About the talk:
Under the new Vision 2030 national transformation plan, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia seeks to increase the number of annual pilgrims from eight million to thirty million. If oil has certain limits, then pilgrimage is framed as lasting “forever.” But this exuberant claim of “forever” belies a more subtle transformation unfolding at the level of knowledge, technology, and belonging as Mecca and its crowds are made and re-made into a resource for a national economy. Yet the techno-politics of “the crowd” in Mecca remains a significant political gamble for the Saudi state. Indeed, the hajj was the scene of persistent crowd disasters throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Most of these disasters occurred during the rami al- jamarat or al-rajm ritual, where pilgrims stone representations of the devil. In this talk, Shah will show how a range of knowledges and forms of expertise, compete and collaborate in through the re-building of the new jamarat bridge, a structure that was designed to bring crowd disasters to an end. This talk also examines an attendant logistical technique of crowd optimization (a process known as tafwij) that was to complement the new structure. In this, Shah is particularly interested in how Islamic law comes to be apprehended and deployed as “optimization” and crowd management “solution.” Ultimately, Shah argues that these strategies of crowd efficiency evacuate the slow, messy, and cosmopolitan logics that undergird the Islamic sanctuary.

About the speaker:
Omer Shah is a cultural anthropologist. He is currently the Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Pomona College. In July 2024, he will be an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Pomona College. In Fall 2023, he published a peer-reviewed articled in the Arab Studies Journal entitled, From Mecca to the World: Experimental Techno-politics and Islam in the Holy City. His current book project, Made in Mecca: Expertise, Technology, and Hospitality in the Post-Oil Holy City, examines recent efforts by the Saudi state to intensify and optimize Mecca’s pilgrimage through new sciences and technologies of crowd management, logistics and secular hospitality. He received his doctorate at Columbia University in June 2021 in the Department of Anthropology. His two-years of ethnographic fieldwork in Jeddah and Mecca was supported by the Social Science Research Council and the Wenner-Gren Foundation. His research has been featured by the Beirut Art Center and Flint Magazine.

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