March of the muezzin

An evening view of Damascus from Mount Qassioun

The back pages of the pan-Arab Al-Hayat newspaper are much like those of your average Western rag.

But in among the stories about Mark Weber’s latest Grand Prix victory, or Bayern Munich striker Miroslav Klose’s Euro 2012 ambitions (the German national team are very popular in Syria – a fact which, depending on who you speak to, has everything or nothing to do with Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust), lies a regular feature which you might not find in the New York Times or Daily Mail.

The Mawaaqeet Al-Salaat (Times of Prayer) section appears every day in the bottom right hand corner of the sport’s pages, listing the official starting time of the five Islamic calls to prayer in cities across the Middle East – not to mention London, Berlin, Rome and Athens.

It is all to easy to become inured to the incomparable sound of a Middle Eastern city erupting to the wail of the muezzin – especially if you live next to a mosque which broadcasts the caterwauling of one your neighbourhood’s less talented crooners.

Yet to hear the call from the hardscrabble slopes of Mount Qassioun, the sandstone-coloured peak which looms like an enormous camel hump over the north side of Damascus, is a unique experience – a visceral example, if one were needed, of the sweeping reach of religion and its centrality to everyday life here.

Yesterday’s Al-Maghreb, or sunset call, began to echo around the dimly-lit cityscape at around 7.10pm. The clouds above the hills south of Damascus were a streaky, cinnamon red – a refreshing sight after the months of bone-dry, cloudless heat – and a sign, along with this week’s rainy spells, that the Levantine autumn has finally arrived.

At first, the call is barely audible – a gravelly refrain drifting in amid the velvet gloom of an ancient city. Then another muezzin will join the chorus, his husky tones flaring up from a different corner of the city. As if eager not to feel left out, more mosques flick on their loudspeakers to broadcast their own, crackly cry of Allahu Akbar, until the entire city is pulsing with the chants of a thousand different calls to prayer.

Whisper it to any wide-eyed tourists, but many of the calls these days are recorded. There was even an idea a while ago to synchronise the singing – much like in Cairo, where the government is pressing ahead with a plan to use computerised feeds to put an end to out of time and out of tune muezzin.

The idea is a popular one for some long-suffering Damascus residents. “I think it’s brilliant,” said Aysam, a grinning gap-toothed German language student here. “You should hear the muezzin in the mosque near me. He is awful. How is he allowed to sing?”

And yet it would surely take some of the magic away from this Middle Eastern city if Syria were to follow in Cairo’s footsteps.

Better to let 1,000 flowers bloom, even if some of them do need clipping.