Tuesday, February 9, 2016

1993: The Call to Prayer

As some of you know, I've been working on transcribing my old journals and putting them online. I'm now working on the period when I was in the Peace Corps in Morocco, and I came across this entry, from Feb. 1, 1993. The backstory is, I was in the process of recording a tape to send home, and I'd wanted to record the call to prayer, which rang out five times a day from the local mosque.


It's now 6:45 a.m. and I've been up for four hours. I woke up at 2:45 or so and I couldn't go back to sleep. So I figured I'd put my time to good use -- I pulled on two sweaters and my djalleba, my jacket and my hat, and popped Mom and JM's tape in the deck, and I went and sat outside the mosque to catch the dawn call to prayer. I went out about 4:15 or so -- I really had no idea when it went off. Naturally, I was WAY early -- the mosque's lights were off and the city was dead silent. It was so quiet that I could occasionally hear a door close or water running in one of the adjacent houses! But I sat down on a cold piece of sheet metal against a wall and waited to see what would happen.

At first, things were really slow and there were literally no sounds. But then Ait Baha slowly began to come to life -- roosters began crowing, one or two people shuffled past in the dark, a car passed on the main road. At one point, a fat man in a djalleba squatted along one of the souk walls, in the shadow of the streetlight, and took a dump. (That made me think about where I was sitting -- against that wall -- ugh!) Then an older man climbed slowly up the steps of the mosque, rattled some keys, and opened the huge wooden door. He said "bismillah" -- I heard him from where I sat! -- and stepped inside, switching on the lights and illuminating the colored glass windows.

For a while nothing happened. Another old man went into the mosque, another car passed on the road. Then, suddenly, the streetlights went out, as they always do before daybreak. The sky was brilliant with stars, the minaret was silhouetted against them, and the only light shone through the colored mosque windows. There was a faint glow on the horizon -- the lights of Agadir -- and purplish clouds drifted against the starlit sky. It was beautiful.

By this time it was nearly 5:30 a.m., and though I was enjoying myself, I was also cold. I was beginning to think there would be no call to prayer. Was I certain it went off every morning? Surely the imam doesn't have Mondays off?

Then I heard a low electronic hum, as the sound system came on, and two bright lights atop the minaret flashed on brilliantly. The song began.

It was beautiful and musical -- just what I wanted! As I was recording, a big truck pulled up to a nearby apartment building and the driver revved his engine and honked the horn. I was sort of annoyed, but amused too -- it would add to the atmosphere of the tape.

After a few minutes, the song ended. I trudged home, felt my way up the dark staircase and climbed into bed. I listened to the tape, and I was pleased.

Then a weird thing happened. I heard the standard prayer call: "Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!" So now I'm left to wonder what I recorded -- was it a sort of pre-dawn song, but not the call to prayer? Or was "Allahu akbar" the signal to conclude early morning prayers? I don't know. I have to figure that out. 

But either way, I'm pleased. What I recorded was far more beautiful than the repetitive cry of "Allahu akbar." And the mystery of its purpose makes it all the more alluring.

Lying in bed, listening to that standard prayer call, I was tempted to listen to the tape again, just to be sure I didn't dream that earlier song -- to be sure my memory of its music, echoing in the cold starlit dawn, was not simply a product of my imagination.


And now, thanks to my tinkering with iMovie and a digitized version of the cassette I recorded for my family, here's the call to prayer as I heard it. It's not the best audio quality, but it IS from a cassette recorded 23 years ago, and it gets slightly better as it goes. You can even hear the truck driver revving his engine and honking his horn.

Isn't technology amazing? I love that I can pull this moment forward in time and share it on the web.

(Photos: Top, my town, Ait Baha, as it looked in 1993. You can see the mosque's minaret to the right. Photos on the video include the mosque doorway and random pictures in and around the town.)


  1. I'm up early today and this was a beginning to my own day.
    Fascinating, Steve. Thanks!

  2. really interesting stuff. love the descriptions in the journal post. it's incredible what technology can do AND crazy that the tapes were still around for you to digitize them. thanks for sharing!

  3. You were living in a completely different world, weren't you?
    How amazing. Was your love of travel already in place then or did this time put it there?

  4. Journals are amazing. I kept a brief journal for ten years. I wish I'd continued with my journal. Since you did a journal entry you still have a detailed event in your life.

  5. So, did you ever find out if the song was the call to prayer or the repeated Allahu Akbar?

  6. That is genius! Thank you, I can very nearly feel the air that is there, taste the hot bread and chickpeas,while wearing a fig necklace on the overly crowded smelly bus-an orange peel under my nose! I was there only for four weeks in the 80's, horrified at the treatment of girls and dogs and the pooping men, but loved every minute. Lived on 80 cents a day including Hotel!A bit rough.
    Not sure I would go back . Your piece is wonderful, Steve. Clever you!Thanks again for posting!

  7. Technology IS amazing - very, very cool!

  8. Ellen: There are two morning calls, apparently. One is called the Adhan, which is meant to get people out of bed to come to the mosque, and it is delivered in a musical fashion -- that was this one, I think. Then there's a second call, the Iqama, which is addressed to people already in the mosque and is done in more of a monotone. I think that's what I heard after I'd gone back to bed.


  9. This is beautiful. Thank you! It brings back memories when I arrived at 4 am at Izmir airport and stepping out into the early morning, this or something like it was greeting me.

  10. Gorgeous that you shared that!

  11. I started playing the video & Mike said, "Call to prayer." He's shown a number of documentaries about Islam over the years :)