With regard to the noise of the muezzin's calls, that may be
defined as a noise that does not exceed 10 minutes. The
magistrate's court has ordained that the permitted noise level
[during] night hours is 50 decibels. All involved [parties] have
agreed to install a central wireless system that will connect all
mosques in Jaffa to a unified and monitored call.
(Public appeal regarding the noise from mosques. Knesset:
Background paper for discussion.)
There is an hour in the night in Jerusalem when, if sleep escapes
you, you will hear a choir of voices in the wind. That hour is the
absolute zenith of the night - 4 a.m. The voices are real: the
voices of the muezzins rising from the mosques of East Jerusalem.
But the simple addition of the two facts reveals nothing about the
voice itself, or about the particular kind of attention growing
inside whosoever is lying awake in the dark of that hour.
To begin with, knowing the individual voice of a standard muezzin
does not prepare one at all for what Jerusalem is capable of doing
to those sounds congregating in the great basin between Mount
Scopus and the southern hills of Talpiot, the basin wherein dwells
the Old City. Standing on the rim of the basin at the hour of the
muezzins' call, one hardly believes one's ears; those voices,
electronically amplified as we know, rise and reach out from every
mosque - clearly visible thanks to the green lights signaling their
presence - then congregate in the high air to create a braid of
voices that sounds nothing like the packed sum of its parts. It is
a magnificent braid of sounds in which the separate features of the
muezzin's words and tremulations are lost, growing into a new
accord from the harmony of the various calls. It is one great sound
braided of separate voices breaking up from it and returning like
bees to their hive, creating a unity in diversity that makes the
air vibrate. Muslim music does not traditionally resort to the
polyphony that characterizes western religious music, but the
Jerusalem air proves its special penchant for polyphonic-chaotic
composition. The movement surrounding each muezzin's maqam and the
common lines of the basic call invite these voices to enter one
another, so that they actually become mutually braided.
Whoever walks in Abu Tor or on the slopes of the hill of the High
Commissioner's Palace at twilight, especially on those heavy hot
days when the air stands still and slender columns of smoke rise
from the rural houses, drawing slow and upright lines on the
horizon, will clearly hear this great voice, sounding like a
powerful lament bursting out of the entire city, as if supplicating
to the sky, forcefully springing forth out of the great city spread
across the hills.
But at nights it is a different voice altogether. Those waking up
at four o'clock in the morning have a special kind of awakening,
extremely arduous and open-eyed. All the worries and anxieties
confront them at once - the vulnerability of children and their
fears, the illnesses of loved ones, unfulfilled commitments and
weighty dues; lying down with eyes very open, very lonely even if
the breaths of loved ones sound from adjacent rooms. At that hour
everything lies bare and unadorned, uncomforted. One cannot expect
to fall asleep dwelling in that kind of waken state. Sleep will
only come uninvited when wakefulness has calmed down. One can only
succumb to it and let diseases and worries parade before them until
loneliness distinctly materializes. Then, if you are in Jerusalem,
you will hear from the midst of that hard and wide-open clarity the
splendid voice of a choir. The sound arrives from a great distance
- slow ripples of sound waves borne by the wind, and it is
wondrously mellow. Not soothing or numbing. It belongs neither to
your own life nor any more even to the muezzins who make it. It
emerges rising through the silent night air of the city like the
northern lights in the dark of icy plains. It approaches you
through the night. In the far distance the lament that hovers
nearby has disappeared. From afar it is a marvelously beautiful
sound, a sound reminiscent of nothing. A horizon embodied in sound.
Those awake at that hour have no one to sing a lullaby for them,
and no song could overcome their wakefulness, to put it to sleep.
But those awake in Jerusalem by night have a song. It does not make
them less lonely or comfort them at all. Like them, it hovers
through the air. And like them it is altogether beyond. Whosoever
has a cracked heart - the cracks will deepen.
This essay originally appeared in Hebrew in Haaretz, and was
translated by Galit Hasan-Rokem.