Call to Prayer ~ the sounds of Egypt
Leaving the airport, I had had three hours of sleep in 50, and I knew I’d have to bargain and hustle straightaway for a reasonable taxi. I was told to sit the back seat as if I were in a Jane Austin novel. I was told how much I should pay. But I wasn’t told how the sky would blend into the horizon like a Rothko. I couldn’t be told that against the post-soviet looking apartment buildings, the white sky would hang like a surrender to something so much bigger than me. The apartments, I later learned, were all left unfinished to avoid the ridiculous taxes. To live in that limbo, literally, must shape a unique sense of patience, comfort in discomfort.
Along the Ring Road, what seemed like a highway to me, we navigated traffic I’d never imagine. People stood on the roadside waiting for the white VW Vans used as local transportation. Horse-drawn carriages piled high with boxes plodded along next to Tuk-tuks in the soft suggestion of four lanes. Lanes don’t matter here anyhow.
My driver offered me his own coffee. Then he offered me gum. Then after hearing me sniff a bit, Kleenex. When we crossed the Nile, he told me what it was, and pronounced this word I’ve loved in a new way, “Neel!”
In the dunes behind villages the sky looked like ghosts walking towards me holding hands, something potent will burn you and set you free. Everything is so bright. So apparent. There is no place to hide, unless you build it. As we drove, I thought about why I don’t like burning man, but do like the intention behind it. A topography like this imprints on the soul. This is a place where you can truly burn.
Naturally, the first thing I did upon arrival was find the bed and take a nap. The windows of buildings here are small, to keep out the harsh sun. But they block nothing of sound. And as I swung in and out of wakefulness, stoney and disoriented, the sounds of the village came to welcome me. Here you are, this is Nazlet El Semman. I fell asleep to the neighing of horses on the dirt alley below, the regular sound whips keeping them in line. The windows and doors slammed outside. I remember hearing over and over, someone shouting, “Assef!” and then the staccato rhythms of Arabic words I still don’t know.
But after an hour and a half, I woke to the most haunting sound I’ve ever heard: the afternoon call to prayer. Before arrival, I knew enough about Islam to know that one of the five pillars is to pray towards Mecca five times a day. But I didn’t know what times of day they’d be, and I didn’t know how powerfully the sounds would resonate through the village. I know the sound of "Our Father," chanted in church pews, and I have heard the "Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu." In my days playing music more, I wrote my own prayer songs. But what does prayer sound like anyhow? From my fuzzy dreams, I sat up, and pushed back against my headboard to listen.
The human voice bellowing foreign prayers over old loudspeakers is almost eerie. Even now, after spending three weeks in Islamic nations, listening to the prayers over and over, I feel awakened to wonder each time I hear the prayers. The melody doesn’t follow the tonal rules of western music, there is no major or minor key, no A, D, E. The path followed in the music of the prayer is as unfamiliar as the words of it. But Nazlet El Semman is one village in a city of villages, and each mosque sounds it’s own prayer. The suite of voices don’t harmonize, don’t fit perfectly into one another’s time, and to me, don’t make sense. I know the words must hang like seed of devotion to Allah, naming his as the one true god. I have since learned one line is that “prayer is better than sleep,” which fit with my waking to the first afternoon prayer. Or, rather, prayers, plural. Hundreds of speakers at the same time call out in imperfect unison, and it always sounds like wailing for salvation. Sirens on the islands. I want to go look, listen more closely. Who doesn’t have something to say to god? The tone is the only thing that comes across, and it is a prism of multicolored of worship. To my ear, there is a sense of despair, a melancholy in the present moment, in the truth that it won’t last. We are delicate beings full of want and gratitude, always aching to get closer to god, to love. I hear that in the prayers, and maybe in my own way, make it my prayer.
It is loud in Giza, louder still in Cairo, the city teems with roosters, pigeon flocks let out at dusk, neighing sheep and peddlers with megaphones carrying vegetables or collecting the wash. I came to Egypt in search of something unknown, self discovery, an understanding of the old gods, connection to prophecy. But the sound of prayer is evocative of all these things and more. The tenuous relationship of the seen and unseen world rise in the sound of what I think is called the Salah. Every time I was called, I prayed what I knew to pray. Thank you, forgive me, I am yours.