Romance lost

There are few things that say “you’re in the Middle East” as well as the call to prayer. For those of you unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here’s a hint: it’s that musical recitation issuing from the minaret that invariably figures prominently in the background of most any BBC or CNN report coming from Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, and all the other Middle Eastern capitals. (By the way, has anyone else ever noticed how often the call to prayer goes off during those reports? Judging solely from Western news coverage, you would think the call to prayer is going off all day long.)

There’s a reason the news channels like to feature this unique fixture of the Middle Eastern sound landscape. The call to prayer is at once an emotive, romantic element of the religion that dominates this part of the planet, as well as a commonplace event that takes place five times a day for the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world. The five calls to prayer each have their own name in Arabic and are timed to occur at certain phases of the sun’s journey during the day. They take place, roughly, just before dawn, at mid-morning, at mid-afternoon, in the early evening, and in the late evening.

Although the times for the call to prayer are standardized (roughly – it’s not uncommon for there to be a few-minute discrepancy between neighboring mosques), the style of the muezzin (the guy whose voice you hear) and the length of the call are not. For our first few nights in the city, my husband and I stayed in a well known backpacker hostel in the center of the city. The call to prayer coming from the mosque next door was absolutely gorgeous – it was everything I had imagined and hoped it would be: atmospheric, lyrical, haunting, and relatively undistorted by the originating speaker and amplifier.

When we moved to a permanent apartment, I eagerly awaited hearing the call to prayer that would become routine during our year-long stay in the country. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Our neighborhood mosque muezzin’s style left a lot to be desired, in my opinion. The problem was compounded by the fact that the speakers (or amplifiers, I can’t be sure which) on the mosque were of absolutely terrible quality, distorting the sound awfully. But oh well – it’s only five times a day, right?

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. For some reason, our local mosque changed their call to prayer. The muezzin was different now, but not really better or worse. One thing that had changed for the worse, though, was the pre-dawn call to prayer. For reasons that remain unexplained, the first prayer of the day was now being broadcast for 20 minutes instead of the usual 2 or 3. What’s more, they seemed to have downgraded the speaker quality (something I wouldn’t have thought was possible) and upped the volume considerably (to compensate, perhaps?). Something that we used to be able to sleep through, or at least only wake up briefly for, had now turned into a 20-minute intermission in our sleep cycle. It was so loud and began so abruptly and harshly that I often jolted awake, and earplugs or a pillow over the head were a useless defense.

Lest I offend, let me be absolutely clear about what I am not trying to say about Islam, Muslims, or the call to prayer. I am not trying to ridicule their religion, or this important part of it. I am not saying that they should not be allowed to broadcast the call to prayer, even before dawn. I am also not trying to make fun of our particular neighborhood mosque.

What I am trying to say is that the call to prayer could certainly be handled in a more reasonable manner that would preserve its vital religious function without becoming a nuisance to believers and non-believers alike. For example, is it really necessary for the pre-dawn prayer to go on for 20 minutes? Probably not, especially since ours is the only mosque I have ever heard of that does this. Should the prayer be broadcast so loudly that it is unreasonably audible, even when extreme efforts are made by an individual to block it out at four o’clock in the morning? Again, probably not. When the call to prayer is so loud, it interferes with neighboring mosques’ calls to prayer, producing an out-of-synch cacophony of sound that is hard on the ears. Finally – and I realize this is a huge generalization based on my limited observations only – it seems to me that such an extraordinary effort by our local mosque to rouse people from their beds before dawn to pray is perhaps not as effective as it could be.

The other night, the call to prayer came blasting over the loudspeaker as expected. Unbelievably, it was even louder than usual. The speaker quality had also deteriorated even further. There were large sections of the prayer that were completely unintelligible because of static distortion, and a loud clicking noise could be heard rattling away in the background. My husband had reached a breaking point. He said he was going to “see what was going on.” I wasn’t sure what he meant to accomplish – I’m still not sure – but he got dressed even as I tried to convince him that he was talking crazy (is there another kind of talk at 4am?). He went outside and walked to the mosque and observed…nothing. The call to prayer was just a little louder at its point of origin. Twenty minutes later, when it was over, he came back and we tried to go back to sleep. It’s not easy, when you’re fully awake for that long in the middle of the night.

I wish the muezzin didn’t sing for 20 minutes in the middle of my R.E.M. sleep cycle. I wish he would turn the volume down, and maybe get some new speakers. I wish his style were a bit more melodious. But most of all, I just wish the call to prayer could be something romantic again, something evocative of the Middle East, something that truly inspired respect and reverence for the religion of Islam in the hearts of us unbelievers.

PS – It turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way - there was an interesting article on the BBC about this issue in Cairo. Read the comments below the article and notice that everyone who claims a loud, lengthy wakeup call at 4am is OK with them also happens to be living in a non-Middle Eastern country where the call to prayer isn’t even broadcast.

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