One of the first things you’ll notice in Abu Dhabi, aside from the sun, is the daily ritual — five times daily, actually — of the adhan (pronounced azan), or call to prayer. Because prayer — or salat — in Islam is spread throughout the day according to the position of the sun, the timing of the prayer call varies slightly each day, though you can count on the first around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning (before sunrise) and the last in the late evening. If you’re a really eager planner or living outside the Muslim world, you’ll find apps or websites to remind you when it’s time to pray.
Even though I’m not religious, I quite like the call to prayer. It’s one of my favorite things about living here so far. I take it as a reminder that the day is passing, that I have things to do, people to care for, mindfulness to practice. I try to pause whatever I’m doing and take it in, focus on my breathing. I don’t worry too much about literal translations or religious meanings, though I get a kick out of the fact that the early morning call includes lines to the effect that “prayer is better than sleep.” I take the call as a reminder that I’m a guest here and that I should actively follow up on my desire to learn more about the history and culture of my gracious hosts.
In Abu Dhabi, the call to prayer is centralized — delivered by a single muezzin at the magnificent Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (above) and broadcast by satellite to 250 or so mosques throughout the emirate. It’s rather an honor to be selected as a muezzin anywhere, but especially so where the call goes out to the entire capital and the emirate at large. (I love this feature from The National on one such muezzin.) Each local mosque — and they liberally dot the city — comes equipped with loudspeakers, and so in a densely populated neighborhood like ours you might hear the call coming simultaneously from several directions and echoing off the surrounding highrises. My daughter’s AD video, in my last post, ended with a call broadcast 17 floors below the apartment we were staying in, and we can still hear it in our current place, 35 floors up, especially when the house is quiet. Traditionally, though, there were no loudspeakers on the mosques. Each had its own muezzin, which is why mosques are outfitted with minarets, and even today in Dubai, where the prayer call isn’t centralized, you’ll hear competing calls from neighboring mosques:
A few weeks ago a minor kerfuffle arose here when one of the local dailies, which seems to be the equivalent of AM New York and looks like it targets an ex-pat readership, ran a column advising residents whose houses abut mosques on how to request a lower volume if their sleep’s being disturbed. Apparently this is a recurring thorn in local/ex-pat relations, at least in letter columns and comment sections, though it seems to be public knowledge that Muslim and non-Muslim residents alike from time to time ask for sound testing to assure volume levels are appropriate. The most recent volley involved competing Twitter hashtags, one calling for UAE unity and the other calling for the government to ban the newspaper. The vitriol was unusually high on both sides as these hashtags competed to be the top trending topic.
I was equally taken off guard that some of the ex-pats in this debate were downright spiteful and some of the locals hadn’t bothered to read the article they were angry about and simply assumed that the paper advocated banning the adhan broadcasts, which simply wasn’t the case. There was lots of unfortunate “if you don’t like it, get back on the plane” language in response to the stupidest of the ex-pat commentary. But it was heartening, too, to read ex-pats tweeting about what the call to prayer meant to them (most viewed it respectfully and even affectionately) and the liberal Emiratis who were behind the #ONEUAE hashtag rejoiced when their position trended higher, suggesting that more UAE tweeters were for tolerance, conversation, and understanding than were for shutting down newspapers.
I’ve only been here a month. I still have a lot to figure out about ex-pat culture, let alone local history and tradition, though my bedside table will testify that I’m trying. I’m eager for conversation across cultural lines and for avenues outside the bubble, though it remains to be seen how frequently such occasions will present themselves. (I’m going to a talk this afternoon about art collecting in the Arab world — maybe I’ll meet some neat folks there.) In the meantime I’m happy to keep reading about my new locale, and relying throughout the day on words whose literal meaning I don’t fully understand to remind me that I’m not quite at home — yet — which is fine for now: it keeps me on my toes, open, willing to learn.