Miss Helen, the protagonist, in Athol Fugard’s play “The Road to Mecca”, starts out as a frightened, lonely individual who conforms to the former “Afrikaaner” society norms, getting married when a mere child herself, and lives out her days in the little town known as New Bethesda, beside her husband and amongst society members, feeling lonely and lost. The sudden death of her husband, Stefanus opens this artist up to a whole new world of light, colour, freedom and a spiritual connection like she never imagined possible. This is made clear when Helen tells Elsa “the only reason she’s got for being alive is her Mecca.” (Fugard: 35). I will take you through what Mecca symbolised for Helen as well as how it gave her a sense of freedom and spiritual fulfillment through artistic expression.
Artists sometimes find themselves in a lonely place, excluded and ridiculed by society for their sometimes outrageous ideas. Helen tells Marius that she never really loved her husband because she felt that her marriage was a pretense. The irony of it all is that she did not feel alive until her husband’s death. Stefanus’s death gives birth to Helen, the artist. After the funeral, when Marius Byleveld takes her home, at first, she believes her life is over, she even smells death in the air, but, that night Helen had an epiphany! Helen’s journey to Mecca begins the same night, and she thanks Marius for steering her towards her Mecca because “it was the candle he lit that led her there”. (Fugard: 72). She was no longer the little girl, afraid of the dark, afraid of when her mother would blow out the candle at bedtime, nor was she the afraid and good churchy, Afrikaaner wife to Stefanus. The burning candle refused to go give up, in fact as the night went on, the little candle burned even brighter. This little bit of light gave Helen the courage to let out the inner artist which resided within her for such a long time but was afraid to come out. Later, Helen gives Marius a taste of her vision. She explains exactly what she saw in her mind:
A city, Marius! A city of light and color more splendid than anything I had ever imagined. There were palaces and beautiful buildings everywhere, with dazzling white walls and glittering minarets. Strange statues filled the courtyards. The streets were crowded with camels and turbaned men speaking a language she didn’t understand, but that didn’t matter because she knew, oh she just knew, it was Mecca! And shewas on her way to the grand temple.” (Fugard: 72).
Art in itself is a pilgrimage to self-discovery and spiritual fulfillment. Helen describes to Marius what the actual city of Mecca looks like. Unlike the Muslims who travel to the holy and blessed city of Mecca on a pilgrimage to visit the holy mosques, Helen’s journey to Mecca was slightly different. It started with visions which came to her at random moments. She is a creator of sculptures which she pictures in her mind’s eye. She is intrinsically motivated and according to her, not a single soul can understand where or how she is inspired. A fact is that she has produced some of the most valued pieces of art in the history of South African art. Helen’s Mecca is her symbol of artistic expression. Her first sculpture was an owl and from then onwards it was a non-stop pathway to Helen’s Mecca.
Helen’s image of Mecca symbolises her freedom, freedom from the oppression of growing up in a very religious and small-minded Christian community. Helen admits to Marius that her marriage, much like her faith and coming to church every Sunday, sitting next to her husband had all been “a terrible lie” (Fugard: 70). She further admits that the word of God had become just words, and even the image of the word God had been reduced to a mere stone, “a cold, round, little stone” (Fugard: 70). Helen did not want to pretend anymore, the first Sunday Helen missed service, and started making her very first sculpture of an owl, the chains were broken and she was finally free! You see, in Mecca, Muslims are treated, all the same, no judgments, no racism, no conforming to anyone’s standards but your own, Muslims believe they are reborn and all sins are washed away when they make that pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. So, Helen, like the Muslims in Mecca, connected with God on a much higher spiritual level than sitting in a church or mosque being told what to do and what not to do. Helen was finally free! Her art gave her that freedom.
The most sacred place in Islam is the Kaaba (square building) situated in the center of Mecca. The black stone placed on one corner of the Kaaba is believed to be an actual piece from heaven on Earth. All Muslims face the direction of the Kaaba every day, 5 times a day when praying. So millions and millions of Muslims are all facing the same direction at the same time every day, to praise and connect spiritually with God, even though they are not in Mecca physically, they are still able to connect with the higher power. Helen achieved this same feeling of spiritual fulfillment through her Mecca. Her wise men and camels all point east towards Mecca. This gave Helen the same direction in her life and much self-fulfillment, which neither her husband; church, nor members of her society could do for her. Instead, they judged and ridiculed her, Marius refers to her sculptures as “cement monstrosities” (Fugard: 69). The children of the community would throw stones at her house and sculptures. Elsa explains it very nicely when she realizes what has been going on, she tells Helen that they are in fact not only frightened of her but jealous as well. They are jealous of something bigger than her art, they are jealous of “her
life, her beautiful, light-filled, glittering life” (Fugard: 69).
Tragically, at the end of the play, there is a bitter-sweet sort of acceptance from Marius because he identifies the happiness Helen’s art brings her. Regretfully the same is not forthcoming from the community she grew up around, even though Helen has proven to be an absolutely beautiful soul radiating with passion, light, and colour. But that is immaterial to Helen, she finally stood up for herself and managed to experience her innocent, inner child again through her art. She is able to experience the artistic freedom of expression and spiritual fulfillment through her Mecca, with one person beside her, who fully understands her, Elsa, and that is enough for her to gain closure on her life’s battle of darkness and fear. As Elsa starts to blow out the candles, Helen says she must do it, she finally found two things, her balance and her closure in life when she tells Elsa she was wrong to think she could banish darkness. “Just as she taught herself how to light candles, and what that means, she must teach herself now how to blow them out and what that means” (Fugard: 78). Fugard does not give us a truly happy ending, instead, we are left with agreeing to disagree for an ending, but at least Helen is left to die in peace (besides her savior Elsa) in her sanctuary, her happy place, her Mecca!