Friday, September 19, 2008

Scenario #11: Culturally Exotic

This is my 100th post! I feel momentous... and to celebrate I am writing this on a quiet Friday afternoon at a cafe overlooking Amman. The cafe is part of the Wild Jordan complex, which is dedicated to environmental awareness and conservation and healthy-ethical living in Jordan. I like it here. But anyway, on to the scenario.....

Since last night, I have been thinking about how to describe the call to prayer in words. Chances are, you have probably already heard at least snippets of the Adhan, the Islamic call to prayer. It makes good background music for videos about Islam and the Arab world, and if you're ever anywhere near a mosque at prayer time, you can't avoid it.

But what you might have missed was the piercing, almost painful, beauty of the sung Quranic recitation. It's always a man singing it, and the Qur'an sung well is chanted entirely using nasal tones. Quranic recitation is actually a science: people study for years and years to master the correct tones and beat count and pronunciation of the words. The idea is that God is in those words when recited properly. So when listening to the call to prayer, we should be listening to the perfect expression of God's words, which is highly poetic and precisely musical. If you think actually hearing it might describe it better than I can do using typed words, check out a youtube Adhan.

In Amman, I have especially enjoyed listening to the call to prayer because Amman is a city built on a series of hills. When standing at the top of one hill, I can see one or two or three other hills, each of which has several mosques perched on its terraces. And the call to prayer makes for an impressive musical round. One call starts from one mosque, then across the valley I hear another one start, then a little further away another, then a voice bursts out from the mosque right behind me. And the sound of each echoes off the other hills.

Yesterday, though, I heard a different version of the Adhan. I was with friends visiting their house in the village. It's about an hour north of Amman and has that feel of village innocence, isolation and harshness. Kids running around, women inviting us into their homes, men smoking cigarettes... So peaceful yet a bit frightening. As we were just about to leave town, yesterday, the call to prayer started. But this time it was sung by a boy probably about 12 years old. His voice had not yet finished changing, and I didn't get the impression he had attended as much Quranic recitation class as the big-city mosque muezzins generally attend. Many mosques actually use recordings these days instead of risking a less-than-perfect recitation. But not this mosque. That boy sung his heart out, shouting out the words of the Qur'an with a squeak in his voice, calling all the faithful in his village to pray, without concern for the imperfection of his pronunciation and tone.

It was the first time I'd heard such a realistic, down-to-earth Adhan. It occurred to me that this was as it should be, a boy singing the sacred words of his religion to call the faithful in his village to prayer. I was fascinated with what I must admit was the morbid enchantment of a tourist.

I was brought back to reality half an hour later when we were looking for a restaurant for dinner. Back on the highway into the city, we had several restaurants to choose from, each on the way and with similar menus. I suggested as a criteria that if any of those restaurants served food with rice, we go to that one. But Arabic restaurant food is rarely served with rice, so this proved to be a difficult criteria to fulfill.

We ended up at a lovely place filled with greenery and a light breeze... but no rice. They served rice earlier, but not at this time of the evening. Fair enough, we told the waiter. We'd happily eat our grilled meat and salads and dips with bread and no rice. But the waiter was fascinated by my obsession with rice. He apologised over and over for not having it.

Then, a few minutes after we'd ordered, he came up and asked if we would like him to go get some rice from his house. It was just behind the restaurant, he said. I felt bad and was inclined to say no, but he seemed sincere in his offer and in fact eager to please... and I really do like rice. So after a few moments' hesitation, we accepted. As he scurried off to procure the rice, it occurred to us that he and his wife were probably sharing a tourist moment themselves.

"Guess what?" his wife will be saying today to her neighbour. "Some foreigners came into my husband's restaurant last night at 8:30 p.m., right after the Iftar was over, and asked for food with rice! What strange people those foreigners are, eating dinner two hours after Iftar during Ramadan, and wanting rice at that hour! So my husband came and asked me if we had any extra rice from our Iftar. I was going to throw that rice out, but the foreigners wanted it! The crazy, rich foreigners ate our trash."

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