Heard at Mecca: 'Are you single?'

Matchmakers ply their trade within Islam's holiest mosque.

In the midst of overlapping murmurs of prayers in a sea of white-cloaked worshipers, a woman's voice interrupts the collective trance as she asks: "Are you single?"

For hundreds of years, Mecca has been the sacred meeting point of millions of Muslims from across the world. They come to perform the hajj, the annual major pilgrimage, or umrah, a minor pilgrimage that can be performed anytime.

Matchmaking is a profession that's at least as old as Mecca. But until now, say Saudi scholars, it hasn't been practiced at Islam's holiest site.

"These days, practicing Muslim men are having a hard time finding practicing Muslim women," explains Um Mohammad matter-of-factly. She's carrying a tiny blue notebook to jot down personal information about potential brides that she meets inside the Haram Mosque where Muslims circumambulate the holy cubed structure, the Kaaba.

Dressed in a black abaya – including the face covering known as niqab – and sporting black gloves, Um Mohammad (who declined to give her full name) is one of several matchmakers who can be seen approaching "pious" young Muslim women as they pray or perform rituals.

"Devoted Muslims come here, and so there is a better chance of finding a good match," says Um Mohammad, standing no taller than 5 ft. 2 in. She says she makes a minimum of 1,000 riyals ($268) plus gifts, such as perfume, from grateful mothers.

Um Mohammad says she's working for several mothers to find "chaste" wives for their sons in a place that's annually visited by around 3 million people for hajj. This year, the pilgrimage begins Dec. 18.

Aayesh Masri, a 22-year-old Saudi woman who was approached by one of the matchmakers, isn't troubled by the mixing of matchmaking and prayer.

"Why not? It is done under sincere intentions and it is no different than when potential suitors come to your home to meet your family," says Ms. Masri.

Saudi historian Omar Tayeb isn't surprised, either. "Matchmakers are everywhere in Saudi. They find brides in supermarkets, malls, and mosques. Why not near the Kaaba?" he asks.

Modern pilgrims have also grown accustomed to seeing a variety of not-so-sacred activities near the sacred Kaaba, the cube that every Muslim on the planet faces during the five daily prayers. Worshipers often scramble and push to touch it. Some even rip off a piece of the kiswa – the black silk cloth with gold-embroidered calligraphy covering the rock – as a religious souvenir.

Other Mecca mementos can be obtained more easily. Local entrepreneurs, for example, have long worked the holy marbled white grounds.

"Scissors! Tissue! Prayer book! Only one riyal [about 27 cents]," cries out a boy of 6 struggling in the white sea of pilgrims. One of the rituals of the pilgrimage involves cutting one's hair. Tissues are used for wiping off sweat from the arduous walks between sacred sites.

The vendor's older brother is not far behind, selling Islamic stickers and passing out leaflets for his father's business – Koranic ring tones and customized prayers rugs.

From the corners of the mosque, sheikhs give public lectures, while religious police roam the crowd in search of "indecent conduct" and pickpockets.

Still, some Muslims see the matchmakers as another facet of the spreading commercialization of Mecca, which comes at the expense of its sacredness.

"There is nothing holy about having Pizza Hut right next to the holiest site in Islam," says Mohammed Abdullah Attar, a religious scholar in one of the all-boys' schools in Mecca.

The recent rise in oil prices is creating a new construction boom, funded mainly by members of the Saudi royal family. Some pilgrims comment disparagingly on the new glass-garbed, Vegas-style towers and glitzy five-star hotels encircling the holy site. Several of the towers are part of the Abraj al-Bait Mall (Arabic for "Towers of the House"), referring to the Kaaba's nickname, "the House of God." The mall is a complex of seven 30-story towers, still under construction but already promising to be one of Saudi Arabia's tallest – and most controversial.

"Mecca should be a site of religious contemplation and not a distraction of overpriced materialistic things," says Dr. Attar.

Saudi officials say that the expansion of hotels, stores, and restaurant chains is simply to care for the growing numbers of pilgrims. The city has always had shops and small restaurants, but the numbers were smaller, in part because travel to Mecca was difficult. The roads weren't paved, and there weren't enough hotels.

But after the oil boom of the 1970s, roads were paved, housing expanded, and the influx of pilgrims rose from tens of thousands to millions. Safety figures into the expansion, too, say officials. In some years, hundreds of people have died in stampedes.

"The changes in Mecca are well planned and studied, and are there to cater to the needs of visitors and residents," says a Saudi Interior Ministry official who asked to remain anonymous.

The building boom, notes Mr. Tayeb, is also justified by the spread of Islam. There are more Muslims who must come to Mecca each year.

Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering Mecca, so the commerce still has a distinctive Islamic flair. Koranic verses can be heard playing in some restaurants. And every arriving pilgrim with a cellphone is sent a text message in English and Arabic from the Saudi government: "You are now in Mecca! The dearest place to Allah and his messenger – Peace be upon him – on earth."

Tayeb, the historian, says the traditional Saudi families here in Mecca feel "disappointment" over the modernization, but have accepted it as a reality. And he accepts the presence of matchmakers, as he does the other changes. The Mecca of his childhood is now gone, he says, adding: "The only thing that remains the same is the Kaaba."

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