9 November 2010, 7:57 am
When a northerly wind blows, and the roads are quiet and the atmospherics right, I can hear the athaan (call to prayer) from one of the mosques down the road in Salt River. And sometimes I can hear more than one. Out of sync with each other, two calls to prayer can produce either an eerie echo or, if the pitch of both are similar, a harmony. Having grown up Muslim, there is something about the drawn out Arabic phrases, something about its familiarity, that casts me, at once, into spells of nostalgia and melancholia. But hearing the call can also be estranging. In Paarl, where I grew up, the two mosques in use during most of my childhood and teenage years were the mosques of the old Muslim neighbourhood before the Group Areas Act. No Muslims lived in earshot of the mosques anymore, and I didn’t grow up hearing the call to prayer from my house. I heard it when I was at or inside the mosque.
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4 December 2008, 4:28 pm
The following are two excerpts from “The Muezzin and I”, forthcoming in a collection of essays, Kitaab of the World: Writing Islam in South Africa, edited by Gabeba Baderoon and Louise Green.
The piece is written in the form of an autobiographical lexicon and entries range from the earnest to the quirky. It has no pretensions towards the encyclopedic and is based rather on the fragmentary, the idiosyncratic, the half-assimilated and half-understood. Some are purely autobiographical, others are about versions (South African, Paarl’s, my father’s) of the Islamic.
The male voice in Islam finds its apotheosis in the muezzin (mu’atthin, also bilal) – the person who performs the call to prayer and who interacts in a loose call-and-response format with the imam during Friday’s sermon – or in recognised recitors who have turned recitation from the Quran into an art form by following a set of rules both aesthetic and spiritual, and known as Tajwid. One such legend was Abdul Basit (1927-1988), an Egyptian who had apparently memorised the Quran by age ten. Basit made recordings of his work commercially available, and he garnered a huge following, pulling large crowds at recitals. Video recordings of his work may now even be found on the web.
While there were several muezzins in my hometown, one of them had a sublime voice which could draw tears from the men in mosque. He was a lanky, gentle, and unassuming man, often dressed in a light blue robe, which complemented eyes that were either light grey or light blue. Quiet, and a loner not typically drawn to stand and chat and joke in groups outside the mosque after evening prayers in Ramadan, he had the manner of an ascetic. Read the rest of this entry »