Sunday, 7 October 2007

Listening to Lennon in Istanbul


Istanbul, Turkey

By John Lennon

Imagine there's no heaven,
It's easy if you try,
No hell below us,
Above us only sky,
Imagine all the people
living for today...

Imagine there's no countries,
It isn't hard to do,
Nothing to kill or die for,
No religion too,
Imagine all the people
living life in peace...

Imagine no possessions,
I wonder if you can,
No need for greed or hunger,
A brotherhood of man,
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer,
but I'm not the only one,
I hope some day you'll join us,
And the world will live as one.

After twenty years residence in Istanbul, I still groan at being woken abruptly from sleep by the muezzin's call to prayer at five in the morning.

I roll over and wait for it all to finish so I can get an extra couple of hours kip before being summoned by my alarm clock at a less indecent hour.

Unfortunately, since the Muslim world discovered electricity, this can take longer than wished. For yes, fine, in the past the dear muezzin, chosen for his most mellifluous and commanding voice would mount the steep steps to the summit of the minaret and solemnly intone his invitation/command as loud as he could, and the faithful within the vicinity, charmed, would accept and obey.

Unfortunately however, in this electronic age, the dear old muezzin doesn't need to climb the steps any more, but squats in his studio at the bottom, belting it out into a microphone which carries his voice to a megaphone that carries the sound of his voice to a far wider vicinity than in Mohammed's time, when the idea of microphones was unheard of.

But now they're everywhere. Mosques, mosques, mosques mosquitoes! Surely the time of the call (the ezan) should be uniform and exact, to set your watch by, so that they all start and finish at the same time - but no. The nearest one starts and wakes you up, BLARING, BLARING, BLARING, and when he gets about half way through another one starts in another district nearby, and so it goes on and on, five times a day - dawn, midday, teatime, evening and night. But the first is the worst.

And unluckily for me, probably because they don't have to climb the steps anymore, all my local mosques seem to have chosen old croakers who've been on the Haj to do the calling in their whiniest cracked sanctimonious voices.

Just in case you'd forgotten, or were unfamiliar with the muezzin's chant, these are the words they're bawling out, and always in Arabic, without exception:

Allahu Akbar
"Allah is Great"
(said four times)

Ashhadu an la ilaha illa Allah
"I bear witness that there is no god except the One God (Allah)".
(said two times)

Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah
"I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah."
(said two times)

Hayya 'ala-s-Salah
"Hurry to the prayer (Rise up for prayer)"
(said two times)

Hayya 'ala-l-Falah
"Hurry to success (Rise up for Salvation)"
(said two times)

Allahu Akbar
"Allah is Great"
[said two times]

La ilaha illa Allah
"There is no god except the One God (Allah)"

For the pre-dawn prayer, the following phrase is inserted after the fifth part above, towards the end:

As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm
"Prayer is better than sleep"
(said two times)

(Oh yeah?)

In Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, businesses close for 30 minutes at each call to prayer, but in Turkey, a secular country, although 98 percent of the population is Muslim, business goes on as usual.

Yes - thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revolutionary founder of the Turkish Republic, whose image stares out from the currency, paper and coin; whose obligatory portrait adorns the walls of every government office, hospital, barber shop and police station, whose pedestalled bust presides over every school playground - Turkey is the most secular of all the Islamic countries.

A look out of my window confirms it. There are at least five visible minarets (although more are obscured by apartment blocks), but the people passing below in the street the students in their school uniforms, youths in jeans and T shirts with gelled hair, hippie types, young couples strolling hand in hand, girls in slacks and tight jumpers with bare midriffs, sunglasses, dyed hair and make-up, walk past those in headscarves and long coats, even the occasional woman covered from head to toe in black, only her eyes visible, keeping her distance behind the bearded skull-capped husband, amber prayer beads twisting in his hand. A mélange of society, mixing together seemingly without pain.

And yet...

Only last year at the end of a three month course teaching at one of the many private English schools in Istanbul, as I congratulated the students on their progress, wishing them luck, one headscarfed woman refused to take my proffered handshake.

"I can't touch a man with my naked flesh," she explained. "It's against Islam."

Outraged, I turned to another headscarfed girl I'd already pressed palms with.

"She's right," she said glumly. "But I work in a bank, so I have to."

At that same school while using a taped song as dictation ("Imagine" by John Lennon), the midday ezan started, and Ali, one of the cleverer students, made a twisting movement with his hand.

"Sorry. That's as loud as it goes," I said, misinterpreting.

"No," he said. "Turn it off during this." He pointed over his shoulder at the blaring call to prayer. "Allah."

"No!" said I, furious, pointing to the portrait of Ataturk on the wall.

"We are not in Saudi Arabia! This is a secular country, thanks to that man! Everything does not stop for prayer! If you want to leave and pray you are free to leave! But this is a lesson, and it continues!"

Ali got up and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. The other students were shocked but I managed to continue.

The following day I was approached by the head of the school, asking if I'd been playing hymns in my lesson.

"They're very worried about the recent influx of Christian evangelists proselytizing in Turkey."

"No, it wasn't a hymn," I replied.

Ali never returned to class.

In fact I've used John Lennon's "Imagine" many times during my teaching years in Turkey. I have to admit that I find the tune a bit boring, but the words are important and the ideas provocative for people of all faiths.

When I played it to a class of high school students in the late eighties one bright spark exclaimed with accusing eyes:

"But this song is about Communism!"

The Communist Party was banned in Turkey at that time.

In another school, during the lead up to the first Gulf War, a girl was jailed for writing "NO WAR!" on her classroom blackboard.

A silence reigned the last time I played the song to a class of university students a couple of weeks ago before one indignantly volunteered:

"We hate this song!"

"Why say 'we' when you haven't addressed the others?" I asked.

"This song is against God. We are Muslims," was the reply.

"It doesn't mention God," I retorted.

"No heaven, no hell it says" he answered. "Of course there is a heaven and hell. The book says so."

The rest of the class glared at me accusingly.

"Who wrote the book?"

"God," was the unanimous answer.

"How did the world begin?" I asked, and a brief diatribe about Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden began before the bell rang and they all rushed out to have a cigarette during the break.

One girl approached me with downcast eyes.

"Do you believe in Adam and Heyva?" she asked.

"No," said I. "Do you?"

"I don't either," she said, shuffling papers together. "But they don't question. They believe what they're told. It's easier. And it's better to keep quiet about such subjects."

She gave me a chocolate but didn't return until a couple of lessons later.

I was disappointed, but not discouraged, because I still have the letter of one student in the class of a group of young teens in a private school whom I asked to write their impressions of the song late last century. Most didn't bother, but one did. I asked if I could keep it, and this is it:


I liked this song. If you ask me why, I can give you lots of answers. First of all, the music is nice. Singer sanged well. But the most important thing is that the song words are perfect.

When I heard this song, I forgot all of my nightmares in life and became happy. I felt different. Because it was about goodness, peace, and a wonderfull world full of wonderfull people. John Lennon wants us to imagine a world like heaven.

Let's imagine it. Everyone helps each other. There's no fighting, there's peace everywhere. There's no bad feelings, no bad people, no war, no illness. We are happy, the environment is clean and beautifull.

I liked these ideas, if everyone who know this song think like I do, the world will be in peace.

MICHAEL DICKINSON is a writer and artist who works as an English teacher in Istanbul, Turkey. He designed the cover art for two CounterPunch books, Serpents in the Garden and Dime's Worth of Difference, as well as Grand Theft Pentagon, forthcoming from Common Courage Press. He can be contacted through his website of collage pictures at http://CARNIVAL_OF_CHAOS.TRIPOD.COM