Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ramadan in a City of A Thousand Minarets

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Ramadan in a City of A Thousand Minarets

Article excerpt

A WAKE-UP call like no other, the voice thunders out of the loudspeaker just feet from my bedroom window. Exotic halftones hang on the night air as a man's voice pulls and stretches familiar Arabic syllables into long wailing sounds. But in the melee of words, I can still make out the "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") - a sort of signature for Islam.

I have been in Cairo only a few months, but already the muezzin's dawn call to prayer seems a natural part of the day's rhythm. Captive to the loudspeaker's broadcast, I lie in bed and listen, slowly attuning my ear to the idiosyncrasies and intonation.

I imagine the muezzin walking up the spiral steps of his pencil-slim minaret, his long robes caught up in one hand. He stands quietly for a moment or two then takes a deep breath and beckons the faithful. Nowhere in this "City of a Thousand Minarets," as Cairo is sometimes called, can you miss the distinctive sound.

Where mosques sit cheek by jowl, the voices of the muezzins wash out from the tops of their towers in undulating waves. Assisted by a little sound technology, they lap over one another in a weave of voices that blanket the city.

But the dawn call is always the most palpable, undiluted by the rumble of traffic, trains, and honking mules.

Each day, my host, Fawzi, and I head out to work at 6:30 in his unflagging white Fiat - joining the jam of vehicles that bump and blare their way into the city center. Cairene drivers prize their daring and press fellow commuters to the edge to gain that extra yard or two in an early-morning game of chicken. Lone policemen try to contain the herds of cars as they descend on junctions.

Amid this noise and jumble, however, Egyptian bonhomie remains unflappable.

As we approach our destination, Midan al-Tahrir, the search for parking begins. Spaces are like water in a desert. Regular commuters learn to tip a local man to reserve a spot.

Millions of pedestrians add their own color and vibrancy to the logjam and fumes. Sidewalks overflow with men and women. Some wear traditional Arab dress, graceful in their ample robes and neatly pinned head scarves. Others are in Western clothes and negotiate cracked pavement and broken barriers with practiced dexterity.

Bemused foreigners attract ragged children. And the wealthy zip by in polished Mercedes.

Tiled juice stands, oases in the heat and dust, slake the thirst with their fresh- squeezed oranges and thick mango puree. Cafes filled with men offer hot drinks, bottled soda, and a break from the hubbub. No one seems in a rush.

It's a cycle of life that acknowledges the city's other sobriquet, "Um iddunya" ("Mother of the World").

But for one month a year, Cairo's crazy charm takes on new dimensions.

Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting (which starts Feb. 1 this year), slows the pace perceptibly. The dawn prayer suddenly has new import. …

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