Lines on a map: Tangier, Morocco

Many Western travelers in the Muslim world have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with Islam. As a faith, it is much more present in the public space than Christianity is in Europe or North America.

On one hand, this brings phenomenal architecture, beautiful art and an unmatched hospitality towards foreigners. On the other, some Western visitors are put off by the relative absence of women from public space or by the prohibition on alcohol that can make finding a cold beer a devilishly difficult or expensive process.

As a traveler in Morocco, however, the most obvious evidence of the prominence of faith in the life of the community is not visual or cultural. It is aural. 

Five times a day the adhan, or call to prayer, rings out from the minaret of every mosque. The duty to pray five times each day (called salat) is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith, along with the shahada (profession of faith), zakat (giving of alms), hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and sawm (the Ramadan fast).

Since the muezzins (those entrusted with calling prayers at the proper time) can never seem to synchronize their clocks, there is often a rolling wave of sound lasting some 15 or 20 minutes from the crackle of the first early-bird loudspeakers.

Loudspeakers, you see, are the key. Islam has come a long way since the days of the first muezzin Bilal, an Ethiopian convert who sung the adhan from Mohammed’s home, which was the very first mosque.

Minarets themselves were built to get the muezzin up above the fray of the town and let his voice be heard. These days, the muezzin either flips a switch on a microphone or pops on a tape. While this is surely a sensible thing to do, the low-fidelity, high-volume blast from the speakers is not always much of a tribute to Bilal’s talents.

As a shoestring traveler, this is a matter of some importance.

In Morocco, you quickly learn to make a beeline for the medinas – the oldest parts of the cities – to find cheap and cheerful accommodation. Hidden amongst the winding alleys are hotels where, with all the necessities of life in the streets around you, a good room is only a couple of dollars.
So far, so good – but it also often seems like the cost of a hotel room is inversely proportional to its proximity to the local mosque. In any case, within any Moroccan medina you are rarely far from one.

Since, by tradition, the first call to prayer rings out as soon as the muezzin has enough light to see the page (often around 5 a.m.), learning to sleep through it is a key traveler’s skill.
After a few weeks in any Muslim country, it does indeed usually move into the background and it has been a long time since I was woken by the morning adhan. I suspect the same is true for many Moroccans, who – of coursE – vary as greatly as anyone else in their commitment to faith.
Although it usually catches you in your sleep, the call to prayer does not leave you untouched.

Having entered your ears in sleep, it often becomes caught in your head like a song from the radio.

It is quite poetic, really. Even the most secular-minded travelers, myself included, wake up with our first conscious thoughts being “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great) or “Mohammed ar-Rasul Allah” (Mohammed is the messenger of God).

I often catch myself humming them throughout the day, even when not recently reminded by the call to prayer itself. As a piece of public devotion, it is beautifully effective.

My travels in Morocco are winding down, but I have Mauritania, Senegal and Mali ahead, all of which are largely Muslim, and I cannot help but be comforted by the constant presence of the adhan in my transient traveler’s life.

Josh Smyth is an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University. His column “Lines on a Map” will be a recurring feature in Cord International. It will document Josh’s travel adventures throughout Western Africa.