Friday, January 15, 2010

Flashback Friday: Jeremy vs. the muezzin

So yeah, there was this one time Jeremy wandered the streets of Damascus at 4am in search of a rifle so he could shoot the speakers off of our local mosque. That's most of the story, but let me give you some background.

But before I do, here's the part where I remind you that I love Syria, loved living there, loved the people, loved the food, gave my first-born child the middle name Damascus, for crying out loud, so please don't try to tell me I'm a hater for writing about this. Annoying things happen everywhere. This annoying thing happened in Syria.

Anyway. 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 cities. (By the way, has anyone else ever noticed how often the call to prayer just happens to go off during those reports? Judging solely from Western news coverage, you would think the call to prayer is going off all day long.) (If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, you can watch a video I took of it here.)

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 a good portion 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 Damascus, Jeremy 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 2005. For some reason, our local mosque changed their call to prayer. The muezzin was different, 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.

At the time, I began asking myself the following questions: Couldn't the call to prayer could be handled in a more reasonable manner that would preserve its vital religious function without becoming a nuisance to believers and non-believers alike? Is it really necessary for the pre-dawn prayer to go on for 20 minutes? 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? And doesn't anybody notice that 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?

One night during that winter, 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.

Jeremy had reached a breaking point. He got out of bed and said he was going outside to “see what was going on.” I wasn’t sure what he meant to accomplish – he only explained that to me years later – but he got dressed even as I tried to convince him that he was talking crazy (is there another kind of talk at 4 o'clock in the morning?). 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.

He has since explained to me that he wanted to find a rifle to shoot out the speakers on the mosque or else cut the wires somehow. I have to admit, I wish he could have been successful. Though I don't think that would have endeared us infidels to our neighbors very much...or would it have???


Liz Johnson said...

Well at least he was going to shoot out the speakers and not shoot somebody (like the muezzin). So, points for that, Jeremy.

I cannot imagine being woken up EVERY SINGLE MORNING for a 20-minute prayer call. Two or three minutes is one thing, but twenty minutes is seriously disruptive. I think I would've probably done the same thing as him.

Susanne said...

Wow, 20 minutes is crazy!! Makes me wonder if some people were having a hard time getting up in the morning for those prayers. So the muezzin was only helping out those folks, right? ;)

Glad you provided the background information about the azan. Btw, your comment about CNN and BBC reminded me of something I read on a blog last week. This lady in Canada said her coworker said the Muslims had this certain "war chant" that she would hear on CNN. It spooked her. The person whose blog I was reading asked, "You mean the call to prayer? That's not a war chant. I think you need to watch less CNN."

Enjoyed this post. I always love the ones about Syria, and YES, I know you loved it a lot! :)

Sarah Rose Evans said...

I once stayed witha friend in Poland, who lived in the center of Krakow. The first morning I was there I was woken up by an amazing violinist, who was playing for coins under my window. I mentioned how nice this was to my host, and she replied that if I had to listen to that same song all day long for months I would want to shoot the guy just like she did.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

That less-than-pleasant prayer call was my first experience hearing a muezzin and didn't think much of it until I heard different muezzins from other mosques. It can be so lovely.

I've attended a number of Byzantine Catholic churches which all have a cantor singing the liturgy. If you have a sub-standard cantor then you suffer too, only at least it isn't broadcast all over the neighborhood.

B-Rad said...

Reading your latest post made me feel like I was back on deployment.


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