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Made in White City

Voices Over the City

Minarets are ancient pieces of sonic architecture, one of the few forms specifically built to transmit a human voice. Charlie Jones talks sound and the separation of faith and state with DJ and editor Ma’n Abu Taleb, plumbing the influence of a sacred and inherently urban art form.

WORDS - Charlie Jones

If all buildings tell stories, some shout from the rooftops. None do so as literally as a minaret: the elegant tower from which muezzins call faithful Muslims to prayer at the mosque below. It’s one of the few major architectural archetypes built especially as audio devices, and the only one built to project the human voice over a city. 

These days, the minaret has another claim to fame. Since 2009, they are the only building type to be banned under Swiss law, and have acted as a lighting-rod for Islamophobia in Muslim-minority countries. But despite the wishes of the far right, its distinctive silhouette has long been part of the skyline of cities around the world. 

The minaret and its call disorients several dichotomies. Majority and minority for one: building a minaret tells the world that Muslims are part of the city – skylines are choirs, and these slender towers add the voice of the believers to the chorus. Another is the distinction between faith and state, and the idea that secular daily life and sacred practice are discrete entities.

Finally, it challenges the idea that audio is only an irritant. Sound, at least in Western cities away from motorways, no longer marks out our experience of urban life. Clubs and pubs are shut because they keep the neighbours up. Industry’s almighty clanging moved offshore decades ago. Church bells are pleasant rarity, rather than a marker of time. The call to prayer upends this separation, and tells us that living in a city is an auditory experience, for better or worse. 

Loud-speaker technology has meant that the athan, or call to prayer, can be broadcast at ear-splitting volumes – something the Prophet Muhammed couldn’t have foreseen when he instructed Bilal ibn Rabah to sound the first call from the rooftop of al Kaaba 1,400 years ago.

The call is itself a distinct cultural artefact. Part hymn, part alarm clock, it’s a sacred urban art form that has influenced Middle Eastern and Western music and city life for centuries. To find out more about this nexus of the sacred, the sonic, and the urban, there are few better placed people than Palestinian-Jordanian DJ, editor and author Ma’n Abu Taleb, whose online magazine and NTS Show are invaluable platforms for Arabic music. We skyped him in Beirut.

The call to prayer is such an interesting cultural object. What’s the content of it, and the context musically? 

It’s a call to prayer – it’s telling you to come and pray. And the words of the athan are consistent, except for the dawn prayer, which adds a line telling you that “prayer is better than sleep.” That would stick, when I was a kid and had remnants of religion in me. That would just ring in my ear. But you know what’s really interesting is that today they just play tapes. And it’s often just a standardised recording. But for hundreds of years, it was up to the local muezzin to deliver it, and it was different from one mosque to another, and there were great muezzins and terrible muezzins. In 19th-century Cairo, it was a tradition that each athan would be read on a different scale, and you hear it five times a day, so it’s very prominent in the daily life of people in these towns. Quite often, as well as the athan, you hear the reading of the Quran, and the Quran is also read according to scales, so it has a very profound effect on the cities, and formed the aesthetic of popular culture. And if you look at the great singers in the Arab world, who weren’t necessarily religious at all – Um Kalthoum, for example, or Mohammad Abdul Wahhab – they actually started their careers as readers of the Quran or athan, and that informs their aesthetic as singers. On the other hand, there are also famous muezzin who learned a lot from secular singers, who informed their way of reading, so it’s a very fluid relationship between secular music and the aesthetics of the Quran. 

Listen to this example of the haunting beauty of the Athan.

This interaction between sacred and secular music you spoke about, does that still continue today?

For sure. This rapper A’Ras, he made a two-hour mix of his favourite music, and it was full of religious songs. It’s very much alive today, especially in Egypt. 

Cairo is known as “the city of a thousand minarets.”

There you have this deep relationship between secular music and religious text. In Syria, it’s still there, but to a lesser extent, and it’s very different to what you would hear in a Saudi mosque. In Saudi, the levels of scales and melody in reading the Quran are very, very limited. They’re extremely conservative when it comes to these things. There’s no interaction whatsoever with the crowd, whereas in Egypt, it’s almost like a rock concert, with people calling out that the last line was beautiful, asking him to do it again. 

In terms of technology, how has the move from simply going up to somewhere high and calling out, to loudspeakers, to now recordings, changed the meaning of the minaret and athan? 

First of all, these were recorded in a studio, so they didn’t need to project so much. And I think this just limited the possibilities. You’ll find ten or fifteen mosques with the exact same athan, playing five times over and over. Because it’s repeated, because it’s mechanical, because it’s recorded, you lose that connection with it as a performed piece. And I don’t want to say tragic, but it was a huge step backwards. 

How does the amplification of sound over the city change the experience of the urban fabric? 

At the most obvious, proximity to a mosque can be a real problem. At 5am, the call is coming at you very loud, so you’re better off not living next door to one, and there are, of course, a lot of class dynamics with that. There’s also a dimension that if you’re in a cab with someone who is, let’s say, a very active and observant Muslim, and that athan comes in, he would shut down the music. I have a cousin who’s very religious, and if the athan started he would reach over and turn off the music, which is the start of many, many long arguments. So there all these daily interactions around it. 

As an outside listener, I just hear it as a beautiful sound. But there are all these interactions on the ground...

There’s a point of saturation where you lose the aesthetics of it. When someone goes up a minaret and says it, no matter how close you are or how loud he is, it’s never going to oppress you that much. But with the speakers some mosques are over zealous, and turn up the volume very loud. It’s like a hegemony of the athan, and it completely takes over the place – that’s just an aspect of technology. 

The Nabulus Project is the latest in a long line of cultural communications and interminglings using the athan. Here, a group of cutting-edge producers used a Palestinian muezzin’s call as the basis for a set of tracks.

What’s going on with the urge to ban the minaret in parts of Europe? Why do you think it has been taken up as a symbol by the far right? 

It’s a way of attacking Muslims. If you ban a minaret, it’s a step on the way to banning Muslims. It’s super aesthetic; in a small Dutch village, a traditional minaret would stand out, so that’s a very visible point of difference – this perceived terror that Sharia is going to take over Europe, Muslims are going change this and change that, cover up our women, all that. So architecture takes on this meaning. It’s funny, even in London, I never heard the athan outside, but in the Middle East, it’s a part of life. 

Me neither. I’ve heard the sound in shops, or on the street, but never from a minaret, even when there were mosques nearby.  

In London, though, there are so many rules governing noise, but in Cairo, the sheer onslaught of sound is hard to imagine. A good friend of mine has made a film about noise pollution in Cairo: The All Hearing (below). You’ll be going through the city, and hearing a sermon extremely loud. It can be quite chastising. 

There’s one reason for disliking a minaret, which is straight-up Islamophobia. But there’s also a deeper thing: the integration of the sacred into daily sonic life of a city is a direct challenge to a liberal, Western conception of a cityscape, which says religion and worship is something that happens over here, quietly, in this little discreet box. 

Exactly. You have to admit that religious Muslims do struggle with that limitation. In the Muslim world, there is no separation between religion and city and state. In challenging the hegemony of the athan – who do you turn to? That’s something that secular people in the Arab world suffer from. If you’re not a believer, if you don’t believe, it can be oppressive, just from a sheer sonic point of view. And in, say, Saudi, religion will soak into and dictate every part of your life. 

What’s the relationship between music and worship in the Quran?

It’s definitely a tense relationship, and it varies geographically. With the rise of the Wahhabi understanding of Islam, which is very limited and conservative, music is haram (forbidden), it is not allowed. Song is allowed, very basic percussion is allowed, as long as it doesn't involve musical instruments. The name of our magazine is taken from a saying by the Prophet, in which he uses this term as a derogatory to music: he says “One day, there will be a people from my nation, who will be into jewellery, silk, and music.” And this word he used for music – Ma’azef – we used as the word for our magazine. And one particular understanding of this line is taking over the whole of the Arab world. But traditionally, in Egypt, there was never this tension between music and the Quran. The Prophet is not saying that music is haram – because silk is not haram, and jewellery is not haram, but he is saying that there will be people that are into materialistic things, and they will be way too into entertaining. And then people which have this extremely conservative reading of Islam take it to mean that music is forbidden.

Photo at top: the Cairo skyline at sunset, iStock / clu. Homepage photo from Yazd, Iran, iStock / silverjohn.

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