Medina is a changing city.
The second holy city of Islam, Medina, isolated in a quiet corner of western Saudi Arabia, has for years, even centuries proudly held aloof from the forces and influences that, inexorably, have begun to change the traditions of the past everywhere.
But now the winds of change are blowing across the desert to Medina too, rippling the quiet of its isolation. Just outside the city, planners and engineers have begun to rebuild the once-famous Hijaz Railway and strengthen Medina's links with the world; new buildings have begun to go up in anticipation of the day when the railroad will bring additional thousands of pilgrims to the site of Muhammad's tomb; beside the famous Prophet's Mosque a modern market place has been established that will, in time, enlarge and widen the whole range of goods and services now available to those who dwell within the city's limits.
But that is in the future...
Today, despite the evidence of things to come, the face of Medina is still an ancient face—one seamed with the wisdom and contentment of the old, tested habits of an unhurried people that leaves its fate in the hands of God. Today life goes on as it always has, moving along familiar paths and in known patterns.
Medina's day begins as do the days of all Muslim cities, with the call of the muezzin—waking the city, as a famous 11th-century poet wrote, "before morning in the bowl of night has flung the stone which puts the stars to flight."
"God is Greatest," he chants. "God is Greatest. I affirm that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is the Prophet of God. Come to prayers. Come to fulfillment. Come..."
From the top of a slim minaret by the famous mosque, his voice cries out in grayness that is not night, nor yet day. Moments pass and suddenly a new day's sun throws its light across the plain and the city stirs and rises.
In Medina the time has not yet come when every home can store its food, so every morning the people must go forth at once to buy their provisions for the day. That they must is not a matter of regret, for the market place is the place where they not only buy what they need and sell what they can, but where they learn what is to be known, and meet who are there.
The market is a noisy place. Tradesmen, after all, must sell their wares and customers must dispute their prices and how can this be done in a whisper? There is bread to be bought, and dates, or pans, perhaps, to cook in and pots to carry water. There are bracelets for a lady's arm and watches from around the world, and toys to enchant the eyes of a child. And in Medina, proverbs to the contrary, it is silence that is silver and speech that is gold.
The sounds of Medina, of course, are not limited to the market place. From schools comes the drone of pupils chanting their lessons or cheering loudly in recess. There is the creak of pulleys as workmen haul buckets of cement to the tops of new buildings, the hum of car engines and the constant rise and fall of voices in the coffeehouses where old men with moments to spare—and who in Medina cannot find some?—sip thin bitter coffee or sweetened tea.
Here and there are pockets of silence. In certain stalls, on low wooden desks, scribes quietly prepare letters or petitions for those who cannot write. In other stalls money changers exchange coins and bills with only the faint clink of gold and the crackle of bank notes. In libraries, men of learning rustle paper and parchment as they sit in study. In mosques, where they go to nourish their spirit, there is only the sound of whispered prayers.
All these are the things of Medina. But the new wind blows and the signs are everywhere. Slowly, inevitably, the ancient face of the city has begun to change...
Fuad Rayess, is a former writer for Oil Caravan, a monthly magazine published in Arabic by Aramco, and is now General Supervisor, Arabic Press and Publications Division of the Aramco Public Relations Department.