At the core of every American is a fundamental regard for religious freedom that stems from the early founding fathers of the U.S. and the Constitution. The illusion of a separation of Church and State were also part of this doctrine but that fact remains inconsequential because the reference to “God” permeates every facet of American life. It is printed on the currency: “In God We Trust.” It is referenced in politics: “God Bless the U.S.A.” It is in the Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation, Under God…” It is at the root of the legal system: “I swear to tell the truth…so help me God.” It is used in the lyrics of “America: My Country ‘tis of Thee” which was of course taken from the English song “God Save the Queen”: “America…God shed his grace on thee…” You get the idea.
When you enter Muslim populated countries however, the concept of religion permeating society takes on a different level of expression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for freedom of speech, religion, expression, etc., and I am not talking about Burkas or restrictions that may be observed from region to region. I am not a morning person so I have a fundamental problem with someone else’s religion waking me up at 4:30am everyday. I am referring to the Muslim Call to Prayer, or Muslim Karaoke, as we now call it. True, churches ring their bells and play music for weddings or religious ceremonies on a regular basis but this happens at reasonable hours. I have never heard wedding bells before dawn.
The ancient practice of climbing to the top of the temple tower and barking the Call to Prayer for everyone to hear was eventually replaced with loudspeakers pointing in all directions. There is one standing rule in SE Asia regarding loudspeakers: If you have one, use it as often as possible and as LOUD as possible at distortion levels whenever possible. This is especially true with the Call to Prayer which takes place five times every day. Temples actually compete to be the loudest in the area and are constantly updating equipment to be bigger and louder. Some particularly clever and inventive singers have perfected the technique of adding feedback to the distortion, much like an electric guitar so when they hit certain high notes and hold it, (which happens about every 30-60 seconds during the 20-45 minute ‘concert’) they get a penetrating vocal feedback that literally vibrates through buildings and could hold Eddie Van Halen in awe. It is impossible to sleep through. Even with ear plugs, a pillow over your head, an AC unit running on high, a ceiling fan on high and the television on a blank channel spouting static at a high volume for white noise to cover it. You WILL wake up. What really aggravates you is tolerating the performance for twenty minutes and then settling back to sleep when things are suddenly quiet. Ten minutes later, they will start again for another 10-20 minutes like a high school prank fooling you into thinking they were finished. So you lay awake in bed at 5am, tossing between anger and laughter while marveling at the vocal ambitions of today’s performer and wondering where you can find a pair of wire cutters.
You have to develop a sense of humor about the Call To Prayer because it happens throughout most places we have visited in SE Asia. Even countries that are predominately Buddhist allow the practice and tolerate it. You would think they would broadcast the Call to Prayer on a radio station and loyal Muslims could simply set their radio alarm clocks to turn on at 4:30am. Message delivered; Practice maintained; Religion followed; No neighbors disturbed. In fact, they actually do this but remember the first rule about a loudspeaker: Play it as loud and often as possible. So they do.
As our travels take us further westbound toward India and Middle Eastern countries, we hope to gain a better understanding of the Call to Prayer practice. Perhaps we should try sleeping with turbans to muffle the sound. Just think of the money we can save on shampoo! Meanwhile, I hope Bose will invent sound canceling earphones I can actually wear to bed.
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