April 25, 2007

Muezzins and bagpipers: Sounds of a place

Mark Twain allegedly said, "If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute."

Well, our weather swung last week from the extremes of a violent and destructive nor’easter to brilliant, back to back 80-degree days, one of which I spent catching rays on my deck, soaking in the summer sounds that whirled and floated around my ears. It was April but felt like August, and as I laid on my towel, eyes closed and baseball hat over my face, I listened deeply to the warm-weather sounds of my suburban Massachusetts neighborhood.

Robins splashed 20 feet above my head in the stormwater that sat in the roof gutters; the guy two doors down spun the peeling paint on his picket fence into subatomic particles with a gnashing electric sander; traffic on the highway five miles away emitted a stealthy hum; mothers pushed babies in strollers and talked about husbands and home remodel jobs; bees in the budding forsythia near my driveway dove, hovered and buzzed, drunk on busy-ness and early pollen.

And someone played a bagpipe. That’s a new sound in my neighborhood. We have our musicians: when the air is warm and windows are open, our summer sounds can include, from our various basements, bedrooms and living rooms, Dennis on drums, Louie on trumpet, yours truly on piano. Now we have a bagpiper in our mix and midst.

Every place has its sounds, its particular ripples and echoes, calls and clangs, voices and noises. Sounds -- and silences -- that are integral components of its texture. When I travel, I pay attention to a place’s sounds.

The Altiplano does not sound like Venice, which does not sound like Bangkok, which does not sound like the Everglades, which does not sound like Jamaica, which does not sound like...

When I reflect on the sounds of my travels, Turkey rings clearest. The sounds of that place will never leave me.

Adam and I were on one of the many mother-son trips we took when he was young. I considered exposing him to cultures different from his own a duty, and Turkey was his first experience in a Muslim country.

After 24 hours of travel that included three flights, two layovers, and airline delays (Turkish Airlines’ mechanics were on strike, and I prayed to Allah that it wasn’t the white collar management team out there on the tarmac futzing around with our craft’s engine...), we arrived in Antalya on the Mediterranean. We hit our beds and slept like stones.

About 5 AM, an amazing sound reverberated through the still-dark predawn, waking me. I opened our balcony door, stepped out into the blackness, and looked down on a domed mosque bathed in green fluorescent light. From the mosque’s towering minaret, a loudspeaker carried the crisp, wailing voice of a muezzin calling the faithful to the first of the day’s five prayers. In the streets below, men in trousers and suit jackets and women in burkhas streamed from all directions, heading toward the mosque.

I woke Adam and brought him onto the balcony, where we watched and listened. As the muezzin’s electric song worked its way inside our heads, I told Adam everything I knew about the Five Pillars of Islam, the second of which is the salat (salah), the series of prayers offered daily in the direction of holy Mecca.

This was a lot for a little, jet-lagged boy to take in on a dark, stone-cold morning in a strange place. But he took it in, the piercing chant helping him to feel Turkey and begin to understand it.

For the rest of our trip, we’d stop and listen deeply to each day’s calls to prayer, the sounds as vivid and rich a sensory experience as any kebab we ate, spice scent we inhaled, ruin we gazed on, or carpet we ran our hands over.

In Istanbul, we stood on the bow of a boat plying the busy Bosphorus as simultaneous calls from every mosque in the city bounced through the air and over the water, engulfing us. In Izmir (photo), biblical ancient Smyrna, scores of synchronous calls reverberated off the city’s hills, then collected and coalesced into a wonderful and tumultuous cacophony whose epicenter was right outside our hotel room window, which we opened in wide welcome at prayer time.

Wherever you go and wherever you are, don’t just hear your place’s sounds. Listen. You’ll learn much.

Who is that bagpiper, and what, when, where and why does he play?