Jerusalem Al-Aqsa muezzin echoes 500 years of family tradition
As the rising sun gently begins to illuminate Jerusalem's golden Dome of the Rock and the city slowly awakens, Firas al-Qazzaz's hypnotic voice echoes softly through the Old City.
He is the latest member of his family in 500 years to lead prayers from the minaret at the cherished Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam.
"Allahu akbar (God is greatest)," begins the call rising over the mosque compound, not jerky or abrupt but smooth like honey, calling the faithful closer to God.
"When you pull someone from sleep to prayer at dawn, take him kindly," Qazzaz said, explaining the different tones for the five daily Islamic prayers.
The site, where Muslims believe the Prophet Mohammed travelled on a winged horse before ascending to heaven, lies in the heart of Jerusalem's Old City, home to places holy to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus means the cobbled streets leading to the compound, normally heaving with life, now lie eerily quiet.
The mosque may be closed and empty but Qazzaz's call can be heard echoing above the silence of a city in lockdown.
Unimpeded by car horns or noisy cafe chatter, his voice soars upwards clear and crisp amid sweet birdsong.
Standing straight and with a slow, deliberate way of speaking, the 32-year-old is the youngest muezzin, or religious official who sounds the call to prayer, at Al-Aqsa.
In happier times after prayers, Qazzaz would pick his way slowly through the streets, greeting all those around -- a handshake here, an "Asalamu aleikum" ("Peace be unto you") there, an invitation to join another for an Arabic coffee scented with cardamom.
'A beautiful voice'
"It is an honour from God that this family has been blessed with beautiful voices to be able to call the prayer in the Al-Aqsa mosque," he told AFP in a friend's house, where the walls are adorned with china whirling dervishes and a clock decorated with a picture of Mickey Mouse.
His ancestors moved from Hijaz in modern-day Saudi Arabia to take up the mantle as the mosque's muezzin in the 15th century, and since then the family has passed the title from generation to generation.
His father held the prestigious post for more than 40 years and Qazzaz himself never dreamed of anything else.
He shadowed his father from a young age -- learning the call to prayer and how to breathe properly while reciting the Koran.
At 14, he first asked his father if he could recite the Islamic call to prayer.
"The weather was cold -- there was snow. I was afraid anyone would hear me, because Al-Aqsa has an awe of prestige," he said.
"It is not easy to stop and read and call the prayers. But I called the prayer."
"The head of the Waqf (the religious organisation that runs the mosque) asked 'who was that?' My father said 'that was my son.' He said 'he has a beautiful voice, but it is still weak'."
To hone his talent, the young Firas went to train in a private institute in Jerusalem before spending a year in Cairo at the Al-Azhar mosque, learning from an Egyptian master, Sheikh Mohammed al-Masri.
'Touching the soul'
Across the Arab world, another Egyptian voice resonates -- that of the late singer Umm Kulthum, perhaps the most famous Arab musician in history, known for her bewitching voice.
Asked if he considers himself an artist like Kulthum, Qazzaz considered the question from another angle.
"Many of the well-known Arabic artists began with the holy Koran. Umm Kulthum, she began by reading the Koran. Sabah Fakhry (a famous Syrian singer) was a muezzin in a mosque."
"It would be easy for me to sing, but a singer would find it very difficult to call prayers. It is not easy because of the Koran, the prayers, the grammar," he added.
Qazzaz is the youngest of half a dozen muezzins who rotate the prayers, giving them time to rest their voices in between.
In the markets of major Arab cities, cassettes or CDs of calls to prayer can still be found.
But with the development of mobile networks and high-speed internet, many are turning to YouTube to listen to the muezzins and to dissect their style and influences.
"Everything is there on YouTube," Qazzaz said, speaking soothingly in classical Arabic.
"I listen to a lot (of muezzins) but am not won over by many -- only by those with a powerful voice that can affect people."
Qazzaz, who has a five-year-old daughter, said that if he has a son, he would hope the boy would follow in his footsteps.
"Ultimately the muezzin calls people to pray, but the more beautiful part is he leaves an impact on their souls."
For more than a month, muezzins from major Arab cities have urged the faithful to stay at home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in mosques.
"We ask God to put an end to this calamity, this pandemic, and to return to calm during the month of Ramadan, in the hope that the Al-Aqsa mosque and the other places of worship will be able to reopen," Qazzaz said.
"For me as a muezzin, when I say at the end 'pray in your homes', it breaks my heart."