Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Muezzin


Most people go to Egypt to see the pyramids, but I go for the pleasure of sitting at a café in Khan al Khalili where Naguib Mahfouz wrote his intricate, Nobel-winning novels about ordinary life in Cairo.  I don't go there to start smoking again, or to become versed in Middle Eastern politics, or to find a husband, but in the end, I do all those things, and I see the pyramids.

          Before anything else, I wake up on my first night in Cairo, on the 18th floor of the Ramses Hilton, with my heart pounding.  Someone is, very gently, pleading for his life.  I open the doors of my balcony, beneath which the dark, crumbling city is barely outlined between night and day, and hear the call to prayer coming from every direction.  I had read about it, but this is the first time I actually hear it. The sound drives me to my knees, as it should, but what I hear is a masculine echo of my own, unacknowledged longing. Longing for what, exactly? I can only answer with tears and go back to bed.  

          The next morning, our tour guide takes us to the pyramids and the faceless sphinx. Tourists pay to have their photos taken on camels.  Photos of the pyramids have to be carefully cropped to exclude the encroachment of Giza, a modern suburb of Cairo, on the only surviving wonder of the ancient world.

          We crouch to enter a tunnel into the second pyramid. Some of us clutch a handrail because the tunnel enters the earth almost vertically, but I'm in the middle, propelled by the crush of tourists.  The tunnel narrows with each step till we are forced to form a single line leading to the dimly lit junction of several corridors. From hardly more more than a crawl space, we peer into a chamber that is lit with a fluorescent bulb and staged, behind glass, with bejeweled artifacts. We are instructed that these hot, airless tunnels were designed to lead marauders through a maze away from the buried treasure and that the real tomb was deep down and virtually inaccessible. When we are told to turn back I feel sick.  I also claim the distinction of vomiting at the pyramids.

          My tour guide apologizes.  His eyes are round and gentle, soulful as one of the Fayoum portraits hanging in the Egyptian Museum.  He has me sit in an area of hot, stony shade and buys me a bottle of Baraka.  He says, "Tonight, if you let me, I show you a Cairo tourists never see.  I show you the real Cairo, if you want.  Don't be scared." 


The Islamic Society of Central New Jersey is on the southbound side of Route 1, across from Best Buy and Target.  Every weekend after the prayers, when the weather is good, the mosque has an outdoor market where vendors set up their merchandise on long folding tables in the parking lot.  I'm eight months' pregnant with my first child and happy to be out in the sun, eating falafel and scanning the tables while my husband speaks Arabic with the men.

          After I buy a big jar of grape leaves and a bag of fresh pita bread, I spot something I've never seen before among the Qurans and cassettes: a bright-plastic miniature mosque with an empty window, flanked by two minarets and topped with a yellow crescent moon.  I ask a man behind the table what it is and he points to his wrist, so I tell him the time.  He shakes his head, opens his hands beside his ears and bends, as if he's praying.

          "It's a prayer clock," a kid with a Mohawk and an eyebrow piercing tells me. "It's so you always know when to pray. The one my parents use has a recording of the muezzin in Mecca, the guy everyone hears when they make the haj."

          "You mean, like a cuckoo clock that goes off five times a day?"

          "Yeah, I guess."

          I consider buying it as gag gift; I have a friend who collects kitsch specimens and I'm sure she's never seen anything like it. She could display it between the yarmulke and tallis for dogs and her glow-in-the-dark plastic rosary.

         Before we leave, I decide to show my husband the clock.  He shrugs his shoulders, but he doesn't laugh.

         "It's a clock," I laugh. I whisper, "Have you ever seen anything so crazy? Who do you think buys this junk?"

          He looks at me with those Fayoum eyes and pulls his wallet out of his back pocket.  He tells the man at the table to keep the change and he walks away from me with the clock under his arm.  In the car, he says only, "Don't ever let me hear you talk like that again."

          The clock becomes a permanent feature of our living room. At first, I pretend it doesn't bother me.  After all, I barely notice its cartoonish presence on a shelf that's already crowded with books.  Naguib Mahfouz might have met Walt Disney, I tell myself. We're just eclectic.

          But why does it wake only me and the baby at 5 a.m.? My husband tells me he doesn't hear it.  Instead of lowering the volume, he asks why it is that I'm disturbed and he isn't. What is the deeper meaning? When he's at work, I turn down the volume, but the next morning the call to prayer is even louder than before. Arabic is read from right to left, so I wonder if the direction of the dials is reversed and twist it the other way, but it's still too loud.

          One day, my husband notices that he hasn't heard the call to prayer for several days.

          "Why did you turn it off?"


          "Why don't I hear Allahu Akbar anymore? This is important for our child to hear every day. I am Muslim, our son is Muslim—you know this. You can't just change your mind."

          "I'm not changing my mind. I always tell you that clock is crazy. I don't know what happened, but I'm not to blame."

          "I don't blame you, I just hold you to your word." He turns the dial and the sound blares again until, eventually, the batteries start to wear out.  The plaintive cry sounds at random, punctuated by hiccups, and then a single phrase is repeated incessantly till one of us whacks the clock against the shelf.

          In the middle of the night, when the muezzin's sweet tenor slides into an incomprehensibly low, drawn-out basso profondo, our son howls with night terrors.  My red-eyed, wild-haired husband pulls out the batteries, and I privately savor my victory.  But after only a day or two of silence, he brings home fresh batteries.

          While the clock is not an especially reliable timepiece, it's an accurate measure of all the disappointments in our marriage, ticking off each resentment.  The clock keeps score and, predictably, I'm always the loser, taunted by its mocking entreaty.

          Many years later, when we negotiate our divorce contract, one of my husband's few demands is that I maintain the prayer clock.  Although I refuse to put it in writing, I agree to his terms.  He leaves; the clock stays.


As I approach the midpoint of my life, I find myself stuck at the top of an enormous Ferris wheel in Wildwood, New Jersey. I'm there for a reunion with some of my closest high school friends, who've come back to our home state with their children and spouses for a week at the beach.

          I’m pausing at the apex, dangling in midair from a big bucket, sitting beside my kitsch-collecting friend. My kids sit across from us, looking away, bored or dreamy or, most likely, on the verge of whining. The Ferris wheel is my only ride because I’m scared of everything else and now I tell myself there’s no reason to panic. What’s the rush?

          It’s remarkably quiet up here in the dull afternoon sky. On one side, far below me, tiny people scramble about on the sand or scurry to the boardwalk, unaware of my godlike eye. On the other side, the wholeness and immensity of the ocean is fearsome and dizzying. Wave after wave proceeds to the shore like a signal that's not understood. I look at the sky instead. 

          Something silver shimmers in the air far away. It comes and goes, catching the dying sunlight and fluttering, sometimes like a beckoning apparition and at other times like a scarf tossed to wave good-bye. Our bucket sways slightly, though the air is still, and I hear the call again. I long to obey and drop to my knees, to fall, head first, and surrender. Before I have a chance to wonder if anyone else has noticed, my friend takes my hand.

          “Look," she says, "seagulls.” With her free hand, she points to where they glimmer. When I recognize the demanding, yearning, particular grief of the gulls' cries the wheel starts to turn again. I wish I could hold it back, but it keeps turning, away from the treasured moment.


  1. Just read this beautiful, atmospheric piece bringing back so many memories of my own time in Cairo. Is this going to develop into something longer & larger? I would love it if it did. The writing is so tender...normally I hardly have time to read anything by others because...well...because I am working flat out myself, because unless a blog catches me instantly I move on...but these posts capture so completely a feeling of the fleeting moments we all have. reminds me of a modern day Chekhov!

  2. I'm speechless. You are so kind to encourage me--Chekhov!--and to take the time to read my stuff and actually write to me. I have absolutely no idea how to expand this piece but, by God, I'll try to figure it out!

    I can't wait to read your next book. You must already know that you're one of my favorite writers...and one of my heroes, as well.

    Thank you, Roma. I'm sending you a big hug!