New Internationalist

The soaring call

Issue 432

Maria Golia recalls a transcendent moment amid the clamour of Cairo.

The Islamic call to prayer sounds five times per day; in Cairo it is invasively loud and often poorly delivered by an amateur muezzin. Between microphone feedback and much unseemly coughing and throat clearing, the prayer is rarely the hearkening to higher realms it was meant to be. I am convinced that most Cairenes are at least partially deaf. There’s no other explanation for the acceptable decibel levels around here, which rival those of a heavy metal rock concert. I’ve come to terms with the prayer in various ways, taking the opportunity it offers to alter my train of thought, leave my desk and stretch, even go to the window and listen sometimes, wondering how such a screeching clamour might be construed as a sacred call. When that doesn’t work, I use ear plugs. Yet I still remember my early days in Cairo, when I found the prayer enchanting and the city’s noise so inspiring that I often sought it out.

I was a regular attendee of mulids. The burial places of those considered close to god are the focus for these celebrations, which last several days, attracting droves of pilgrims and locals. Far from grave, mulids unleash a bacchanalian abandon reminiscent of the pagan festivals of yore. The nights are spent in virtuous revelry, the days in a kind of divine hangover. With their riotous lights, deafening music, clusters of swaying trance dancers, snake handlers, shooting galleries and kiddie rides, the mulids attract millions who have practically no other opportunity for community entertainment. They’re New Year’s Eve, birthdays and anniversaries all rolled into one.

Each mulid has its flavour, depending on the location and the attributes of the personage they celebrate. But most bear traces of ancient traditions: fertility rites, proofs of manhood (sharp-shooting, weightlifting), fetishist supplications for the intervention of the higher powers. Whether or not the prayers are answered, mulids provide a much-needed outlet for suppressed energies. Both Christians and Muslims have mulids, but Islam officially frowns upon them, as does the state, whose martial law forbids large public gatherings of any kind. No-one, however, can stop the mulids.

I haven’t been to one in a while, because the human crush has become so great, and the music so insanely amplified, as to turn what was once enchantment into agony. But I’ll never forget a mulid where the main attraction was a kind of Qur’an-chanting marathon that took place in a large multicoloured tapestried tent. Around a dozen muezzins took part, and the tent and its surrounding area were crowded with an avid public. Islam objects to the idea of ‘singing’ the Qur’an, but the melodic recitations can nonetheless be exquisitely musical. A mood of expectancy gathered as the moment came for the prodigy of the hour, Sheikh X, to sing. Finally, it was his turn. Silence fell, or at least as close to silence as you can get in Cairo at a mulid, and he began.

The crowd was rapt, and with good reason. Sheikh X wrapped his sinuous voice around a verse and sent it soaring, diving and spinning. The crowd breathlessly waited for him to bring his airborne phrase in for a landing. The other sheikhs shouted, ‘Do it like this!’ calling out harmonic suggestions while Sheikh X and his vocal arabesque hovered somewhere in outer-space. When he finally chose his flight pattern and the phrase touched down, everyone went wild, shouting ‘God is Great’ and ‘ya salam’, which is an Arabic equivalent for ‘wow!’ One of the other sheikhs, a blind man, cried out and his words rang high above the others: ‘O God Almighty, it’s a pity you all can see!’ And the entire crowd shouted agreement with his assertion that no-one could hear and enjoy what he heard as well as someone undistracted by sight.

Cairo, alas, once a feast for the senses, now seems mainly to assault them. Its chaotic streets are sometimes called ‘a mulid without a saint’, so agitated yet so melancholic, fraught with frustrated needs, desires and energies that are more and more frequently directed towards religion. People are everywhere praying; the marks on men’s foreheads from rubbing on the prayer mat are often as pronounced as an angry wound. Strange how such apparent fervour should bring so little relief, adding to rather than releasing the strain on individuals and their life in society. It’s as if god himself has stopped listening, or else for the moment gone someplace quieter to consider what he hath wrought.

Maria Golia is the author of the non-fiction Cairo, City of Sand and the recently released Photography and Egypt.

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