Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 6, 2010

Board of Contributors: The call to a good life need not always be in perfect pitch

by Nancy McGaraghan

At first the sound was surreal.

We had arrived in Istanbul late the night before. Then, we were struck by the sound of birds, which our driver said could always be heard in Istanbul.

Now, in the early morning half light, and only half awake, we heard a strange warbling, wailing noise. Before we were awake enough to figure it out, the sound was over. And so was our night's sleep.

But that sound would return and eventually become a favorite traveling companion. It was, of course, the Muslim call to prayer and it is pervasive in Turkey, as are the mosques and minarets from which it is chanted through loudspeakers five times a day.

The call to prayer can be hauntingly beautiful but sometimes it is not pitch-perfect. We learned that the head of religious affairs in Istanbul had set up voice classes for the city's tuneless muezzins and imams.

Traditionally, Muslims would respond by performing the prescribed prayer ritual. We did not see this, nor did we understand the text of the prayers. But somehow these chants became enchanting for us.

It's a shame that so much of what we know of the Muslim world is negative. We hear, "call to prayer" and we think, jihad, extremist, 9/11, terrorism. Nothing could be further from the truth of what we saw and experienced in Turkey. The call to prayer, as it is practiced there — in moderation with quiet, personal responses — was emblematic of life in Turkey as we saw it.

Mosques and minarets dot the countryside so the call to prayer followed us on our drive from Istanbul down to the Turquoise Coast. We knew we were hooked when we began planning our trip so that we would be in earshot of the local call. For us, the calls became a welcome reminder to slow down and take an example from the Turks, who are gracious and seem to relish life.

For them, beauty is every bit as important as expedience. In this purportedly masculine culture, there was a distinctly feminine quality.

And hospitality is not optional.

At a lunch stop in a large industrial city, we met Mahmet and his friends, 20-somethings, cute and engaging. Lots of gestures and good laughs later, we discovered our one common word: "Facebook." We met mama, who worked in the kitchen. One after another, men came in to check out what was going on as if word was out that some crazy Americans were in town.

We left with pictures of everyone, pockets full of every treat and trinket they could find behind the counter, a couple of local fist bumps to share with the grandkids, and memories to last a lifetime.

Our next stop was for gas. To our amazement, the owner came and asked us to join him for tea. Had the grapevine travelled this far? Knowing there could only be one response to his invitation, we put down our squeegee and pump and joined the Director, as he called himself. He pulled up folding chairs at the side of the station, we all sat down and a man carrying three glasses of tea appeared from around the corner.

Besides his hospitality, we shared only sign language and a desire to get to know each other. Just like Greg Mortenson in his book, "Three Cups of Tea," we were beginning to feel like part of the family.

There is also visible poverty in Turkey. I asked one of our guides about this and if Turkish people were generally happy. He said they were, in spite of the poverty, which the country is trying to deal with.

"Turkish people make their happiness wherever they are."

We saw families of four riding on motor scooters, hanging on and laughing. Helmets? Not one. Women sat tall and proud on the backs of tractors, seeming to say, "My guy's got a tractor. Top that!" It was impossible to be in the company of these Turkish people and not be affected by their warmth and optimism.

Is the call to prayer responsible for any of this? Who can say? But the one thing that is a constant in their lives is this call to be awake, to be grateful and to believe that life is good.

It is a call to hold on to values, such as hospitality, that are threatened when life moves too fast.

We were in Turkey a month ago and now it seems like worlds away. But it is summertime in Palo Alto and the livin' is easy, as the song goes. If there is a take-home message from this trip it is to learn from our Turkish friends: Life is good, even if not pitch-perfect, and a morsel of honey-soaked pastry, or maybe a Peet's frappuccino, will sweeten anyone's perspective.

Let the wake up calls continue. n

Nancy McGaraghan is a member of the Weekly's Board of Contributors. She can be e-mailed at chezmcg@hotmail.com.

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