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How I learned to love the ring of church bells and the call of the muezzin


Ibrahim, my driver and my guide

I'm content now with both the ring of church bells and the call of the muezzin, Patrick Mondaca writes

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The sun is an army invading from the East. In between the peaks of the minarets of Khartoum, over the crests of the high, stucco walls of the neighbouring villas and far from the street where the tuk-tuk drivers begin their queues, I am awakened by the first stabbing, shards of light through my window. The muezzins begin their call to the faithful, the sound of it rising and falling against the canvass of a quiet morning. The sun embarks on its slow march across the heavens and I gather myself to go up to the rooftop for the prayer. Though for me, it's more like being in the room as others pray, with the room being an entire city in the midst of a prayer. I am caught up and absorbed into it.

An erstwhile Baptist, I have since found solace in the Muslim prayers to God, in listening and observing as others pray. At dawn, in Baghdad, I have been awakened by the muezzin's song. Not to pray, not to recite the prayers, prostrate in the sand and stone, but just to listen. In Darfur, I have looked on a bit jealously as my drivers and colleagues assembled as the sun fell before our evening meal.

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I watched as they washed, rinsing the day's dust from their faces and arms, their hands and feet; as they removed their shoes, carefully setting them aside and stepping onto the unfurled rolls of woven prayer mats all aligned and facing the east. I stood there listening, their voices rising and falling around me, some louder than others, some barely a whisper.

That was some time ago. I am 36 years old now. I was 22 when I left for Baghdad in 2003 as an American soldier and 27 in Darfur where I went on a self-imposed exile to Sudan on a humanitarian visa, to make some sense of what my life had become. I had seen many betrayals and injustices associated with various people of varying faiths under various gods.

In Darfur, Ibrahim would become my primary driver on my field-security assessments. I'd picked him out of the scrum of other potential drivers because he looked like a pirate. I liked him because he drove like a North African Andretti, on paved road and dirt track alike.

I loved him because whether we found ourselves nearly capsized in the swirling waters of a washed out wadi, or chased and harassed by bandits, Ibrahim saved our lives with the calm of a Buddhist monk and the discipline of a Samurai. When we were lost, Ibrahim could find our way home as coolly as if we had taken a wrong turn on a Sunday drive in the New England countryside. Amulets adorned his thick neck and biceps, stuffed with Koranic verses on small bits of paper into leather pouches, worn dark and smooth from sweat and dust, and an eternity of hours of wear and prayer.

Ibrahim could pray to God as easily as I could call my office from my satellite phone. He could barely read or write a word of Arabic, English or any other language. Yet, he could talk to me through a translator for hours about the Koran. He'd committed much of it to memory, passage after passage, verse after verse, as his father and his father's father had committed to their memories.

I found it fascinating that the most educated, in terms of the Koran, need not even be able to read it, need not have any formal schooling to be deemed the most qualified to lead this communication with God. It stood in stark opposition to my Baptist upbringing in Connecticut.

Yet in Darfur, in the most obscure of villages, the simplest and roughest of men, African farmers and rebel fighters and Arab militiamen, more learned in soil and millet and war than in any holy book, led others, teachers and the more educated, in speaking to their God as they bowed and prayed together.

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I could have joined them in prayer, as Ibrahim and others often invited me. But I did not, for fear of being a distraction. I said I would pray with them from where I watched. And I did, in my own way.

I pondered this connection between God and humanity and thought about what it meant to actually speak to God without any restraint or parameter of a particular religious affiliation. For under the North African night sky when one marvels at being such a small speck of a thing in this vast universe, under this vivid canopy of constellations and falling stars, during such prayers, one cannot help but think about one God, whether Muslim or not, and whether it matters which faith, if any, we lay claim to.

The Baptist God was far from me there, just as the Baptist God is far from me when I am walking in Montclair, N.J., where I live now, with my espresso and the newspaper, and I hear the ringing of those first early church bells.

I am reminded of the fact that a God is present somehow, around me, wherever I am. I am content in what the sound of those church bells means to me as I am with the Muslim calls to prayer. And despite my grievances with the religious, when I hear the church bells, I am content with the fact that I am also, almost praying.

Patrick Mondaca lives in Montclair, N.J.

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