In 1952 an unidentified young photographer—wearing a bow-tie, looking at his camera, presumably at work for the US government—stands by a C-54 transport plane on a Beirut tarmac. In front of him, Muslim pilgrims in white robes prepare to board the plane en route to Mecca. Another photographer for the United States Information Service captures the whole scene, complete with the US Air Force logo on the plane’s fuselage.
It was an American PR dream, a propaganda coup so good that the government photographs carefully documenting it were deemed superfluous and have seldom if ever been seen. Shortly after arranging for several thousand stranded pilgrims to be airlifted from Beirut to Saudi Arabia, the State Department cabled its Middle Eastern embassies telling them best not to go overboard trumpeting the story. Local press would do the work for them, and with too much boasting the embassy risked promoting the story to the point they “killed it with self praise.”
Fortunately the New York Times faced no such limitations: “Mecca Pilgrims Ride U.S. Magic Carpet” it declared. “The United States Air Force spread its magic carpet today to help fly 9,000 stranded Moslem pilgrims to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Thirteen four-engined C-54 transports began the religious airlift from Beirut to Jidda, [the] Saudi Arabian seaport only forty miles from Mecca, where the prophet Mohammed is entombed.”
Photo: US National Archives
Before the annual 1952 pilgrimage to Mecca, the Saudi government cut a once hefty tax on pilgrims, dramatically increasing the number who could go on the Hajj. As a result, an unprecedented number of the faithful and hopeful had come to Beirut with tickets to continue on aboard Middle East Airways. But the Lebanese carrier could not cope with the unexpected number of travellers, and stranded pilgrims from around the Muslim world began camping out across the city. When a Lebanese parliamentarian contacted the U.S. State Department about providing assistance, Washington quickly saw an opportunity for modern American magic to save the day.
Journalists, too, embraced an opportunity to run wild with the tradition-meets-modernity cliché that was already in the early 50s becoming de rigeur for U.S. reporting on the Middle East.
Though the operation was officially named Operation Hajji Baba—after a famous 19th century British orientalist novel about Hajji Baba of Ispahan—reporters upped the cliché by redubbing it “Magic Carpet.” The Times wrote that the stranded pilgrims, in their “colorful native dress… cook on little portable oil stoves, smoke their oriental pipes, count their prayer beads, read the Koran, and at the prayer hours prostrate themselves in the direction of Mecca.”