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Tone Deaf

The ear-splitting decline of a religious ritual in Turkey.

Once the enchantment of living in a foreign country wears off, one begins to notice the small discomforts—for example, that the daily call to prayer can sound absolutely awful. I mean no disrespect; I, like many godless Westerners, quickly fell for its beauty and reliability. But I also noticed—when I could no longer speak on the phone, say—that my Istanbul muezzin had, on occasion, taken to screaming. The voice was so terrible that guests would stare out the window in astonishment, unsure of what to say. The mosque’s speakers face my fifth-floor apartment; when the muezzin coughs or clears his throat, it carries straight into my living room. I have developed an intimate relationship with the mystery bad muezzin, wondering whether he is ill or clueless, why he became a muezzin, and how. I imagine he has a weary wife.

This isn’t always the experience of the ezan (the “call to prayer” in Turkish). In Kabul, I heard lilting, soul-rattling ezans—music so seductive it almost felt romantic. These voices would lead people anywhere, even to God! In Istanbul, my ezan felt more like a kidnapping, which was all the more surprising given that the Turks prize their ezan. One of Turkey’s popular nationalist sayings can be roughly translated as: “The martyrs will never die, the homeland will never be divided, the ezan will never go quiet, and the flag will never go down.” Turkish friends tell me that when they travel to Europe they miss these familiar sounds. The ezan is in their soul.

But the proliferation of less-skilled muezzins has not gone unnoticed. A few years ago, the matter took on national significance when Sezen Aksu, Turkey’s biggest pop star, paused during a concert to allow a muezzin to sing the ezan and then declared, “He should at least have a decent voice.” Turkish journalists frequently weigh in with advice for both the muezzins (they should not drink cold water before singing) and the mosques (the speaker volume should be turned down). Recently, state-organized efforts have increased, with the Istanbul office of the mufti conceding last spring that it had received scores of complaints and deciding to offer extra voice training. Chastened muezzins now get together at mufti-organized classes and practice scales before an instructor; in other cases, talented muezzins volunteer to help their vocally impaired brothers.

Finding out the underlying cause for the muezzin crisis turned out to be rather tricky. Many Turks are reluctant to divulge embarrassing information about their country and customs to a foreign journalist; secularist Turks don’t like complaining about an issue that is important to the devout. After all, even though Turkey is officially a secular state, it is a decidedly religious place, perhaps more visibly so since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamic, conservative Justice and Development Party came to power eight years ago. Indeed, almost everyone I spoke to agreed on one thing: “If the ezan is beautiful, then people will think better of Islam,” as one imam put it. In a country that venerates the muezzin’s art, why does the ezan sometimes sound so bad?

On my first attempt to match a face to the voice (and the hacking) outside my window, my muezzin was out sick, according to a young man who scampered after me with a tray of tea as I tried to enter the mosque. The next day, the mosque was closed. A locksmith whose shop was nestled at the base of the building explained that the muezzin and imam were out but that he could offer a substitute—his imam friend, who worked part-time as a real estate agent down the street.

The agent-imam sat with his prayer beads in a tiny office. Apparently, many imams moonlight as real estate agents, one of the only professions that can accommodate five daily interruptions. It seemed to me a brilliant idea: You can’t trust real estate agents, but who wouldn’t trust an imam? Suddenly, the imam said, “Don’t we know each other?” Yes, yes we did. Two years ago, the imam had helped me get into a previous apartment in a different part of town. This real-estate-agent-imam was also a locksmith.

With our personal connection established, the realestate-agent-locksmith-imam happily responded to my questions, confiding that small, relatively unimportant mosques like mine typically had one muezzin, but often the ezan from a larger mosque was piped in through a wireless transmitter. (Diyanet, the state ministry that regulates Turkey’s religious affairs, dispatches the best muezzins to the most important mosques: Eyüp, Sultanahmet, Süleimaniyye.) Diyanet hopes that this system will eliminate some of the less-skilled singing. My mosque, the imam explained, had one reader on-site and two broadcast from another mosque. He spoke reverently of the two electronically imported muezzins. One of them, Cengiz Bayraktar, gives lessons in his free time and has won many ezan competitions.This left the on-site muezzin as the likely culprit for the cacophonous readings.

Some days later, the muezzin and imam from my local mosque invited me to their second-floor office. I discovered the muezzin to be a short, slightly rotund man of 55. He was thrilled to dish on muezzin-dom and played glorious ezans from other mosques on his cell phone—“Look, look, listen to Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara.” He said he was a big fan of the muezzins in Egypt and joked heartily about their incompetent Turkish counterparts. “There are some who, even if you educated them for fifty years, they wouldn’t get better.”

I pressed the imam to explain this problem. His first theory was that the country was suffering from the legacy of a bad batch of muezzins. The Turkish state has always controlled the country’s estimated 80,000 mosques, effectively making imams and muezzins civil servants. Muezzins have to pass exams, he explained, but, “in the past, the exam wasn’t as hard as it is now.” Unskilled singers had apparently been grandfathered in. When I spoke later with Bayraktar, he echoed this theory. Some 30 or 40 years ago, there had been a muezzin shortage, and lower-quality muezzins were hired. My local imam suggested a second, related explanation: Muezzins are very difficult to fire because of their civil-servant status. The only immediate grounds for dismissal are major crimes like murder, rape, and theft. In addition, he conceded, leaders “employ their own guys,” meaning muezzins sometimes get jobs because of who they know. In other words, the next time I heard a bad ezan, I could chalk it up to political patronage.

This idea seemed incongruous with my vague notions of Islamic sanctity. For that matter, I hadn’t imagined that imams could be part-time real estate agents. But, in a country where the ministry posts the Friday prayer on the Internet so it can be accessed by each of the many thousands of Turkish mosques, a holy job is also just a job—regulated by a state agency and subject to the quirks and inconsistencies that might afflict the post office or any other municipal organization.

So, if the jolly muezzin, who claimed he only sang on Fridays, wasn’t the bad muezzin, then who was it? There was one more possibility: The imam admitted that he sometimes allowed local residents to sing the ezan. “They say, ‘Hey, I can do that, too. Can I sing?’ And so we let them. And they are terrible, and everyone in the neighborhood complains.” My bad muezzin, then, could be anyone out there who wanted to take a shot at muezzin karaoke—a hipster, the corner egg dealer, a locksmith. “We would feel badly saying no,” explained the imam. “They are our worshippers.” This let me to consider a final possibility: Had the “Eurovision Song Contest,” a sort-of European precursor to “American Idol,” inspired Turks to believe that they, too, could be muezzins?

In the end, I was relieved that the terrible singer was not, in fact, the jolly muezzin, who had so enthusiastically shared his expansive cell-phone recording collection with me. After our conversation, he seemed anxious to restore my faith in the beauty of the ezan. “I am not supposed to sing today, but at six-thirty, will you be home?” he asked. I told him that I could be, and he said he would sing especially for me. That evening, in my living room, I settled in for a special serenade. The speaker buzzed to life, and a soft, careful voice began to sing, with long pauses in between phrases, as if to make sure that someone was listening.

Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul. This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine.