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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Call to prayer resonates in a holy, historic land

As we rode the bus from Alexandria to Cairo on the last day of our tour, Eman, the Egyptologist who had been with us for two weeks, asked...

Special to The Seattle Times

As we rode the bus from Alexandria to Cairo on the last day of our tour, Eman, the Egyptologist who had been with us for two weeks, asked us for highlights.

One by one the answers came — Abu Simbel, the Unfinished Obelisk, Alexandria's Catacombs, the Temple of Philae at night. None of us had been to Egypt before; each of us was satiated to the point of sensory overload. My husband simply said, "I can't choose just one thing; it was all wonderful."

When it was my turn, I was horrified to feel the emotion welling in my throat. "The call to prayer," I blurted out.

Eman looked at me. "Did you say 'the call to prayer'? No one has ever said that before." "Yes, I found it deeply moving ... " I answered, wondering myself why I had said that.

The trip to Egypt was our first visit to a Muslim country. I had worried about it before we left Seattle, wondering if — as an American — I would sense hostility toward Westerners. Would I feel like a voyeur who's come to peer at monuments and temples, then disappear after spending my tourist dollars? Would I leave a negative imprint?

I knew I could be just an observer, because my Arabic understanding was limited to reading numerals and speaking the pat phrases "Shukraan" (thank you), "As-salaam alaykum" (a greeting), and my favorite, because it was so melodic in Arabic, "Alhamdoolillah" (thanks be to God).

Once we arrived in Egypt, I felt comfortable traveling its length, despite (or maybe because of) its armed guards who accompanied us on our bus and the visible presence of the tourist police force — men on camels, foot, horseback — vigilantly watching for trouble.

Each day, Eman subtly reminded us of life's delicate balance with her "Insha'Allah" (God willing), uttered whenever she referred to planned activities. Every morning and always at noon (with three additional occasions — afternoon, sunset and night), no matter where we were, the call to prayer stopped me with its demand for conscious reflection, its appeal for perspective and gratefulness. At home, I don't pray on a schedule; I have stepped away from organized religion. But my psyche so yearns for life's spiritual dimension that I continue to seek the connection. Having mundane activities interrupted with the muezzin's audible cry to God was a showstopper for me.

Now, snuggled back into my Lake Forest Park home, I have had time to reflect on how deeply our American Judeo-Christian roots are enmeshed with the tenets of Islam. I cannot help thinking about Iraq, where the day also begins, is interrupted, and ends with the call to prayer. It is a reminder of life's holy rhythm, not a summons to brutality. What poor students of life we human beings must be, to have failed so utterly to pay attention to the meaning of our own rituals.

Sara J. Glerum lives in Lake Forest Park.

The Travel Essay, written by readers about an adventure or insight, runs each Sunday in The Seattle Times and online at seattletimes.com. Essays, which are unpaid, must be no longer than 600 words and will be edited for content and length. E-mail to travel@seattletimes.com or send to Travel, The Essay, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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