Tuesday, June 28, 2005

You know you've been in Syria too long if...

We leave Syria tomorrow. As we attempt to cope with the idea of returning to the land of emissions controls and awkward public transportation systems (America), my husband and I came up with a short list of “You Know You’ve Been in Syria Too Long If…”

You know you’ve been in Syria too long if…

…you plan the events of your day around when you will take a shower or do the dishes in order to heat up the hot water in time.
…you know what a VCD is, and you use them as a main source of entertainment.
…you’ve lost the motivation to read, even in English.
…you know just when to speak Arabic like a person from Shagur.
…you’ll never be satisfied with Jamba Juice again – it’s all about Damascus juice shops!
…you have become an expert at entering or exiting a service while it is still in motion.
…before you came, you were not a fan of the Bush administration, and now you are even less so; or, before you came, you were in favor of the Bush administration, and now are even more so.
…you can predict the exact moment in a conversation when the phrase “We love the American people, but we hate the American government” will come up.
…you know that those guys in suits standing along the side of the roads in Malki are packing heat. Bonus points if you’ve actually seen the gun underneath their suit coat (also bonus points if you have ever spotted a guard hidden in the foliage near the approach to the Presidential Palace).
…you get excited when an American movie debuts at the Cham within 3 months of its US release date.
…you a) feel bad for not being married to your girl/boyfriend, b) want to find someone to get married to, or c) feel bad for not having children and find yourself wanting to.
…during the summer, you subconsciously scowl when you see a gas-guzzling Suburban on the streets of Damascus bearing a Saudi license plate.
…you’ve come to appreciate the beauty of those rolling fields in the countryside dotted with black plastic bags.
…(on long distance buses): don’t mess with the assistant driver. Enough said.
…you expect things not to turn out as planned.
…you no longer flinch at the sound of loud explosions.
…you curse yourself for trying to get public transportation on a Thursday or a Saturday night.
…you’ve accepted that quality bookshops are a thing of the past.
…you’ve learned to drive while successfully seeing past various dashboard and windshield obstructions such as large, fake bunches of grapes or full-size hanging stuffed animals.
…you wave on a decrepit-looking taxi in hopes that one with a less sunken-in back seat will come by.
…you find yourself getting the same total amount of sleep, but in shifts from 2am-8am and then 3pm-5pm.
…you don’t go to bed until the neighbors do.
…you purchase fruit from a horse-drawn cart.
…you get really excited when your dial-up connection actually achieves a 50.6 Kbps speed.
…you don’t really notice that there are men around you holding hands or interlocking arms.
…you’re a man and you know the feeling of being kissed on the cheek by an Arab with a 5-o’clock shadow and scratched by the beard stubble (my husband finally understands what it’s like!).
…the names Nancy, Ruby, Haifa, and Elissa have taken on new meaning for you.
…you’ve learned not to call policemen “ustaaz.”
…you find yourself watching BBC for entertainment, or, if you are a man, Oprah/Buffy/Angel.
…you can singlehandedly work out everyone’s change on a service before handing it over to the driver.
…you find yourself hoarding small change.
…when haggling at the market, you find yourself arguing over 5 lira.
…you no longer notice the hoarse shouts of the sundry salesmen who hawk their wares outside your apartment. Bonus is if you actually understand what they’re saying.
…you have finally learned how to sleep through the pre-dawn call to prayer (we’re still working on that one).

And finally, you know you’ve been in Syria too long if you’ve become a nicer person (the friendliness of the population having rubbed off on you).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Our friendly neighborhood grocer

Walking home up Sheikh Saad this evening, we ran into our neighborhood grocer, Abu-Fahad. For a moment or two, I didn't recognize him out of context, but fortunately we recalled in time to say hello. After he passed, I realized that I had never once seen his entire body. What I mean is, I've never seen him out from behind the grocery counter. I had no idea if he was fat, skinny, or even short or tall, really. He has always been 3/4 covered up by the sales counter.

The grocery store he runs is amazing. It's about the size of a walk-in closet, if even. It certainly isn't even as big as a 7-11 or other convenience store in the US. And yet, he has everything. If you don't see it, ask for it, and he'll rummage around in the back or under the counter until he finds it. He also is quick to pick up on his customers' tastes. When we first moved in, he only carried certain kinds of crackers and candy bars. I don't know if he went through our trash or what, but gradually, he started carrying the kinds of snacks we liked. He also has learned to stock up on fresh milk - he used to run out all the time, but now he must have upped his order to accommodate our milk-drinking habits.

Sure, he doesn’t necessarily have a wide variety of brands – there’s usually only one kind of each product. But that means less indecision for us. In the US, trying to decide which kind of yogurt to buy can become a complicated ordeal when you have to choose between no-fat, low-fat, normal fat, light, low-carb, sugar-free, creamy, custard-style, drinkable, fruit-at-the-bottom, pre-stirred, extra calcium, 4 oz., 6 oz., 8 oz., etc. And that’s just within a certain brand, and besides the flavor. I think I’m happy to let Abu-Fahad make those kinds of decisions for me.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Unattended street kiosk?

My husband took this picture outside the gates of Kuliat al-Adab (the College of Literature) at the University of Damascus. At first glance, it might look like the vendor has left his wares unattended, but look closer. There's actually a young boy handling the booth. This is very common in Syria - if Dad wants a lunch break, he'll often put Junior in charge for an hour or two. Sometimes, "Junior" is very, very young (we've seen kids as young as four or five making complicated transactions with customers involving multiple items, change, etc. One even had been trained to ask for smaller change!).

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Cold showers in a do-it-yourself country

Just a few of the bells and whistles that keep our apartment running smoothly...usually.

We ran out of mazzot on Saturday, so it’s cold showers from here on out. Mazzot is the fuel used to heat up water in your house. If you have a radiator heating system, it’s also used to heat the water that runs through the radiators. Rather than being an integral part of your apartment’s utility system, mazzot is usually stored in a separate tank on your roof, and you have to fill it up manually. That is to say, you call a guy and he fills it up manually. Tanks vary in size and the length of time the fuel lasts depends on how much you use it – you turn on the system by flipping a switch in your apartment. The more often you have that switch on, the faster the fuel will run out.

So we’re back to cold showers again. When we got here last summer, the mazzot tank in our apartment was empty. We didn’t bother filling it up yet since it was so hot. To give you an idea of how hot it was, let me explain that I am by no means a “cold shower” person. In fact, I am one of the most “hot shower” people I know. So for cold showers to be acceptable to me, of all people, should tell you how hot it gets here. When autumn finally came, we broke down and filled up the mazzot tank. I can still remember experiencing the miracle of hot water coming from a tap for the first time last September.

All of this has reminded me of something I quickly learned about Syria. The first thing I learned about Syria is that everything is a surprise. But the second thing I learned is that this is very much a do-it-yourself country: some assembly may be required. For example, in Syria

…elevators are rare. If a building has less than four or five floors, there is usually not an elevator. Do it yourself and walk up the stairs! Take our building, for example: we live on the fourth floor (it’s the top floor). Thus, there is no elevator. Believe me, I’m having more and more fun heaving my pregnant self up four flights of stairs in the increasing summer heat. It’s enough to not want to leave the house :).

…automatic clothes dryers are nonexistent. Do it yourself and hang up the laundry on a clothesline. In the summer, the clothes on one end of the line will probably be dry by the time you get to the other end. I don’t think the electrical system in this country could handle automatic dryers, anyway.

…door-to-door trash collection does not happen. Take your trash out yourself to the nearest dumpster. Sometimes the dumpster is located conveniently on a nearby street corner. Other times, it disappears for weeks and you’re stuck hauling your garbage half a mile down the street. And you can forget about recycling. If you cringe every time you throw a water bottle away, the best you can do is take it yourself to a local street salesman – you know, the one who took you aside one day and told you he’d like you to bring him all your used bottles (they can turn them in for money).

…there is no door-to-door mail service. Granted, letters sometimes manage to make it to a residential destination, having been wedged in the crack of your door during your absence, but this is a rare exception. If you want to receive mail, you get a post office box, and go there yourself to pick it up. The same routine applies for sending out mail. (I wouldn’t mention this except that our friends in America never quite believe us when we tell them we don’t have an address. Really, we don’t.)

…a hot shower or hot water to do your dishes has to be a premeditated act. As I mentioned already, hot water has to be heated in advance by flipping a switch in your apartment. If you think you might want a shower in an hour or so, you had better turn on the switch now or you’ll be left in the cold. Also, don’t forget to turn it off, or you’ll have wasted precious mazzot fuel (or find yourself doing miscellaneous chores that require hot water just to use what you’ve inadvertently heated up).

…central heating is a forgotten luxury. Your apartment probably has a radiator heating system. First, turn the lever that opens the pipes that lead to the radiator system. Then, open up each individual radiator in every room by turning the dial on the side. Finally, turn on the hot water. Repeat the process in reverse when you’re finished, or you’ll find that the unused spare bedroom is toasty warm while you’re freezing in the living room.

…you light the stove and oven by yourself. There’s no handy mechanism to do it for you automatically. Light a match, turn on the gas, gather up the courage to bring the lighted match close to where the gas is coming out, and a flame should jump up.

…pistachios don’t come salty and green. Rather, you buy them fresh and peel off their fleshy outer layer first. Then you come close to breaking your fingernails trying to open up the hard inner shell. The soft nut inside, although it tastes completely different from its sanitized American version, is still quite delicious. You can also get roasted pistachios from nut sellers, but they’re still not green.

…you manage your cell phone plan by yourself. There’s no automatic renewal of your month’s minutes – you do it yourself and recharge your plan before you run out of time. If you forget, you’ve lost any remaining minutes and maybe even your phone number.

…if you have a job, you can forget about mindless, automatic direct deposit every month. Instead, you fill out your own time sheet, turn it in by yourself, and then insist, if necessary, on getting paid.

…there is no medical insurance system here. In my personal opinion, this is one do-it-yourself that I really appreciate. Rather than deal with bureaucratic insurance companies and inflated prices, medical care in Syria is simply affordable. If you need to go to the doctor, you just go – there’s no waiting for approval or referral or authorization. Sure, you pay your own costs yourself, in cash, at the time of service, but it usually works out to be far cheaper than paying a hefty monthly premium.

…you monitor the status of your passport and visa by yourself. There are no helpful letters or reminders to tell you when you’re running out of time – you keep track of it by yourself. In fact, since every country in the Middle East insists on taking up a page-and-a-half in your passport for each entry and exit, you might run out of room. And when you do, or even when the passport official has to flip more than two or three pages to find a space, you can expect a scolding.

…it’s up to you to figure out which light switch does what. I firmly believe that there are at least three times as many light switches in existence in this country than there are uses for them. A couple of the rooms in our apartment have four or six light switches in them. Invariably, only one or two of them actually do anything. It’s always fun to watch guests come over and fumble through row after row of light switches, just trying to find the one that turns on the light in the bathroom.

…refrigerators often don’t regulate their own temperature very well. We are constantly having to manually adjust the temperature setting on our refrigerator and freezer, and it’s still never quite right. One night, everything in the fridge will freeze, so we have to throw out any ruined food and turn the temperature up. The next morning, we wake up and everything in the freezer is soggy and defrosted. Sigh.

…there are no garbage disposals. Surprisingly, this is one of the things that I miss the most. Scooping soggy handfuls of icky potato peelings or pan scrapings from the kitchen sink drain every day can become more of an annoyance than you think. I miss being able to just shove everything down the drain, flip a switch, and not worry about it.

The good thing about living in a do-it-yourself country is that it builds character. It also builds an appreciation for the many modern conveniences we do have.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A few of our favorite things - Syrian restaurant

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Restaurant

The non-restaurant part of Beit Wakil's courtyard

Unfortunately, our favorite restaurant is not located in Damascus. It’s in Aleppo, in the northern part of Syria. As I mentioned before, it’s just around the corner from our favorite hotel in Syria, Dar Zamaria Martini, down a quiet lane in the Al-Jdeide quarter of Aleppo.

The dining atmosphere is very authentic, and like every other hotel and restaurant in the area, it’s located in a beautifully restored 18th-century courtyard home. There’s a fountain in the center of the courtyard, draped with some kind of fragrant trees (lemon, maybe?). The food is the best Syria has to offer, with a few Aleppan specialties thrown in. Our favorites are the appetizers, of course, like hummus and muttable. They also have delicious roasted vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini. For a main dish, I love their shish tawouk. It’s highly seasoned and just burned enough for my taste. If it’s available, we order one of their specialties, eggplant kebab. There are so many flavors, colors, and textures in this dish that I can hardly begin to describe them. I’m not even a big fan of kebab, and I still love this dish. If that’s not available, Jeremy goes for their other specialty, cherry kebab. This is an Aleppan dish – kebab meat cooked in a deep red cherry sauce. Otherwise, you can always try their stuffed fried casings, which is basically a fancy way of saying seasoned lamb sausage. I’ve never had it, but Jeremy says it’s pretty good. At the end of all this, you’ll find yourself paying just a few dollars (probably around 5) per person. What more could you ask for?

Beit Wakil is also a boutique hotel similar to Dar Zamaria Martini, though we’ve never stayed there. They have a similarly gorgeous courtyard setting, but they’re not as willing to give discounts on the rooms.

A few of our favorite things - splurge hotel

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Hotel to Splurge On

When you’re traveling, hotels are usually just a place to rest for a few hours before you’re on the road again. But once in a while, a hotel can become an enjoyable part of the destination itself. Whenever we go to Aleppo (and are not just passing through quickly), we try to stay at our favorite hotel in Syria, Dar Zamaria Martini. It’s located in the beautifully serene Al-Jdeide quarter of Aleppo, in three converted 17th-century courtyard homes. The bustling cobblestone streets quiet down in the evenings and a night’s stay includes a delicious breakfast in one of the restored courtyards. Since we have a Syrian residency permit, we can stay at the hotel for half of the foreigner rate. But Jeremy is usually able to negotiate a significant discount on top of that price, so we end up paying $40 to stay in a unique four-star boutique hotel. The best part is that our favorite restaurant in Syria (Beit Wakil) is just around the corner, which means that staying at Dar Zamaria can end up becoming a wonderful vacation in and of itself.

Monday, June 13, 2005

A few of our favorite things - Crusader castle

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city (and country). There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus and elsewhere that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Crusader Castle

Syria is rich in ruined castles. The most famous one is probably Krak des Chevaliers, located on a beautiful plain between Homs and Tartus, within sight of the mountains of Lebanon. Our favorite, though, is Qala’at Salah ad-Din, just outside of Lattakia.

The ruins are not nearly as complete as Krak, but the crumbling stone walls and overgrown interior areas are evocative and romantic in their own way. Its location is also more dramatic: it’s perched on top of an “island” that rises dramatically from the surrounding forest and valley. The castle walls encircle the entire top of the ridge.

To get there, you have to take a taxi from the nearby village of Al-Haffa. The road winds down a steep ravine, crosses a small creek, and then winds all the way back up. Despite the elevation climb, there’s more to do: once you reach the parking lot, you still have to walk up a long, steep staircase to reach the entrance. The entrance fee is something like 15 lira for students (probably 150 for non-students). Then, like at all Syrian historical sites, you’re free to explore. No guides, no marked routes, very few signs, and no restrictions. This is a refreshing change from the American stay-behind-the-rope-and-observe-from-afar style of tourism, but it also means that you have to watch your step to make sure you’re not about to fall into an ancient well. The best view to the east is from the top of the keep. You can also look straight down the sides of the castle hill, which is dizzying.

On the other side of the ridge, the castle descends into an overgrown area that was once the residential area of the castle. Guide books claim that it is inaccessible, but we proved them wrong on a recent visit. From the lower, western part of the ridge, you can cut through the brush and find a rock outcropping to sit on and enjoy the view.

Syrian tourist sites are rarely busy, and Qala’at Salah ad-Din is no exception. Sometimes you’ll run into a school group or two, but they usually make their rounds fairly quickly and then the castle is left to you alone. Even if there are quite a few visitors there when you go, the grounds are big enough that it is still possible to lose yourself in some forgotten corner of the ruins. We’ve been there several times throughout the year; in my opinion, the best time to go is in late February or early March when the flowers are just beginning to bloom, the sun is shining but not hot, and crowds are nonexistent.

A few of our favorite things - clothing store

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

My Favorite Clothing Store

This is the store where I bought my first maternity clothes. The top floor is all maternity clothes; the bottom floor is their normal collection. The fashions cater to veiled women, which means that most of the clothes are very modest and comfortable. Everything is Syrian-made and the salesmen, although they are all male, are very nice.

The window display in this particular picture isn’t the best representation of their cutest clothes, but it’ll do. Alrez is located right next to Tutti Frutti (see juice shop entry) on Sheikh Saad. They also have a store inside of City Mall (Queen Center).

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A few of our favorite things - patisserie

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Patisserie (The Parfait)

When my husband came to Damascus for the first time, it was in the spring of 2001. He and the group of BYU students he was with stayed in a place called Medinat es-Shebaab, “Youth City.” It was a glorified hostel of sorts: 4 people to a room, breakfast served in a dingy canteen, and one phone line for the whole building (which made phone calls home to his girlfriend inconvenient, to say the least. I should remember – I was that girlfriend). After a few days, he got sick of eating boiled eggs and flatbread every morning for breakfast, and set out in search of something new. He found a place around the corner called Barfait – The Parfait in English.

It’s a patisserie, which is more than a bakery but less than a café. They sell all kinds of pastries, cakes, and ice cream, as well as sundry little delicacies whose names I don’t know. From then on, Jeremy ate croissants at the Barfait for breakfast. When we came back to Damascus 3 years later – together and married this time – he took me to this favorite old haunt. Many members of the staff were the same, and a few even remembered him from years before. Jeremy had already raved to me about their ice cream and pastries, and I quickly fell in love with them, too.

Our favorite thing to get is just a cup of ice cream: three scoops with whipped cream, or four scoops without, for 25 lira. They have tons of different kinds of ice cream and they’re all delicious. We usually end up getting some combination of chocolate, strawberry, lemon, and vanilla ice cream with chunks of cake in it. If we’re in the mood for a snack, we love their jibnes – it’s what we call their sesame rolls with melted cheese in the center. They also have delicious mini pizzas and croissants with various fillings. For special occasions, we like to order a two-flavor ice cream cake for 500 lira. The chocolate and strawberry version is heavenly, and serves a lot of people (while still leaving enough leftovers for Jeremy and me to enjoy the next day).

If you’re in Damascus for any length of time, you simply must go to Barfait. It’s a prime example of a bustling, Syrian-owned business with excellent, friendly service and high quality goods. Their clientele is very mixed – you’ll see anyone from normal Syrian families out for a treat to fashionably dressed women picking up elaborate party trays. Of course, there is no real address for me to give you, but I can tell you that it is located down the street from (to the east) the United Colors of Benetton store in Mezze Sharqie. It’s pretty famous, so if you ask anyone in the area, they should know where it is.

A few of our favorite things - juice shop

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Juice Shop (Tutti Frutti)

One of our first days in Damascus, we set out to explore our neighborhood. As we made our way down the street, we noticed two other foreigners walking around. They were from Holland, I think, working here in Damascus. They pointed out to us this juice shop, and said it was the best juice shop in Damascus. We never saw them again, but we are eternally grateful to them for showing us Tutti Frutti, which has since become our favorite juice shop. Their juice and smoothies are so good that I can hardly stand to patronize any other shop in the city. The first time we went in, we took a picture of the menu to take home and study (there are some funky fruits available here that we weren’t familiar with). Our favorite things to order are a milk/banana/strawberry smoothie (40 lira), a milk/banana/Nutella smoothie (35 lira), or just plain, fresh-squeezed orange juice (35 lira). If it’s a special occasion, we sometimes order one of the most expensive things on the menu (and split it): a gigantic glass of blended milk, banana, and Nutella, with chopped pistachios, sliced bananas, and Kit Kat chunks distributed throughout (75 lira). They also have plenty of other elaborate fruit salad/smoothie creations that we have yet to try. I keep intending to order something new each time we go, but I just can’t pass up the old favorites.

Tutti Frutti is one of the places that I’m going to miss the most when we leave Damascus. The closest thing that we have to a juice shop in the US is a place called Jamba Juice. In reality, it doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as a Syrian juice shop. Besides, their sugar-loaded, fake, non-fresh smoothies cost 4 or 5 dollars each, and they aren’t nearly as tasty or healthful.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A few of our favorite things - produce stand

Having lived in Damascus for a year now, my husband and I have acquired quite a few “favorites” around the city. There are certain restaurants, patisseries, and shops in Damascus that have endeared themselves to us with their friendly workers, pleasant atmosphere, and top-notch products. Here are a few.

Our Favorite Fruit & Vegetable Stand

There are many fruit & vegetable sellers along Sheikh Saad, but somehow, we had the good fortune to stumble upon this particular one. It is by no means the closest one to our apartment – we actually walk past a few to get to it. But the vendors are so friendly and the produce such good quality that we have become loyal customers. By now, they all know us well and are happy to cater to our weird foreigner tastes (Broccoli? Yes, please. Unripe plums? No, thank you). With this produce stand, we never have to worry about them slipping us all the bruised apples or almost-rotten potatoes. Everything is always super fresh and super cheap. We can usually walk away from the stand having purchased a kilo or two each of potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and cucumbers for only a few dollars. And it’s always fun to try the fruits and vegetables that aren’t commonly available in America (at least not anywhere I’ve lived). Among my favorite Syrian specialties are pomegranates (the red ones), raw pistachios, mandarin oranges, mulberries, mangoes, and figs.

Monday, June 06, 2005


My husband brought home some new music the other day. He had heard her music playing on the radio in a taxi and asked the driver who the singer was. Her name is Grace Deeb. I’m not sure where she’s from (which Arab country). Usually, it’s a safe bet to guess either Egypt or Lebanon, but you never know. The CD that Jeremy bought has her singing almost entirely in Arabic, but a couple of her songs have English or French verses in them. And unlike the vast majority of other Arab pop singers, she usually sings in the Levantine dialect of Arabic, not Egyptian, which is refreshing.

In fact, that’s why I find myself really enjoying her music: it’s refreshing. Don’t get me wrong – I certainly like my share of Amr Diab or even occasional Elissa songs. But Grace Deeb’s music stretches beyond the cookie-cutter Arab pop rhythm and beat to offer something unique. I was excited to have discovered an Arab singer whose style fit my music tastes so well. Finally, here was someone who was really different…right?

I visited her website to find out more about this talented singer, whose music style led me to believe that she seemed to care little for the mainstream Arab pop world of garish eye makeup and a plastic surgery-perfect mouth. Sadly, what did I see on her website but…well, a heavily made-up face and an impossibly pouty smile.

Granted, it’s my fault for attributing characteristics and values to her that she never professed. Still, I had hoped, and I was disappointed. Her music is so different from everyone else’s – is it any wonder that I assumed she would be different, too?

I still enjoy her music immensely, but I’ve all but given up finding a modern Arab pop star whose style I love and who isn’t afraid of how they look when they first get up in the morning. I guess for now, I’ll have to settle for halfway.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Romance lost

There are few things that say “you’re in the Middle East” as well as the call to prayer. For those of you unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, here’s a hint: it’s that musical recitation issuing from the minaret that invariably figures prominently in the background of most any BBC or CNN report coming from Baghdad, Cairo, Istanbul, and all the other Middle Eastern capitals. (By the way, has anyone else ever noticed how often the call to prayer goes off during those reports? Judging solely from Western news coverage, you would think the call to prayer is going off all day long.)

There’s a reason the news channels like to feature this unique fixture of the Middle Eastern sound landscape. The call to prayer is at once an emotive, romantic element of the religion that dominates this part of the planet, as well as a commonplace event that takes place five times a day for the 1.4 billion Muslims around the world. The five calls to prayer each have their own name in Arabic and are timed to occur at certain phases of the sun’s journey during the day. They take place, roughly, just before dawn, at mid-morning, at mid-afternoon, in the early evening, and in the late evening.

Although the times for the call to prayer are standardized (roughly – it’s not uncommon for there to be a few-minute discrepancy between neighboring mosques), the style of the muezzin (the guy whose voice you hear) and the length of the call are not. For our first few nights in the city, my husband and I stayed in a well known backpacker hostel in the center of the city. The call to prayer coming from the mosque next door was absolutely gorgeous – it was everything I had imagined and hoped it would be: atmospheric, lyrical, haunting, and relatively undistorted by the originating speaker and amplifier.

When we moved to a permanent apartment, I eagerly awaited hearing the call to prayer that would become routine during our year-long stay in the country. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Our neighborhood mosque muezzin’s style left a lot to be desired, in my opinion. The problem was compounded by the fact that the speakers (or amplifiers, I can’t be sure which) on the mosque were of absolutely terrible quality, distorting the sound awfully. But oh well – it’s only five times a day, right?

Fast forward to the beginning of this year. For some reason, our local mosque changed their call to prayer. The muezzin was different now, but not really better or worse. One thing that had changed for the worse, though, was the pre-dawn call to prayer. For reasons that remain unexplained, the first prayer of the day was now being broadcast for 20 minutes instead of the usual 2 or 3. What’s more, they seemed to have downgraded the speaker quality (something I wouldn’t have thought was possible) and upped the volume considerably (to compensate, perhaps?). Something that we used to be able to sleep through, or at least only wake up briefly for, had now turned into a 20-minute intermission in our sleep cycle. It was so loud and began so abruptly and harshly that I often jolted awake, and earplugs or a pillow over the head were a useless defense.

Lest I offend, let me be absolutely clear about what I am not trying to say about Islam, Muslims, or the call to prayer. I am not trying to ridicule their religion, or this important part of it. I am not saying that they should not be allowed to broadcast the call to prayer, even before dawn. I am also not trying to make fun of our particular neighborhood mosque.

What I am trying to say is that the call to prayer could certainly be handled in a more reasonable manner that would preserve its vital religious function without becoming a nuisance to believers and non-believers alike. For example, is it really necessary for the pre-dawn prayer to go on for 20 minutes? Probably not, especially since ours is the only mosque I have ever heard of that does this. Should the prayer be broadcast so loudly that it is unreasonably audible, even when extreme efforts are made by an individual to block it out at four o’clock in the morning? Again, probably not. When the call to prayer is so loud, it interferes with neighboring mosques’ calls to prayer, producing an out-of-synch cacophony of sound that is hard on the ears. Finally – and I realize this is a huge generalization based on my limited observations only – it seems to me that such an extraordinary effort by our local mosque to rouse people from their beds before dawn to pray is perhaps not as effective as it could be.

The other night, the call to prayer came blasting over the loudspeaker as expected. Unbelievably, it was even louder than usual. The speaker quality had also deteriorated even further. There were large sections of the prayer that were completely unintelligible because of static distortion, and a loud clicking noise could be heard rattling away in the background. My husband had reached a breaking point. He said he was going to “see what was going on.” I wasn’t sure what he meant to accomplish – I’m still not sure – but he got dressed even as I tried to convince him that he was talking crazy (is there another kind of talk at 4am?). He went outside and walked to the mosque and observed…nothing. The call to prayer was just a little louder at its point of origin. Twenty minutes later, when it was over, he came back and we tried to go back to sleep. It’s not easy, when you’re fully awake for that long in the middle of the night.

I wish the muezzin didn’t sing for 20 minutes in the middle of my R.E.M. sleep cycle. I wish he would turn the volume down, and maybe get some new speakers. I wish his style were a bit more melodious. But most of all, I just wish the call to prayer could be something romantic again, something evocative of the Middle East, something that truly inspired respect and reverence for the religion of Islam in the hearts of us unbelievers.

PS – It turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way - there was an interesting article on the BBC about this issue in Cairo. Read the comments below the article and notice that everyone who claims a loud, lengthy wakeup call at 4am is OK with them also happens to be living in a non-Middle Eastern country where the call to prayer isn’t even broadcast.