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The Adhan

As a photographer I have had the good fortune to travel around the world for work. On someone else's dime, mind you, which is just one of the upsides of my chosen profession. Last year I was shooting in Morocco when, on our first day there, the eerie and haunting call to prayer went out over the city on what sounded like 1940s era loudspeakers. The high and screechy, somewhat sinister noise, floated above the city in an audible mist, signifying to all good Muslim men that they should drop whatever they were doing and trot over to the nearest mosque to pray. If a mosque is not available they should be prepared to unroll their prayer mats wherever they are and do their duty. And in fact I have seen men praying on their small prayer mats, next to their Yellow Cabs, under the 59th Street bridge in Manhattan, in every form of weather imaginable.


When the first high strains of that foreign caterwauling reached us, my assistant, walked over to me and said. “What the fuck? I hate that noise. It makes me feel like a bomb is about to explode.” I was surprised by his bitterness but it was not the first time I had heard that reaction. In fact that sound used to make me nervous as well. "That is the adhan” I told him, "the Muslim call to prayer. And you better get in used to it because we are here for 5 more days and the call to prayer goes out five times a day - so you're gonna hear this at least 24 more times before we leave.” “How can you stand it?” he asked me. It was then that I told him about my own experience with the adhan, or call to prayer, and how, against my ingrained habit of painting all of one group with the same brush, I had grown to appreciate it.


Historically in my career I have had a lot of clients from the U.K. They, unlike their American counterparts, like to shoot in Cape Town, South Africa. In my industry we usually shoot the summer fashion books in the height of winter. As these months happen to be the height of summer in South Africa, and the price of producing shoots there is a fraction of shooting elsewhere, off we head to Cape Town in search of sun, warmth, and summery light. On one of these African adventures we were shooting for 3 days in the Muslim enclave of Cape Town called Bo-Kapp.


I have worked in Muslim countries before, where the call to prayer goes out five times a day while we are shooting. During that time we are usually asked by our local handlers to be respectful during the adhan and to stay away from the entrances and exits to the mosques, as men will be flowing in and out of those buildings in large waves during that time. Usually we just carry on working - turning off our music and conducting ourselves in perhaps a less raucous manner than usual. We are asked to behave and show respect, at least for those brief 10-minute intervals while the mosques are full and we can overhear the soft rhythmic chanting of the men inside, floating up and out over the mosque's walls, like butterflies caught in an updraft.


But Bo-Kapp was different. We had chosen to shoot there because it’s a wonderful area full of cobbled streets and brightly colored homes. It has a very tropical vibe and feels a bit like the Caribbean. Bo-Kapp, it turns out, is the perfect location to shoot some summery advertising images in the depths of the European winter.


Our Cape Town production team had told us that if we wanted to shoot in Bo-Kapp not only must we be respectful during the call to prayer, we must stop ALL work during that time. On day one we would be meeting with an imam who would stay with us during the calls and the ensuing 10 minute prayer time. He would be with us for all five calls to ensure that we would not be working. We, like the muslims whose town we were shooting in, could do nothing but try our best what?...during that time. I was outraged and I let everybody know it. That was an hour out of our schedule! How would we get everything done? As the photographer, this “call to prayer” business was costing me and my team much needed time. I could feel my anxiety rising. But we needed the brightly colored homes and walls of Bo-Kapp. So, as usual, I would just have to figure it out.


Our days on set are always long. When shooting outside on location, sunup to sundown is the norm, so we would be in Bo-Kapp for all five of the calls. On day one I pretended to ignore the first call and kept on working. Until, like a silent shadow, the imam appeared at my shoulder and tapped his ear - to let me know to put my camera down. They were not fooling around. So for the next four calls to prayer I would put down my camera, grab a snack or cup of tea, pick up my phone and scroll frantically, killing time until I could pick up my camera once again. I sat there, glaring at the imam, while I cursed the call to prayer.


On day two we had a younger imam with us. He had a beautiful smile and twinkly eyes and spoke excellent English which was a welcome surprise. He radiated a sort of peaceful benevolence which I appreciated.


At around 6 a.m. as we were just setting up the first shot the call went out and we stopped everything. I even put down my coffee as I didn’t want to cause offense.


When the next call went out our trusty imam arrived again, hovering about in his skullcap and “jubba” to make sure we were compliant with the Bo-Kapp rules.


We broke for lunch at 12:30, already 2 prayers in, and that is when I cornered our imam and asked him about the call to prayer. If I was going to have to sit it out I might as well know what I was sitting it out for.


Our imam, whose name was Aamaal, answered all of my questions with smiles. “Most Americans don’t give me these questions” he said. “Well I’m a nosy one” I told him. “So what gives with the calls?”


“What gives?” He smiled shyly. “Okay. There are five calls to prayer a day” he told me. “And each one has a specific purpose or meaning:


There is the Fajr or dawn prayer.


Then the Dhuhr or Zuhr midday prayer.


The Asr afternoon prayer.


The Maghrib sunset prayer.


And the Isha night prayer.”


“And what is the purpose of all these prayers?” I asked, somewhat tersely I'm afraid.


At that Aamaal burst out laughing and then said “the purpose?”


He paused for a bit, choosing his words carefully. “Well, it is required of us Muslims to participate in the Salah every day” he explained slowly, as if talking to a child. “Those are our five prayers. These daily prayers make up one of the five pillars of Islam. Of being a good and devout Muslim. The adhan - which means TO LISTEN - is the call to prayer that we answer. Through these practices we gain strength and humility. We bow down to the will of God. We fulfill our religious duties. We teach discipline and sacrifice to our young men. Our community gathers together 5 times a day - every single day - which is good for any community. And” he continued, “most importantly these times during the day are a time to put your worldly problems behind you and turn towards the strength and love of God. We sit in awe and gratitude of the world and our individual blessings. I think everyone could benefit from this sort of discipline. This touching base with God a few times a day. This time to meditate and be still.”


I had to admit Aamaal had a point.


“But no one in America has 50 minutes a day to commune with God" I informed him. "No one."


At that Aamaal glanced over at my co-workers and said “yes. I have noticed that with your crew. And other groups who have done shoots here.  The minute the call goes out they just sit down and start looking at their phones. Searching for distraction. Unable to just be.” I looked over to the crew and indeed, they were all sitting and scrolling mindlessly, lost in the nonsense and empty calories of the internet. “Of course you don’t have the time to commune with God" Aamaal said. "You might miss something important on TikTok or Instagram.” And with that he smiled at me.


“What a cheeky imam” I thought to myself.


“Well, you do have a point” I countered immediately “but what about atheists? There are some atheists here on this crew. What about them? What can they do? Or Christians? I’m Christian. What can I do?” I think I was trying to poke the bear, but he would not be baited. “They can do this as well. You as a Christian can do this. An atheist too. During this time you can take the opportunity to commune with the divine, because it’s all around us.” At this he raised his robed arm, looking like something out of my children's illustrated Bible and said “you can look at a tree and think “this is miraculous” because trees are miraculous. Or you can meditate on your hand or a flower or the sky or an animal or a loved one. You can just be still for 10 minutes. You can take your mind away from your earthly worries and think about all the glory and wonder of the natural world. We are practicing gratitude during those prayers. Anyone, even someone who has no God, can sit still and be grateful. They can open their eyes in gratitude that their eyes can see. They can be still in gratitude for their ears and legs and bodies that work. That is all the work of God. All of it. Everything in this life is God given. Even if you don’t believe in Him.” With that he bowed at me and walked away, his soft robes swishing up the dust behind him and enveloping his graceful silhouette in a soft and hazy cloud.


My perspective on the call to prayer was completely turned on its head by my conversation with Aamaal. And as I recounted the Cape Town story to my assistant in Morocco I saw that I too was trying to reframe that call to prayer as something thought-provoking, interesting, even worthy. A noble endeavor and discipline. Just as Aamaal, the imam in Bo-Kapp had done for me.


My assistant was skeptical. “Well, I'm not so sure” he regarded me cooly. “Have you even watched Homeland? There are 8 seasons, you know. I’ve watched them all. Twice.” But then something beautiful happened. During the  final prayer of the day, the Isha prayer, we caught each other's eye and smiled. While everyone else had rolled their eyes dramatically, plopped down, grabbed their phones and started scrolling away, when that final adhan blared out over the city on its tinny, migraine-inducing speakers, my assistant and I were still. Sitting on boxes in the warm and dusty Marrakesh street we turned our phones off and watched the men pour out of the homes and shops and into the mosque. Watched them laugh and high-five each other as they tumbled through the mosque's door. We watched the stragglers running fast in their funny pointed African slippers to make sure they arrived in time. And then we both sat quietly during the 10 minutes, listening to their faint meditative chanting and simply observed the world around us. The soft purple-peach end-of-day light. The amazing lines and colors and architexture of the Moroccan city. An adorable calico kitten playing with a scrap of fabric whirling around in the warm African wind. We just watched it all. We talked a little bit. About how quiet it was on the street during this time. How grateful we were to be in Morocco. How interesting it is to travel and learn about other cultures. And about how our perspective on anything at all can be so warped and confused, even prejudiced, by what we see on the internet or on the news or even from a scripted TV show. We had both been guilty, in the case of the adhan, of contempt prior to investigation. 


Now when I am traveling in a Muslim country and I hear the call to prayer going out I don’t freeze and bristle the way I used to. I stop and listen and try to appreciate the basic idea behind the call to prayer - which is to commune with the divine several times a day. I will always remember my conversation with Aamal, the imam in Bo-Kapp. A conversation that taught me that practicing gratitude for 50 minutes a day just might be a better way to spend my time than searching mindlessly on my phone for some fleeting endorphin hit. A sad and empty endorphin hit that has everything to do with escape and nothing at all to do with gratitude.


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