Hidden Treasures: The Call to Prayer in Medan, Indonesia’s third largest city
Like most places in the world, Indonesia, a nation stretching across 17,000 islands, is connected to our lives. As you put on your clothes in the morning, look at the tag on your shoes, undies, or t-shirt. There’s a fair chance you’re wearing something made in Indonesia. And if on your way to work you step inside a Starbucks to order coffee, you may soon be feeling the buzz of beans grown on Indonesia’s largest island, Sumatra.
Indonesia is home to animals such as the Komodo Dragon and the orangutan, and it is situated in the heart of the Ring of Fire, the popular term for the earthquake-prone, volcano-rich fault line that runs mostly along the curve where of the Pacific and Indian Oceans meet. The loudest sound in recorded history originated from Indonesia in 1883, clearly audible even in Mauritius, 3,000 miles away. The sound was the eruption—or rather the catastrophic explosion—of Krakatoa.
The Krakatoa eruption made front page news around the world at the time, and more recent tragic events have also landed Indonesia into our headlines. For example, there were the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, and the devastating tsunami the day after Christmas in 2004, which in a matter of minutes swept away an estimated 168,000 lives on Sumatra alone.
One more thing about Indonesia—and this will lead us to the “hidden treasure”—is that it holds the distinction of being the world’s most populous Muslim country, with 86 percent of its 238 million people being Muslim. (Christians, who make up 9 percent of the population, also have a significant presence throughout the archipelago.)
The Raja Mosque (Grand Mosque), built in 1906
In 2004 I visited Indonesia for three weeks. I traveled there by boat from the Malaysian city of Georgetown, which involved a five-hour crossing of the Straits of Malacca. I disembarked in Medan, Sumatra’s largest city, and went in search of a hotel. The one I found was one of the nastiest pits in which I’ve ever stayed (and I’ve stayed in many pits). The room door had neither a handle nor a functioning lock, and numerous species of fungi were proliferating in the foul-smelling bathroom. The room did, however, command what I (and very few others) thought an excellent location.
It wasn’t the view that made it great — across the road was a small, bland department store complex, which included a McDonald’s. It was instead the proximity to a certain sound. Adjacent to the hotel was the city’s largest house of worship, the Raja Mosque. From here, in the hour before dawn (and four other times per day) a call would come which I’ve always found beautiful: the Muslim call to prayer.
And so on my first morning in Sumatra, lying shirtless under a swirling fan in the tropical nighttime heat, I awoke to the muezzin’s call. It was still dark outside, and quiet too save for the birds (and now the carefully recited call). The call was the same as it is everywhere in the Muslim world— recited in Arabic, prodding those in bed to rise up and pray since “prayer is better than sleep.”
Lying in bed in my dilapidated room, looking out the window into the tropical night, and listening to the serenely sung call, I hovered somewhere between a dream and wakefulness, unconcerned that the room had no doorknob. I looked forward to the dawning of the day, and to three weeks in Sumatra.
Not too many hours after waking to the call to prayer, I found my way to a wonderful cross-cultural experience at a local A&W restaurant
Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. His most recent project is 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia, due for release in August. To learn more about him, visit www.joelcarillet.com.