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The Call

February 5, 2011

I could hear it from my apartment a few times a day. It came to me in the darkness of morning and the darkness of night. When I heard it, I would open my windows and the sounds would fill the room. A man was singing. It was strange and nasal, like a bagpipe, and the notes would rarely stay in one place for long, shifting up and down the scale with a plaintive restlessness. Every day it was the same, and I learned its rhythms like a favorite poem. It followed me around town, pleading to me at the bazaar and the corner café. It was in a language I couldn’t understand, but some words were familiar. “Allahu Akbar,” the man sang, “Allahu Akbar.” God is great, he wanted me to know. He was calling me to his mosque for prayer.

I went to the mosque, but not because I wanted to pray. I didn’t think god was great – I thought he was a fairytale. The starkness of his theme song, though, left me captivated, and my curiosity pushed me to learn more, if not about saving my soul then about the singer and the song. The Central Mosque of Bishkek was down the street from me and around a couple corners, surrounded by sidewalk stalls and men wearing skullcaps. At their stalls, the men were hawking a panoply of Islamic paraphernalia: amulets for rear view mirrors, prayer pamphlets, holy water from Mecca (zam zam), and little plastic-wrapped sticks that are used by some Muslims to clean their teeth (miswaks). At the front gates, women held out their hands in destitution, looking for charity. I offered one a coin and looked at my translator Ertabyldy with hesitation. So do we just go in? Won’t they notice the heathen? Just go, he said, everything will be fine.

 

From across the courtyard a small man in robes beckoned us forward. A full-grown beard was draped across his jawline and his teeth shot out at funny angles. They were arranged in a smile. “Assalam Alleikum” he said in greeting. I did as I had learned and replied backwards – “Alleikum Assalam!” The man was named Suleiman, and he was a mullah. Ertabyldy explained to him what I was doing here, but he was stopped in mid-sentence. Suleiman had turned to me and said something. “He wants you to recite a prayer for him,” my translator explained. Sure, I said, why not. So Suleiman said a few words in Arabic and I repeated, feeling the strange sounds drip over my tongue. We went through a few lines like this and then my initiation was complete. The mullah handed me a string of prayer beads, used for reciting the ninety-nine names of Allah. “A gift,” he said.

Before I could ask him what I had just recited, Suleiman launched into a sermon. “God is great!” he said. “God is everything. The apples, the leaves, the trees. There is nothing but God.” It seemed beautiful to me that everything around him held such divine significance. I wished I felt it too. He went on, and Ertabyldy did his best to translate. “Why does your hair grow long, but your eyelashes don’t?” I looked at my translator and then the mullah, the mullah and then my translator. Ertabyldy shrugged and the mullah kept quiet. There would be no answer to the riddle. Man himself had mysteries, I suppose he was saying, that only god could explain.  The koan didn’t work. I didn’t wonder at the glory of god. I just imagined my eyelashes drooping to the ground and giggled.

Suleiman directed us across the courtyard to the imam’s office, where we took off our shoes and went in. Another man in a beard and skullcap sat at a desk, guarding a heavy wooden door. We would have to wait. Other people flowed in, asking for appointments, and Ertabyldy whispered to me what they wanted. Mostly, people come here for healing, he said, healing for afflictions without cures. Alcoholism was the biggest problem. Conventional avenues provided little success – rehab clinics here would give you drugs and tie you to a bed. So people came and asked for prayer. A mullah would come to your house seven days in a row and read the Quran to the afflicted. “My mom had them do it for my uncle,” Ertabyldy said, “and it worked.” But two weeks later, he was back to the bottle.

A lot of parents would take their children here, too, if they were sick. Their was a belief amongst the Kyrgyz that a sick child may be afflicted with a curse: that his “name is too strong for him.” Certain names had power, Ertabyldy said, and some kids were too weak to bear the burden. Few parents, for example, would name their kid Manas, after the widely-worshipped national hero of Kyrgyzstan, because it was too likely the kid would get sick and die. If a kid did get sick, the parents would take him here and ask the mullah for a name-change. He would say a prayer and grant him a new name. They still might call the kid Manas, but before the eyes of god he was somebody else.

After ten minutes of this waiting-room whispering, we were ushered in to the office of the imam. He shook my hand and offered me a seat, genuinely pleased to see a foreigner. We told him my story – how I lived down the street, how I heard the call, how I wanted to meet the singer. He nodded and told us it was possible. Then, without prompting, he went into a sermon, just like Suleiman. “Islam is the religion of brotherhood,” he said, “the religion of Allah. The religion of kindness. The religion of pureness and harmony” I would nod and he would say “Ahhh”  with understanding, like he was having a revelation, and then move on to his next point.  He was a charismatic guy, and would use my name frequently like I was an old friend. “Islam is the religion of freedom, Dennis. You can believe in it or not. It is up to you.”

We asked him to tell us more about the call to prayer. It was sung by a man called a mu’addin, or muezzin. Five times a day he would sing out in Arabic, for the first man to make the call called it this way. God is great, he would say, and I am the witness to his greatness. Muhammad is the last messenger of god. Come to prayer.  Come to worship. “Why?” the Imam asked rhetorically. “In the Quran, it says praying keeps you away from sin. Come to happiness.”

The imam could only lecture for so long. He was a busy man, so he passed us off to another mullah. Genjebek led us into a long hall coated in carpets, and we sat down with legs crossed to continue our dialogue. The call to prayer, he told us, is called azan. There are five prayers a day, and each one is set to a certain time, determined with precision with a calendrical chart. The first one is in the darkness of the morning, the second one at midday, when the sun is at its highest point; the third prayer is in the evening, when your shadow is twice your height, and the fourth one is at the redness of sunset. The last prayer is an hour and a half later, in the darkness of night. The morning prayer is said with the first rays of dawn, and it is most favored by Allah, for only the faithful wake for him from their sleeping. Only the morning azan has a special addendum: “Prayer is better than sleep.”

The first man to shout the azan, Genjebek told us, was an African man named Bilal, a companion of Muhammad’s. He sang it loudly and beautifully, but the others in the neighborhood were jealous. If he could do it, why couldn’t they? So one man rose early one day for the first azan and shouted into the blackness of the morning. He shouted and shouted, but the sun refused to rise. Only after Bilal took to the minaret and sang the call himself would the sun come out of hiding. Bilal is since remembered as the godfather of all muezzins, the patron saint of prayer calling.

The mullah continued, racking his brain for muezzin mythology. On Judgment Day, he said, the necks of the world’s muezzins will grow long, so that they are taller than all the rest. It is their neck, he seemed to be saying, that symbolizes their greatness, for it is from this neck that comes forth the highest praises of god.  And on this day, he went on, anybody in the vicinity of their call will be safe from marauding demons. The circumference of the song would provide a safe haven, a blessed space in the hands of god.

I asked Genjebek how he learned to sing the call, but he shrugged off my question like I was asking how he learned to speak. If you know how to say a prayer, he said, you know how to sing azan. The call is melodically complex and the shifting melisma would seem to make it technically difficult. Yet our mullah disagreed – “it’s not a difficult thing.” Something was inside him that gave him the voice of Bilal, some sort of divine inspiration that leant his voice beauty. There were nine other mullahs at the mosque who served as muezzins, and they switched off every several days. They had all learned at madrassah, along with scripture and so forth. It was simply part of basic training.

Genjebek told us the azan for the afternoon prayer would be called in an hour, so we took off for lunch and came back a bit early, eager to see it sung up close. While we waited, we watched as the mullahs did their other duties, seeing visitors and reading them prayers with bizarre intensity. They would chant the Arabic in a soulful drone and split up the verses with forceful whistles, blowing the good grace of the Quran, I guess, onto the faces of their clients. It sounded like a Tourette’s tic, or like they were possessed. Another in the room seemed to be possessed by something more sinister. A pale-faced girl ran in circles and screamed, screamed that she was afraid of her mother. The mom had brought her here because her girl was sick, and she wouldn’t get better. It was clear the girl was mentally ill. She rocked back and forth and cried, coughing and spitting out the same forceful whistles, while the mullah calmed her softly with prayer. “Rakhmat,” she said, “Rakhmat.” She was saying thank you. Later, she ran uncontrollably around the courtyard with a frightening limp. Her mother was upset; the prayers hadn’t work. She grew impatient and whacked her demon-possessed daughter with her purse.

The scene was disturbing, but we were saved by the bell. The time for prayer had come. I had imagined us climbing the tall minaret and watching our muezzin sing out over the city, but the age of the manpowered call was history here.  Genjebek had told me they only did that when there was no electricity, for now they had loudspeakers. In the imams waiting room, Jaisan, the muezzin for the day, opened up a box on the wall and took out a microphone. He turned towards Mecca, which meant he faced a couch and a wall. Besides us, this would be his immediate audience. With the start of the azan, though, his voice rang out over blocks and blocks. Hundreds of ears would hear his call. A true Muslim, he had told us, would stop anything they were doing and listen. Then they would come, and they would pray.

Jaisan had prison tattoos on his fingers, and he sang like a wounded soul. His eyes were closed and he had a finger in his ear, so he could hear his throat hum in his head. The call sounded more sincere, more real, without the loudspeakers’ reverb. This is how it would sound when Bilal sang it, just the man and his voice and his testament. I didn’t believe in Jaisan’s god, or in his words, but I believed in the power of his voice. God is great, he sang, come to prayer. Come to worship. He sang, and it was beautiful, and they came.

Jaisan’s Azan (click to listen)

 

Allahu Akbar

Ash-had an la ilaha illa llah

Ash-hadu anna Muħammadan rasulullah

Hayya ‘ala-salahh

Hayya ‘ala ‘l-falah

Allāhu akbar

La ilaha illallah

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