Throughout much of the world, an ethereal call comes to the ear five times a day. It floats light as birdsong on the wind; an inviting muse, beckoning the listener to God. It is the Islamic call to prayer known as the Adhan, and the caller is known as a Muezzin. But, to simplify them as callers is to say that Pavarotti is just a singer.
The title comes from the Arabic word, Mu'addin, which literally means prayer caller. The first Muezzin, believed to have been chosen by the prophet himself, was Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century Abyssinian slave from the Horn of Africa who is thought to be one of the first seven converts to Islam. Because of his beliefs, Bilal ibn Rabah suffered great torture at the hands of his owner before being bought and freed by a follower of Muhammed.
He accompanied the prophet in his military campaigns as a sort of aid de camp and was given the honor of carrying the prophet's spear into battle. With poetic justice, he ended the life of his former owner at the battle of Badr, in what is modern day Saudi Arabia, in 624 A.D.
But his finest moment came six years later after Muslim forces captured Mecca in 630 A.D. There, because of his loyalty, strength of character, and fine voice, Bilal ibn Rabah was picked to ascend to the top of the Kaaba, that most sacred of Islamic shrines, to send forth the first public call to prayer. Thus began a tradition that continues to this day.
As with most ancient traditions, the Muezzins have collided with the modern world; in many places they are being replaced by digital pre-recorded Adhans played through loudspeakers. This technology is rapidly spreading, and so it came as a great surprise when I was photographing in the sandy back alleys of Timbuktu, that true human ethereal sound found me and led me to Halis.
He was lean as a whippet, dressed in a simple well-worn thobe, his head wrapped in an aging tagelmoust, his sandaled feet the color of saddle leather. His sparse beard hugged his chin line and he had the beady black eyes of a desert fox. And then there was his voice. He would walk a block, stop and throw his head back, flamboyantly framing his mouth with his hands to send forth such an enchanting sound as to defy its human origin. He was at once a singer and a performer.
I followed his meandering route from a discreet distance, not wishing to be noticed and not wanting the moveable concert to end. When finished, he disappeared through a door at the rear of the Djinguereber Mosque. I wandered past hoping to get a look inside but it was dark, so summoning courage I stuck my head inside and called out a hello.
He had continued on to another part of the mosque, but a quick look around spoke volumes of the man. The room was tiny and Spartan: a simple wooden chair occupied a corner, its reed seat eaten through, probably by rodents. There was no window, only the wooden door with no interior lock; the floor was sand. A low bed was made on a straw mattress, and a small wooden table supported a clay oil lamp.
There were matches and candles and of course, a heavily dog-eared copy of the Koran, but surprisingly, there was also a book of poetry by Emily Bronte, out of which stuck a delicate, lace-edged bookmark. I was standing inside the monk-like cell of an intellectual aesthete. I almost opened the poetry book to look for an inscription, but, embarrassed by my intrusion, I turned and left without doing so.
The next morning I awoke to the first Adhan and followed it to its source. I crept along walls, keeping to the shadows, but rounding a corner I found myself face to face with Halis as he asked in accented English why was I following him? Off guard and embarrassed I relied on my fallback reason for such encounters that has bailed me out so many times in the past. "I wish to learn," I said.
"My name is Halis," he replied, "Come to my room this afternoon." Then he added, "You know where it is," deepening my embarrassment.
And so began the first of several conversations during my time in this ancient Malian city, sometimes in his room, with me sitting in the chair with half a seat while he sat on the edge of his bed. I told him of my interest in the role of the Muezzin, so, by the light of a single candle he began a discourse on the history of his profession. That is how I first learned of Bilal Ibn Rabah.
Before there were accurate clocks, it was difficult to gather large masses of faithful, as was communicating over large distances that it was time to pray, so the first minarets were constructed. Minarets are merely hollow towers topped with the crescent icon of Islam. They accommodate a spiral staircase for the Muezzin to ascend to an elevated walkway where his voice can carry across the city. At first, only blind men were considered in order to assure those living below the minarets of their privacy from prying eyes, but that practice ended long ago.
The next morning Halis invited me to walk with him and hooked my arm with his He told me how Bilal had set the bar high for future generations of Muezzins, so his successors have always been chosen both for their moral character and pleasant voices. Each country has annual competitions to choose the finest ones.
As we strode the sandy backways of Timbuktu, Halis explained that there are different tonal modes for the Adhan and each Muezzin is defined by the mode he occupies, much like an opera singer being either a baritone or tenor. It becomes their trademark sound. With that he gave out his call softly to show me what he meant, tempering it with subtle variations that struck me as similar to Tuvan throat singing. He ran through a scale from low to high and then hit notes all over that seemed at random and reminded me of jazz scat singing. His voice was tempered as a fine instrument but when I asked if he sang professionally, meaning as an entertainer, he gave me a look of horror. His gift was only to serve Allah.
Halis went on to tell me that he walked the streets rather than use pre-recordings because he wanted to keep the role pure, as Bilal had intended it to be. But with no protegé, he feared he would be the last of the street Muezzins. "No young men seem interested in such a life anymore, they are of the flesh and not the spirit" Then in a whisper that was also a lament he added, "This is a calling to something higher than ourselves and no one is answering."
On a more personal note, I asked why he was not married because as a verger, and not considered to be clergy, marriage and a family was an option. He told me that as a young man he had served in the Foreign Legion and during the insurrection in Chad in 1969 he had witnessed such carnage that he had sworn to God that should he survive, he would devote his life to being a chaste mendicant.
I finally had to ask about the book of poetry with the lace bookmark, realizing I had just confessed to entering him room without him, but he already knew. With a shy smile he answered, "Well, there was once a girl." After that, I asked no more questions.
On our final day we shared a goodbye embrace and I walked down a sandy Timbuktu street listening to his Adhan fade into the distance.
Halis had no internet service when I met him, although Timbuktu did have at least one internet café. I think the technology was just a bit much for this humble man of the desert. I gave him my card just in case but knowing I would never hear from him again. Then, one day several weeks after I had returned home an envelope arrived from him. In it was a verse from the Koran that has special meaning for me. On the reverse side it said in his handwriting, "Once there was a girl."
I have not heard from him since.
James Michael Dorsey is an explorer, author, and photographer who has traveled extensively in forty-some countries, mostly far off the beaten path. His primary interest is in documenting indigenous people in Asia and Africa. He is a fellow of the Explorers Club, and a member and former director of the Adventurers Club. See more at www.jamesdorsey.com.
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