Monday, September 24, 2012

Unifying the Call to Prayer

I've got a long magazine feature in The Revealer on the call to prayer in Cairo and debates over whether or not to unify the centuries old practice. We're rolling it out now to gain support for a Kickstarter campaign to fund the final stages of a documentary film about the same subject.

Just before the sun rises in Cairo, and four more times every day, the air fills with a mass of amplified voices. “God is greater. God is greater. I testify that there is no god but God.” Like a Bach fugue, the voices mix confidently in melodies careening upward, some reaching heights of intensity as others duck out to draw in breath for their next phrase. Some are scratchy with feedback and the gritty crackle of a cheap speaker, and some bounce off shops, apartments, and pavement so that the original and its echo are difficult to distinguish in the still, warm air. “I testify that Mohamed is God’s prophet. Come to prayer. Come to salvation.”
In some neighborhoods, the whole process takes fifteen minutes or more, while in others, one or two voices breeze briefly past. At the end of the call, a lone voice usually lingers on the last line, “God is greater. There is no god but God.”
The experience of hearing these voices evokes a feeling of timelessness. Called the azan or adhan (“call to prayer”), it is a ritual to invite worshippers to pray that has survived since the earliest days of Islam. Whenever filmmakers want to set a scene as ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arab’, they put it in the audio track. (To experience it yourself, listen to one of my field recordings of the call: Cairo Azan). Yet over the last century the call to prayer has undergone enormous changes, and those changes have been fraught with politics, and with competing visions of Egypt’s future and the piety of its public space.
In the early 20th century, access to electricity expanded in Egypt. Prayer leaders purchased microphones and plugged them into speakers. Construction and traffic increased the ambient noise level on the streets, and the mosques had to compete to be heard above the din, egging each other on to higher and higher volumes. By 2009, when I first lived in Egypt, complaints about the noise were as ubiquitous as talk about the weather. An American University in Cairo student named Samaa was playfully hyperbolic about it. “The call to prayer is annoying,” she told me. “It’s screeching and every time I hear it I want to tear my skin off and bang the speakers with my fists.”