In the back of the mind, the 'soundtrack' of Cairo plays

"Hayya ala Saleh." ("Hurry to the prayer, rise up for the prayer.")

It is nearly 5 a.m., and I am awakened, as I have been for the past 20 days, by the fajr, or dawn call to prayer. The amber warmth of the rising sun seeps in through the heavily curtained window, and as the local muezzin continues his call, I rise from my bed and move quietly to the window. From the 12th floor of my hotel, I have a spectacular view of the predawn bustle of Cairo.

In this city of nearly 17 million, there is much activity even at this early hour, and because my time here is limited, I rise with the faithful each morning.

An American student in this historic city, I am in awe of the endless sounds, the ever-present taxis, and the liquid curves and solid dots of the Arabic script.

The scents of Cairo beckon to me not unlike a wispy cartoon finger of smoke. The fruit-infused haze from the tea shops, the scent of lamb and peppers roasting on a spit, and my own cucumber-melon lotion – all these memories are now and will forever be part of Cairo to me.

The Nile, the Sphinx, the pyramids are also forever locked in memory, but there is something more poignant, something sharper that resonates internally when I think of Cairo. It is the azan, the call to prayer, that anchors my thoughts when they drift to Cairo.

Prayer is one of the five pillars of Islam. Five times a day, a religious leader, or muezzin, musically recites verses from the minaret of his mosque to call Muslims to prayer. Because mosques are so prolific in this cobbled city – some are only a few hundred yards apart – the effect of chants coming from what seems like every street corner is such that the chaotic echoing of hundreds of verses thickens the air throughout the day.

Times are approximate for all calls, but because time is Daliesque in this country of nearly 80 million – moving much slower and with less urgency than in the United States – it seems as if no two calls ever occur at the same time, which results in overlapping and confusing phrases and lines.

No matter what time of day, however, the words remind me of where I am in time, not only in the present, but also in the sense of time that exists as history. For the past month, wherever I have been, the words are there, too – clear on occasion or fuzzy and indistinct from an aged loudspeaker.

The effect of the call is the same no matter the timbre or clarity: The words of ancient humanity swirl around me as I pause while shopping, dining, or even golfing – and become one with time and history, one with religion and civilization.

Because each muezzin calls the faithful in his own particular style, every call has its own personality, its own distinct sound. My favorite muezzins employ bravado in their serious, melodic call. The pitch of the holy man nearest my hotel rises and drops emphatically, and the meaning and depth of the call is transmitted as much in the warm, moving strains of his voice as it is in his words. There are times when his voice rises an octave or two from the steady, reaffirming pitch that is commonly used. Likewise, there are verses during which his voice drops and undulates.

The call is beautiful to me. I am moved to my core by its reassurance, its grace, and its timelessness.

When the Waqf, or Ministry of Religious Endowments, announced plans to synchronize the call to prayer with an automated, uniform call, I was saddened and disenchanted by the news. No doubt it will be a welcome respite to those who perceive the sound as so much babble rather than holy words or an aural art. And the reform will undoubtedly erase one distraction from the streets of Cairo.

But, to me, in a city full of confusion and appeal, the harmonic element of the calls to prayer is one of its treasures.

In the US, I do not live near a mosque, so the absence of the azan when I'm at home is normal.

When I wish to return to Cairo, it is my memories that transport me, especially memories of the call to prayer. As I close my eyes and unwrap its verses from the tangles of my memory, I am returned to the cobbled alleys of the city in an instant, and am once again in the land of kings and scribes, engulfed in the sights and sounds of a city whose essence is so solid it can never really be silenced.

"Hayya ala Saleh." ("Hurry to the prayer, rise up for the prayer.")

"As-salatu Kayrun Minan-nawm." ("Prayer is better than sleep.")

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