Almost everyday, the voice of an old man reciting the call to prayer or adhan floats across the cobbled streets of Bradford in my neighbourhood, from a speakerphone perched on a mosque nearby.
I’ve never seen him, this mysterious muezzin, but I imagine he is a Muslim Dumbledore in my overactive imagination, wearing a crisp, beige coloured shalwar kameez scented with sweet oud perfume. A pleated fan shoots out from the delicately wrapped turban he wears around his head, making him look regal, almost like a peacock when its feathers erupt into shimmering colours of green, gold and blue. Any trace of white in his long, wiry beard will have been dyed a fiery ginger with henna, in honour of prophetic tradition. A large silver ring engraved with Allah, a name Muslims give to God, and his beloved, the prophet Muhammad, sits just above the knuckle on his small finger, brown, rough and lined with the years. He is a radiant man, spiritually and quite literally, especially when the thick lenses of his glasses glow white as they reflect light from the bulbs dangling above. He is a stoic man, dedicated to anchoring himself to God through his devoted prayer. His is a generation at dusk.
I can imagine him shuffling his way up a minaret to recite the adhan like the muezzins did of old. The reality is of course much less embellished and much more modern. Like the Muslim X-factor, he stands in front of a microphone placed on top of a Persian rug smelling of dust, feet and musk, a sea of worshippers gathered behind waiting for their conductor to begin. The speaker phone crackles to life, he silences the congregation gathered at the mosque with a single, authoritative cough. He clears his voice, pauses, and the following words in Arabic blossom from his mouth:
Ashhadu anla ilaha illa llah
Ashhadu anna Muħammadan Rasulullah
La illaha illallah!”
In English, it simply means:
“God is great!
There is no God but God
and Muhammad is his messenger.
Come to prayer!
Come to success!
God is great!
There is no God but God!”
Whilst my life revolves around the digital chime of my iPhone and the tick-tock of my watch, his life is bound by his dedication to God. The simple obedience of praying on time, somewhat of a massive feat if you know anything about Muslim Standard Timing, leaves me in awe at his dedication. Prayer is the foundation, the mighty pillars which prop up the skeleton of his faith. Whether it’s the inevitability of being young and idiotic or being too ambitious, my work life is the scaffolding which has taken over mine.
The only time you don’t hear his voice is during the morning prayer. It begins so early, the poor man would probably be arrested for disturbing the tranquility of the neighbourhood. But there’s no doubt his forehead touches the carpet of the mosque affectionately every morning as he prostrates, just as you can surely find me sleeping in the warm sanctuary of my bed as the birds outside my window tweet at me, urging me to do as he does. “Get out of bed you lazy sh*t, if he can do it, why can’t you?” Why can’t I indeed?
It’s the evening now, and the sun-blushed sky has cast a rosy glow on the concrete pavements. The sun is making her quick descent home, plunging into the sprawling mosaic of houses, church spires and mosque minarets which look like miniature Lego bricks in the distance. It’s rush hour. Headlights. Horns honking. Punjabi music blaring. The smell of smoke, exhaust pipes, and fried onions sits in the air. It’s all chaos outside. That’s when the old man brings order in the dwindling twilight hours by reciting the adhan.
To some it sounds like just another voice to add to the layers and layers of chaos enveloping passers by. But today, his words cut through the air, sharp and heavy. His husky voice shakes as he elongates each syllable, Arabic words married with the phonology of the sub-continent. Over fourteen centuries of Islamic tradition are bound and wrapped in each of those letters from when the first muezzin, Bilal, stood under the fierce blazing sun of Arabia to call Muslims to prayer. Compared to the velvety voices of the young muezzins who hail from other mosques across the city, his voice is like the scent of mothballs my grandmother used to pack in her suitcases she brought from Pakistan; old, familiar and strangely comforting.
His voice silences the internal cacophony in my mind about work, relationships, family matters, things which occupy the mind of many twenty-something adults. A fleeting moment of tranquility hovers over me like the dust that covers the spines of my books, and I’m left standing still for a second to soak it all in.
The whoosh of a car hurtling past brings me back, and I have to remind myself that I’m not standing in the holy city of Makkah or Jerusalem, but Bradford: a sacred, hustling, bustling city in the north of England, where divinity is found in seemingly unremarkable moments in the here and now.