and sponsoring meals only if the donations stream in at a healthy rate.

The holy month of Ramadan spans a mere 30 days, but its wisdom is timeless. There’s much to learn from it and its blessings are open to all. I for once want to learn the simplicity of a fruit amidst the sophistication of Biryani.

The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

IMG_20150629_151817

IMG_20150629_151804

You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.