RINGING BELLS

Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
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for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity.  The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
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Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.

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We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
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Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
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These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
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In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
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Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

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Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.

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San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

INDONESIA – CALLS TO PRAYER

Beijing, 24 February 2014

I left us in the last post sitting on the hotel terrace sipping our welcoming drink. We were sitting there again as night drew in. And as night drew in, we began to hear a strange medley of sounds rising from the surrounding villages. It was the calls to evening prayer. The loudspeakers of every village mosque blared out the call – and there seemed to be a lot of mosques in the area …
local mosques 002

local mosques 001

I said it was a strange medley; actually, it was a disagreeable cacophony. Each muezzin started at a slightly different moment, and each chanted a different tune. The result grated on the ears. It was rather like the noise coming from an orchestra when the players are warming up and tuning their instruments before they start. A million miles from a magical moment which my wife and I once shared in Istanbul, in Sultan Ahmet square in front of the Blue Mosque. We were sitting down having a rest when the mosque’s muezzin suddenly started up. He chanted a line or two and paused. And behind us, faintly, we heard the muezzin of Süleymaniye Mosque respond with his couple of lines. To which the muezzin of the Blue Mosque in turn responded. And so they duetted back and forth for fully five minutes while we sat there holding our breath.

Back on the hotel terrace, my wife and I listened until the chanting died away, and then we turned in. After our adventures in getting here, we were glad to go to bed early. We slept like logs – until dawn, when we were awakened by the dawn call to prayer. As I have done so many times in darkened hotel rooms, from Morocco in the far west of the Muslim lands, to Java now in the far east, and at many points in between, I lay there letting the song flow over me:

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
Prayer is better than sleep.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

And as I always do before drifting back to sleep, I thought to myself what a pity it was that there is no God out there to receive their, or anyone else’s, prayers.

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Pics: mine