Monday, August 02, 2010

Postcard from the Fes Medina – The Call to Prayer

While in Fes for the Sacred Music Festival this past June, Jan Lebow, a regular reader of The View from Fez, penned this short essay about listening to the Call to Prayer in the predawn hours from the rooftop terrace of Riad Zamane where she was staying.  It was such a haunting experience that Jan wanted to share it with others.  Here it is:

On our next to last night in Fes, we made a pact that we would get up just before 4 am and ascend to the rooftop terrace of our riad in the medina in order to hear the Friday morning call to prayer in all its glory. That night, we had gone to listen to one of the Sufi brotherhoods sing their hypnotic chants in an outdoor garden bordered by citrus trees and tall cypresses.

Arriving back at our riad well after midnight, intoxicated with the power of the music and the smell of orange blossoms, and burning with a mysterious energy, a refrain from one of Rumi’s poems kept circling through my head as I lay in the darkness listening to my beloved’s soft breathing: “…Some nights, stay up till dawn, as the moon sometimes does for the sun…”

And so I did, waiting, filled with an inexplicable bliss, a strange and wild joy, spontaneous praises to the Divine pouring forth from my heart. Just before the alarm went off at 3:45 I quietly threw on my clothes and then woke William, who groggily donned the terry cloth bathrobe provided by the riad. Silently, we tiptoed through the house in the dark and climbed the two remaining flights of stairs to the rooftop terrace.

The sky was black and a light rain was falling. All was silent as we stood shivering in the darkness, looking out across the rooftops of the sleeping medina at the faint outlines of slender minarets and the handful of lights glittering from the distant hills. And then, at 4:01, it began. The blanket of quiet was pierced by a single phrase of song emanating from a nearby minaret’s loudspeaker. The muezzin’s voice was raspy but gentle as he crooned in Arabic the reminder that “It is better to pray than to sleep.” His imploring continued, echoing across the rooftops as his voice grew louder and his wailing more insistent. I stood transfixed, uncertain as to whether my goose-bumps were the result of the cold rain upon my skin or the haunting power of his call.

And then, a few minutes later, as he continued his recitations of how Allah was the greatest, the most merciful, the most compassionate, a second call to prayer issued from a mosque in a different quarter of the medina. This muezzin’s summons lacked the artistry of the first’s - he barked rather than sang -but the disembodied voice that reached out to us as from a ghost in the black and drizzly night was no less compelling.

The two muezzin’s invitations intertwined, as if they were arabesques of smoke curling up through the darkness. And then, somewhere in another part of the city, a third muezzin began his soulful song of the sacred. And then another, and another, until there were dozens, until so many voices were woven together that it became impossible to trace the individual threads and the whole thing became an intricate carpet that unfurled across the inky sky like holy thunder.

The peak of the cacophony lasted a full ten minutes. Then it started to taper off, just as gradually as the raindrops were now doing. William, who was thoroughly chilled by this point, signaled to me that he was going back to bed and headed down the stairs. I, too, was cold, but remained rooted to the spot. I gazed out upon the invisible and listened as, one by one, the voices melted back into the silence. The last muezzin left singing had the voice of an angel, pure and sweet. His notes drifted through the predawn darkness like a warm embrace and my coldness vanished. He sang for several minutes: I wanted him to sing forever.

Eventually, however, at 4:22 to be precise, the angel’s voice, too, evaporated into the ether and the blanket of stillness returned to the medina night. I stood there a few more minutes, the depth of the quiet now every bit as seductive as the sacred serenade that had preceded it. I drew the night in around me, breathed the air in as if it were incense. Somewhere, far off in the distance, a dog barked.

Somewhere down the street, a rooster crowed. I looked to the east but there was no softening sky, no sign of dawn. The rain had ceased. The dog stopped barking. The rooster grew still. I headed for the stairs, back to bed but not to sleep. “Some nights, stay up till dawn…”

Jan Zahler Lebow - Los Angeles, California, 2010.

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pema said...

Jan Lebow and her husband William were our frequent, spontaneous companions during the 2010 festival. We first met at the Turkish recital in the square next to the synagogue in the Mellah. From then onwards our encounters kept on happening -- deep in the densely crowded souks, dancing to the Bhaghdad Jews at the Batha and finally on the platform at the railway station. They were heading for Marrakesh, Chris, Vic and I for Tangier.Back home, Jan and I have exchanged emails and a photo of that exuberant dance beneath the Barbary Oak. These magical moments are what draw me back to Fes --irresistibly, year after year.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful essay. Thank you, Jan

Pascal said...

Perfect description. Merci!