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Inside Mecca - Press Release
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With Unique Access to Islam's Holiest City , National Geographic Follows

Three Muslims from Different Backgrounds on the Spiritual Journey of a Lifetime 

Premiering Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2003, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS

WASHINGTON (Sept. 22, 2003)-What do a successful executive from suburban Malaysia, a religious radio commentator from rural South Africa and an Irish-born college professor from the United States have in common? They're all about to embark on the spiritual journey of a lifetime - the sacred Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca known as the hajj.

With unique access to Islam's holiest city, National Geographic's " Inside Mecca " follows three Muslims from very different backgrounds as they embark on an epic five-day reaffirmation of faith and quest for salvation. Premiering Wednesday, Oct. 22, on PBS, " Inside Mecca " captures the look and feel, spiritual uplift, claustrophobia, grandeur and grit of the largest annual gathering of Muslims in the world.

"' Inside Mecca ' focuses on the personal stories of the hajj," says Anisa Mehdi, producer and director of the film. "Through the various viewpoints and experiences of the participants, we follow not only their physical steps but the spiritual and emotional stages of this all-important voyage. We want to show viewers around the world the remarkable experience of the hajj: that it is at once deeply personal and widely universal."

One of the five pillars of Islam, the hajj is required of all who can manage it at least once in a lifetime. Each year, Muslims from all over the world travel to Mecca to praise and give thanks to God, to ask pardon for their sins and to renew their spiritual commitment through an elaborate series of rites and rituals.

" Inside Mecca " intimately documents the pilgrimages of Fidelma O'Leary, Ismail Mahbob and Khalil Mandhlazi, beginning with their preparations at home and carrying through to the climactic events of the hajj itself. For each, the journey presents a unique challenge. Mahbob, a successful Malaysian business executive, must leave behind his family and the material comforts to which he is accustomed in exchange for the austere lifestyle of a pilgrim. Mandhlazi, who takes to the radio each week to bring the teachings of Islam to his fellow South Africans, seeks a chance to see an ideal world of Islam in action, yet finds that even Mecca is not free from economic and racial discord.

Perhaps the most striking story is that of O'Leary. A green-eyed blonde with a barely noticeable Irish lilt, she hardly looks the part of the stereotypical Muslim. Born in Ireland to a devout Catholic family, O'Leary converted to Islam while in college. Now, she embarks on hajj having fully embraced the faith, but encounters moments where it seems her fellow pilgrims have difficulty accepting her as a peer.

"I had some women in my group try to tell me what it's like to be a Muslim and ask me, 'Are you really Muslim?'" said O'Leary, "I think they forgot for a moment that you can only be here if you're Muslim. It gets a little bit tiresome day after day. It can be upsetting."

Since hajj calls for a state of ritual sanctity and mental purity, pilgrims must be patient and persevere, not letting themselves be swayed by anger or frustration. But despite the physical and emotional challenges that each pilgrim faces on hajj, the spiritual rewards of performing the pilgrimage prevail.

" Inside Mecca " also tells the story of an ancient holy city that welcomes some 2 million visitors at the same time and accommodates everyone with relative ease and efficiency. Yet, behind the scenes in Mecca , planning for the hajj is a monumental effort that requires year-round planning.

"If you can imagine having 20 Super Bowls in one stadium, when 2 million will come to the same stadium, and if you add to it that these 2 million people will be taking part in playing the game as may give you a glimpse of the preparations needed for.that mass movement represented by.hajj," says Iyad Madani, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Hajj. "Sometimes I have a hard time convincing people that we never stop preparing for hajj. We prepare for hajj every single hour. During hajj. Immediately after hajj. Before hajj."

Truly, Mecca is a city like no other. At its heart is a great mosque called the al-Masjid al Haram, and at its center is the Kaaba, the 50-foot-tall, black-draped shrine that is the most revered structure in the Muslim tradition. While there are many stories detailing its origins, according to Islamic teachings God commanded the Prophet Abraham to raise the foundations of the Kaaba as a place for worship. Thousands of years later, after the Kaaba had become a center of pagan worship, the Prophet Muhammad cleansed it of its many idols and rededicated it to the worship of the one God, who in Arabic is called Allah. Today, pilgrims retrace the steps of Abraham and Muhammad as they perform the rites of the hajj with some 2 million fellow pilgrims.

Part of Mecca 's mystique stems from the fact that non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering the city. For this reason, very few non-Muslims have ever witnessed the rites and rituals of the hajj . To gain access to the city for " Inside Mecca ," National Geographic assembled an all-Muslim production team. Led by Anisa Mehdi, who in 1998 was the first American woman to report on the hajj on location in Mecca for U.S. television, the team obtained many never-before-seen images that capture the essence of Islam's remarkable pilgrimage .

" Inside Mecca " is produced and directed by Mehdi. Michael Rosenfeld is senior executive producer and John Bredar is executive producer. Traci Zambotti served as editor.

National Geographic Television & Film (NGT&F) is a wholly owned subsidiary of National Geographic Ventures, which also manages National Geographic's businesses in interactive, online, merchandising, travel expeditions and related businesses. Building on its global reputation for remarkable visuals and compelling stories, National Geographic Television & Film augments its award-winning documentary productions (119 Emmy Awards and more than 800 other industry awards) with feature films, large-format films and long-form television drama programming. Worldwide, National Geographic's television programming can be seen on the National Geographic Channel, MSNBC, and PBS, home video and DVD, and through international broadcast syndication. The National Geographic Channel is received by more than 200 million households in 25 languages in 146 countries, including the United States . For more information about National Geographic Television & Film, log on to

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