The last Sunday morning before we left for Turkey, as usual, the church bells from St. Ignatius Church across the street waked us up. I was so excited, “in a few days it would be the morning prayer calls from minarets that wake us up every morning!!” Mi thought that was a hilarious comment on a Sunday morning.
The first time I learned of morning prayer calls was during my first year after graduating from collage. A co-worker was describing to me his first trip aboard at the tender age of sixteen. He went to Egypt. After telling me the his first diving experience and the amazing clear Red Sea, he grunted, “Urgh! There was also this really annoying prayer calls before dawn. It was so damn loud and there were so many of them in the city, I was wide awake everyday at 4am!”
This public demonstration of faith, in such an intrusive manner, fascinated me. It reminded me of the Culture Revolution years in China, when big loud speakers were placed on trees throughout every city, every town, every village; and it was constantly making stern and cold announcements that dictated everyone’s life.
Low and behold, came “The English Patient”. First the movie, then the book, I fell in love with the story and Michael Ondaatje’s poetic narrative:
Sometimes when she is able to spend the night with him they are wakened by the three minarets of the city beginning their prayers before dawn. He walks with her through the indigo markets that lie between South Cairo and her home. The beautiful songs of faith enter the air like arrows, one minaret answering another, as if passing on a rumour of the two of them as they walk through the cold morning air, the smell of charcoal and hemp already making the air profound. Sinners in a holy city.
Suddenly, morning prayer calls turned into something romantic and exotic.
By the time we were ready to return home, on our last night in Istanbul, we had settled into a comfortable daily routine. Getting to know a new city has always been a favorite process of mine. I liked the feeling of finally being able to relax in a new city, knew where to go for comfy food, knew where to go for a quick bite, knew where to go if I want to relax or just to sit down and read a book, knew where to go if I crave beauty and magic views, knew where to shop for daily items, knew which shop to avoid, which train to take going where…
So it was such a night, our last night in Istanbul. We went to the little food stand on the sidewalk, ran by the Kurdish family from Eastern Turkey. Mi ordered his favorite lamb kabab, with lots of Aci sauce that he loved; I ordered grilled eggplant and veggie; and we both had our share of flat bread to go with our meals. Mi had the one and only Turkish beer Efes, I had “chai” (Turkish tea). We chatted with the second son of the family who acted as both the host and the waiter because he was the only English speaker; joked with the Dad using sign language. The son told us they would soom move to a new apartment that would be closer to the restaurant. Their currently place was a townhouse by the sea, but it was a long walk home every evening after they closed shop, and since they had practically no furniture in the apartment, it didn’t really matter how big it was. He also made us drool by telling the feast his Dad will participate in making for the upcoming Ramadan. After dinner, the Mother made us Kurdish coffee served in elegant china. We wished them best of luck and walked to the corner grocer to buy a pack of sunflower seeds. Turkey was the only country other than China where I had seen people know how to eat sunflower seeds as a snack.
Returning to our little hotel two blocks away along the cobble stoned street, Mi started watching BBC news on TV. I continued reading Paul Theroux’ Dark Star Safari. Together, we worked on the pack of sunflower seeds. It was warm, we left the window ajar, through which we could see the illuminated minarets of the Blue Mosque. Then, I heard it, the evening prayer, my favorite sound in this country. I ran to the rooftop terrace of our hotel, listened as the prayer calls from four or five different mosques in the old town (Sultananhment), they echoed each other. The dusk had settled on the sea of Marmara, Istanbul’s Asian shore was slowly disappearing into the evening lights, fishing boats returned home, the night was gentle and young, the “beautiful song of faith” was melancholy.
I wished, for one last time, to be able to record this sound somehow, to keep it with me. This sound has become my favorite part of the city of Istanbul. That night, it sounded like a call to the glorious past, to the past that was lost forever, to the past that remained alive only in the singer’s voice, and in my books.