What is symbolized by the cement sculptures of camels, wise men, owls, and angels in Helen's back yard and house in Athol Fugard's Road to Mecca?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The symbolism behind the cement sculptures Helen makes and arranges in her yard, such as the Wise Men upon camels, owls, other birds, and mermaids, largely connects to the social and political climate playwright Athol Fugard is portraying in his play The Road to Mecca.

Protagonist Helen, a woman in her 60s, is an Afrikaner who lives in Nieu Bethesda in the Karoo of South Africa. Afrikaners are descendants of Dutch emigrants who settled in the Karoo in the 1700s. The village of Nieu Bethesda was founded by members of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist church, with the purpose of building a church. Since the land was bought for church purposes, "for many years, the Dutch Reformed Church owned the land on which Nieu Bethesda was built" (Education Department at Roundabout Theatre Company, Upstage, "The Road to Mecca: The Road to Creation"). Since the town was founded by the church, the church has played a central role in the villagers' lives throughout the centuries. In other words, Helen lives in a purely Calvinist region, and the symbolic meaning behind her statues shows that she is in conflict with her Calvinist surroundings.

Not only is Helen in conflict with her Calvinist surroundings, the Calvinist village is in conflict with the native Africans of the Karoo because the Afrikaners viewed the native Africans as heathens. The natives to the Karoo are the Khoikoi and San people, who, at first, had their own religion in which they viewed the moon as a manifestation of the supreme, creator god Tsui'goab. However, as time progressed, many of the Khoikhoi and San converted to Islam (Nieu Bethesda, "Khoi & San People"). Hence, Fugard's play juxtaposes the Calvinist religion against the Islamic religion.

Interestingly, Helen creates and positions all of her statues to face East, towards Mecca, the city in which Muhammad was born and is Islam's holiest city. When Muslims pray, they face Mecca. Hence, Helen is having all of her statues face, like in prayer, towards a city that Calvinists would consider to be heathen; she even calls her creation her "Mecca," showing us that she sees it as some sort of holy land that conflicts with Calvinists' beliefs.

Helen's Mecca consists of a variety of statues with very different symbolic meanings, but all show her conflict with her surroundings and her desires to enrich her life. Some statues are very obviously religious symbols, such as the Wise Men riding on camels. Biblical passages teach that Three Wise Men journeyed from the East to Jerusalem to worship baby Jesus as the Messiah. But, interestingly, Helen has created not Three Wise Men on camels but hundreds, and they are heading in the opposite direction that they traveled in as described in the Bible--they are heading East, towards Mecca. Helen's Wise Men capture her rebellion against her own religion. In addition, since she has far more than Three Wise Men, it can be said she is using these particular statues to say it is far wiser to reject the Calvinist religion and embrace something new. Hence, Helen's Wise men symbolize her rebellion against conforming to the religion of her society and her new awakening to embrace what her society has previously rejected--that which they call a heathen religion, that which the Khoikhoi and San worship. Other statues, such as the "wise old owls," can also be interpreted as symbolizing the wisdom of embracing what society has previously rejected and decided to be in conflict with.

Other statues seem to symbolize the beauty of the world, such as peacocks. Her creation of peacocks "with more color and glitter than the real birds" shows her desire to embrace and even enhance all that's beautiful in the world, including cultures her society has deemed to be heathen (p. 22). Finally, their are also symbols that reflect pagan mythology, such as mermaids, which further show her desire to embrace all things her society has rejected.

It should also be noted that she has no statues of angels on her lawn. When Elsa points this out, Helen argues the reason is because "the cemetery is full of them ... all wings and halos, but no glitter." Therefore, it can be said that Helen's creation of statues and her other art is her way of rejecting death, and she sees angels as a symbol of death. Hence, in her mind, all of her statues symbolize life and the celebration of life, not death. She further states that if she did make an angel, she would create it "pointing to the East," not to heaven, so that she could further "misdirect all the good Christian souls around here and put them on the road to Mecca" (p. 76), showing us just how much her statues truly do symbolize a rejection of Calvinist society in favor of embracing all of her surroundings, even the society the Calvinists have deemed to be heathen, such as the society of the Khoikhoi and San people.

Hence, all in all, her statues symbolize embracing all of life and rejecting beliefs, like the Calvinists' beliefs, that constrain us from accepting as beautiful all things that surround us, such as the culture of the Khoikhoi and San people.

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