Road to Mecca is a deeply mystical, moving work. It has been called "a rare and powerful book, raised completely above the ordinary by its candor and intelligence" by the New York Post, "a narrative of great power and beauty" by the Times Literary Supplement, and "as revelatory a human document as ever has been put together, persuasive and thoughtful, altogether fascinating" by the St. Louis Globe Democrat. After this pile of adjectives, there's not much left for me to say, but I'll try anyway.
It is the autobiography of Muhammad Asad, or rather, his travels within Arabia and role in shaping history here. It reads like a thoughtful travel book, the story of a poetic life.
Born Leopold Weiss, Mr. Asad was initially an Austrian soldier, then a Polish reporter, going on to live among nomads, become a trusted friend of King Abd al-Aziz, represent the brand-new nation of Pakistan abroad, write beautifully thought-provoking essays, and be labeled as the "conscience of thinking Muslims." He was one of those educated voices of reason, that called for enlightenment and reform rather than ignorance and bloodshed.
Although this man was almost at the centre of the creation of two countries I call home, that is not why I read this book. (I don't read books for political/religious reasons, but for the pure joy of exquisite writing.)
While his life was certainly extraordinary, I find his words to be even more so. The passages are absolutely ethereal. For example:
"We had stopped for our noon prayer. As I washed my hands, face and feet from a waterskin, a few drops spilled over a dried-up tuft of grass at my feet, a miserable little plant, yellow and withered and lifeless under the harsh rays of the sun. But as the water trickled over it, a shiver went through the shrivelled blades, and I saw how they slowly, tremblingly, unfolded. A few more drops, and the little blades moved and curled and then straightened themselves slowly, hesitatingly, tremblingly... I held my breath as I poured more water over the grass tuft. It moved more quickly, more violently, as if some hidden force were pushing i out of its dream of death. Its blades--what a delight to behold!--contracted and expanded like the arms of a starfish, seemingly overwhelmed by a shy but irrepressible delirium, a real little orgy of sensual joy: and thus life re-entered victioriously what a moment ago had been as dead, entered it visibly, passionately, overpowering and beyond understanding in its majesty.
Life in its majesty...you always feel it in the desert. Because it is so difficult to keep and so hard, it is always like a gift, a treasure, and a surprise. For the desert is always surprising, even though you may have known it for years. Sometimes, when you think you can see it in all its rigidity and emptiness, it awakens from its dream, sends forth its breath--and tender, pale-green grass stands suddenly where only yesterday there was nothing but sand and splintery pebbles. It sends forth its breath again--and a flock of small birds flutters through the air--from where? where to?--slim-bodied, long-winged, emerald-green; or a swarm of locusts rises above the earth with a rush and a zoom, grey and grim and endless like a horde of hungry warriors..."
(My advice: Pick this book up at your library, get through pages 12-14--so gorgeous!!--and if you are still unconvinced, put it down slowly and walk over to the Anne Rice volumes)