Plan Would Replace Cairo's Calls to Prayer
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
And now a controversy in the Muslim world: for decades, the din of traffic in Cairo has been thickened five times a day by a cacophony of Muslim calls to prayer. They come out of loudspeakers atop thousands of mosques. But now, Egypt's government is in the final stages of a plan to replace the independent calls to prayer with a single call broadcast by radio throughout the city.
NPR's Peter Kenyon has our report.
(Soundbite of Muslim Prayer Call)
PETER KENYON: According to Islamic tradition, the Adhan or call to prayer is meant to be an attractive sound, reminding and encouraging faithful Muslims to fulfill their duty to pray five times each day.
In the 1860 edition of his book, "An Account of the Matters and Customs of the Modern Egyptians," British writer Edward William Lane wrote that the muezzin would climb the minaret of his mosque and sing out the ritual phrases, always in the same order: God is great, four times; I testify that there is no deity but God, two times; I testify that Muhammad is God's apostle, two times; Come to prayer, twice; and finishing with, there is no deity but God, one last time.
These days, there are more minarets than ever in Cairo, and in many neighborhoods, the call to prayer comes at you from several directions at once, blared from loud speakers that amplify the call to prayer sometimes to the point of distortion.
Even without the call to prayer, Cairo is a noisy city. Inside the office of Hassim al-Gindi(ph) with the Ministry for Religious Endowment, with the windows closed, the sound of the traffic four floors below is still loud enough to rattle the windows.
Al-Gindi says the combination of more mosques and highly variable sound systems has made the call to prayer something to endure rather than enjoy.
Mr. HASSIM AL-GINDI (Ministry for Religious Endowment): So without perfect synchronization between the call for prayer in the different mosques, you find some interference. And what you hear is somewhat close to noise more than call for prayer.
KENYON: One good place to hear what al-Gindi is talking about is atop one of the twin stone towers of Bab Zuweila, the enormous 11th century gate that was once the southern entrance to the old walled city of Cairo. As the spring Hamassin winds whip desert sand across the city, the call of peddlers and the honk of horns are suddenly submerged in a wave of muezzins, their chants bouncing off one another and melting into a puddle of sound.
(Soundbite of chanting)
KENYON: What the government plans to do, possibly by the summer, is eliminate the independent calls to prayer in favor of a single voice rebroadcast throughout the city via a series of radio transmitters. After staging a competition, the government selected 40 muezzins to take turns issuing the new call. But for generations of Cairians, the dissonant symphony of the muezzins is part of daily life.
Fifty-seven year old shop-owner Mohammed Ibrahim says the new system just won't be the same.
Mr. MOHAMMED IBRAHIM (Shop Owner): (Through translator) The call to prayer gives spirituality. While you hear the sounds from more than one mosque, it gives a good feeling. Instead of listening to just one person, it's not the same feeling it's different.
KENYON: The government says people need to give the new system a chance. And they may find they prefer a single, clear call to prayer over the current pandemonium. On the street, people say they're waiting to hear the difference, but they can't help feeling that a part of Cairo's raucous charm is being lost.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.