Thursday, September 2, 2010


A most interesting column in today's LA Times was entitled "Cairo's chaotic call to prayer." Written by Jeffrey Fleishman, it looks at the new decree issued by the nation's Ministry of Religious Endowments that will replace individual muezzins (those men whose voices call the faithful to prayer five times a day) with a single radio-broadcasted call that will standardize the sound and the timing of this ritual. The Ministry believes this will bring back spirituality to the call to worship that is lost in today's cacophonous and chaotic major city.

Actually, Mr. Fleishman does not so much analyze the reason and ramification of this decree as he gives a human perspective to it from a 60 year old man who will be replaced. He writes:
"Like many muezzins, Ahmed receives occasional donations but no salary. He grew up a farmer's son in southern Egypt and traveled to Cairo in his 20s, wandering from mosque to mosque and studying the timbre and rhythm of the city's revered callers.... 'I've wanted to serve God since I was a boy,' he said."
And reading this reminded me of living and traveling in Turkey, and how, in a sense, one adapted ones self in little ways to another country and another religion. Outside the door of our apartment we had a very devout bekci (guard) who responded to the Call to Prayer by placing his prayer rug and praying in the small lobby of the apartment. There was not a whole lot of room in the lobby, and I tried as best I could to arrange my comings and going not to disturb him in his prayers.

We lived in a more modern part of Istanbul, away from the frenetic old part of the city. Even so, during the day I was rarely even aware of the sounds emanating from the local mosques. The sounds of cars, street vendors, children at play, boom-boxes (yes, even in Istanbul) and ordinary neighborhood hubbub simply masked the sound for all who really didn't understand or participate. But Jer and I found ourselves almost unconsciously adapting ourselves to the timing of these prayers so as to let our bekci pray in peace.

Late at night was a different story. We had no city sounds to muffle the muezzin. We could sometimes hear the sound of the Marmara Sea to our left, but if we went out on our balcony that overlooked a city park at the time of the last call to prayer of the day, we could hear the most beautiful sounds over the sea sounds. To the western ear the call to prayer is tuneless and to the person who did not understand the words there was no particular significance, but we could hear the individual voices - some more high pitched, some lower, some louder and closer, some much more distant, some a little faster and some a little slower - but all saying the same words, meaningful words whether or not we could understand them. They came at our ears through the darkness from every direction, almost like hundreds of echos. And at night it was beautiful. No other word could describe it.

It was all so new to us and so very fascinating. Jer and I had made up our mind before we ever moved to Turkey that we would not judge her against our own home - that is, we wouldn't evaluate experiences as better than or worse than what we were used to. Instead, we would try our best to accept each and every thing as simply "different" and learn to enjoy that differentness. Our stay in Turkey was every bit as wonderful as we had hoped.

I would hate to see Turkey decide to standardize their Call to Prayers. The Cairo ministry may call it progress -- and it may be. It's not for me to judge. But I certainly did find Mr. Fleishman's article interesting, and I'll be keeping my eyes open for how "progress" is received.

As for the minaret pictures, I took the top photograph near Fevziye, a little town in the mountains near Trabzon on the Black Sea and the one at the bottom is from Konya in central Anatolia, both taken in 1992.

No comments: