Several times a day, I open our windows and listen as voices begin floating over the city. I look over the tops of apartment blocks and dusty buildings, over the many minarets and palm trees, and I visualize the calls to prayer. I imagine the voices as drops of water sprinkling over the city, spreading in little circles until they meet each other with soft bumps and then continue on, blending and flowing. The song sounds mystical to me, all words I don’t understand sung in dozens of different voices, different tones, different distances from me. Each of them from a single man in one of the graceful spires that shoot up across the skyline, claiming that part of the city for its own.
I have been in Cairo for two weeks now and despite the dire warnings of friends who had toured the city on brief vacations, there is a lot of beauty here. The city has been hard to get used to, with its heat, its dust, its crazy dogs that roam around, its honking cars and unstable drivers. I spent a good part of the first day here panicking and crying, unsure of what I committed myself to. I quickly adapted and let myself fall into the natural rhythm of one who is uprooted and replanted in strange soil. Anxiety gave way to starry-eyed romantic notions of souk markets and ancient land. The stars dimmed and a sense of optimistic reality has set in, occasionally interrupted by brief bouts of panic as small inconveniences pop up that I realize I will have to deal with for years.
Through this tumultuous experience, whether I am thrilled by what I have discovered at the market that morning or angry at feeling helpless in a foreign land, I have found an island of peace. Several times a day I hear those voices floating through the thick Cairo air and I open my window and sit. The peacefulness of prayer is a universal comfort, be it in my language or yours, in my faith or theirs.
The muezzin in the minaret calls the faithful to prayer by singing out eight repeated phrases stating faith, extolling prayer and welfare, praising Allah. All the muezzins are singing the same phrases in the same order, but each with his own intonations, the peaks and valleys of his words flowing like a river, crashing into and buoying up the songs of the other calls like a symphony in the sky.
Having been around Notre Dame for so long, I have heard many a bright-eyed Utahn or fresh Indiana missionary make a snide remark about vain repetitions and memorized prayer. True, I feel closer to my Lord when I speak to Him in my words. But I believe the Spirit lies not always in what is being said (memorized or not) or indeed, in the quantity of times it is repeated, but often in the meditation and peace that is felt when the mind focuses solely on becoming close to God.
Prayer is pervasive in everyday life here. I shop in the market and pass merchants who politely excuse themselves, unroll their green carpets, and kneel outside their shops. I meet men who have bruises on their foreheads from the frequency of touching their brow to the ground in humble prayer. While I ride in taxis during prayer time, the drivers have the radio tuned to the local muezzin’s voice. And even in the air-conditioned cocoon of my apartment, the call to prayer ignores the window panes between us and fills my home with peace.
This is the first in a series of reflections on the five pillars of Islam that one observes in everyday Cairo life. More on my adventures in Egypt can be found at State of D’Nile.