April 26, 2004

Her Lad and the Muezzin's Orgasmic Cry

The walk from Cairo's medieval quarter was back-lit by the setting sun, and for a moment the horrible air pollution here seemed almost worth it. The soft hues of a hundred colors framed the city's thousand minarets, their crescent-topped points raised proudly heavenward, as the muezzin's cry called the faithful to the sunset prayer. We were just stepping off the curb into a six-pronged intersection when the call to prayer rang out from a mosque only yards away, ripping through us like piss-shiver, an erotic puncturing of the heart. So it was for me, at any rate. Her Lad's eyes widened at the mournful cry--'Allah Ackbar!' 'God is greatest!'--and he sang 'Beauty!' in the sing-song way he reserves for those moments when normal living is penetrated by something extraordinary, or when the extraordinariness of normal living is too apparent to go unexpressed.

A bit further on down the street we passed by a mosque covered in neon-green trim. We were deep in conversation about his love for his Her when he happened to glance through one of its windows and then abruptly stopped. Through the star-patterned grill he could see five or six rows of Muslim men, heads bowed to the floor. He probably said something like, 'Wow', and for five minutes or so was absolutely glued, transfixed as the rite worked itself out.

The men rose, hands crossed over their abdomens: all in concert, all as one. A soft and almost bubbly voice floated out to us on the street, going through the prayer cycle repeated five times a day, every day. 'God is greatest, God is greatest. There is no reality but the Reality, and Mohammed is His prophet...' They bent at the waist, again as one. Then up once more, this time with their hands cupped behind their ears. Some mouthed along, others yawned, and then they all again bowed their foreheads to the floor. The light inside was harshly fluorescent, and the sickening scent of bare feet spilled onto the sidewalk. But the men performed their devotions, men of all ages and colors, men in suits and men in robes, boys and youths and fat and thin; all lined up, bowing and rising, bending and straightening. Allah Ackbar. Allah Ackbar.

It was a familiar scene for me. I have been peering through the windows of mosques for a long time now, in Turkey, in Albania, in Jerusalem, in the Sinai, and now in Cairo too. There is something almost flirtatious about it, my tip-toeing around a mosque at prayer time, fearful of disturbing the Muslims within, but unable to simply pass it by. For me, as a Christian, Islam is like one of its women: veiled and quiet and inexplicable, but radiant with fiery eyes, her beauty unmistakable yet always out of reach, peeking out here and there in tantalizing mystery. There is something oddly familiar about it all, and we know that much of what seems most foreign in the Muslim tradition was present in Christianity before Mohammed, disowned only later on by Christians looking to distance themselves from Islam. At the same time, though, its appeal to a commitment that embraces all of life, all of society, the whole man, up to and including the motions of the body, is totally alien to someone from California raised on individual expression and the cultivation of ease and marketable whimsy. I look through the window, then, at the rows of men at prayer; and I hear the muezzin's cry penetrating to the outermost corner of their social world, reminding every ear of heaven's prerogatives; and it comes as a profound challenge to my own religious efforts, diluted and modern to a sometimes torturous level.

But what must Her Lad be thinking? 'Wow,' he muttered, and as we finally turned away and resumed our walk down the street, he said, 'I never knew it was like that.'

Earlier in the day we had visited an ice cream parlor with a Cairene acquaintance, a devout Muslim girl (head uncovered, an acknowledged sin for which she hopes God forgives her) for whom atheism is an inconceivable, frightening and even sinister character flaw requiring immediate amendment. Her Lad tidied off his second dessert to the sounds of her concerned exhortations to faith. 'I understand what religion is saying,' he answered, 'but it doesn't reach my heart.'

I have been dragging the poor boy hither and thither from one holy place to the next: the Burning Bush, the Western Wall, the Holy Sepulchre, the mosques and madrases of Cairo. He has been brought face to face with the world's faithful: the monks of Sinai wrestling with hordes of daily tourists; the Hasidim of Jerusalem bobbing up and down below the Temple Mount; and the impoverished and demoralized Muslim masses prostrated all in a row. He has been through the wringer. If what I the practicing Christian see through the mosque's window disturbs, intrigues and scares me, then what must his reaction be?

Later on we had dinner with an American journalist on whom we poured out the observations, frustrations and questions that we had stored up during our ten days in deeply troubled and troubling Israel. 'If Moses were alive today,' our companion commented, 'he would be sent to the Hague and tried before the war crimes tribunal,' and then launched on a hilarious rendition of Numbers 21, where Moses gets furious with his Hebrew followers for neglecting to slay the women and children along with the men after their victory over and total slaughter of the Amalekite army. Her Lad laughed and laughed, and I did too, but I thought that his laughter was perhaps a kind of exorcism, a purging of the uneasiness which over-exposure to religion can cause.

He had said to me a few days earlier, after we finished touring the blatantly propagandistic pro-Israeli Museum of the History of Jerusalem, 'All I can see that has resulted from religion is hatred and bloodshed and ugliness. Perhaps there is beauty somewhere in religion. Of course there must be. But the ugliness is so overwhelming that I just don't want religion to enter into my mind at all. I can't consider it. It is too ugly.'

There is integrity in that. But then what did he feel as he peered into the mosque beneath that sunset sky? How does his distance from those men at prayer strike him?

How is he struck by his distance, then, from me?

Posted by djsmall at April 26, 2004 12:29 AM