It’s just after the New Year, and I’m in Bamako, the capital of Mali. I’ve been wandering around the southernmost regions of the country with my shortwave radios and field recording gear for about a week. My plan was to go to Timbuktu in time for the Festival au Désert, but mere hours after I bought my plane ticket, a German tourist was killed there in broad daylight for getting mouthy with some terrorists who had drifted into town from the Sahara.

I flew to Mali anyway, but I was forced to redraw my map of the country on the fly, depending on the day’s news. For instance, I had booked myself onto a pinasse up the Niger River to Timbuktu. I was looking forward to the days-long journey, taking in the country while tuning my radios. But Timbuktu now seemed hopelessly out of reach.

Then I got a call on my Malian flip-phone from my new friend Pam.

Pam was an Englishwoman who lived in a village called Diéma, where she ran a one-woman NGO in collaboration with the regional administration. We had connected on, an archaic web site dating from the halcyon days of the 2010s. Back then, one could find a place to crash in a foreign country, free of charge, in a spirit of friendship and cultural exchange — a business model which seems impossibly utopian now.

One of Pam’s colleagues in Diéma was a major in the Malian army named Moulaye Touhami. I met Moulaye during the first few days of my time in Mali while staying with Pam. He had family in Timbuktu, and was considering a drive up to visit them in the midst of the trouble that was palpably brewing in the north of the country. I had already taken leave of Diéma to explore the Sikasso region when Pam summoned me back to Bamako. We arranged a rendezvous at the Sleeping Camel, which was then the most popular and cosmopolitan spot in all of Bamako. Also with them was Emily, a delightful Hungarian woman I had met in Diéma. I sat behind Pam on the passenger side. Between them in the front seat was Moulaye’s sub-machine gun.

It appeared that we were going to Timbuktu.

The journey that followed was surreal and dreamlike, even as it was happening, and it’s become even more so with the passage of time. Our route to Timbuktu was mapped out by Moulaye’s connections along the way. He seemed to have cousins in every city in Mali. We were often pulling in under cover of darkness after many numbing hours bumping along the back routes, but there was always a room or space in the yard for us to call home. Nothing fussy, just enough for a few winks. Moulaye always nearby with his gun. Without fail, we were on the road again before daybreak, no matter how late our arrival.

After a late start out of Bamako, we spent our first night in Ségou, the first major city along the route to Timbuktu. A drowsy figure roused to open the creaky metal gate that separated the property from the street. As the house was sleeping, we set up Moulaye’s tents in whispers: one for Emily and me, and another for Pam. (Moulaye slept – or kept vigil – in the Jeep. As a devout Muslim, he didn’t believe in sleeping close to a woman who wasn’t his wife.) Even in early January, Mali was warm, and especially humid along the Niger. There was no way to scan my radios while in such close quarters, so I lay awake in the dark, listening to Emily’s snoring, my mind full of abstractions.

A major part of my lifelong travel project was (is) to visit countries that were (are) majority-Muslim. The reasons for this are complex, and certainly too much of a derail here, but suffice it to say that the first morning call to prayer – the adhan al-Fajr – is my favorite sound on Earth.

Prior to this trip, I had been listening to recitations of the Quran on shortwave for most of my life, beamed from Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait. Those broadcasts all shared a certain ornamental style, a formal way of delivering the message of Islam which was as rigorous and precise as any classical singing. (Of course, in Islam, one never calls it singing or music, but I digress.) If one visits Cairo or Istanbul or Bali, one will hear precisely this style over the loudspeakers five times a day.

But what I heard in Mali was something different altogether. Aside from the means of transmission – a loudspeaker in the dead of night – it bore no relationship to the calls I had heard, or heard about, in other places. Perhaps it was because Islam itself was uniquely integrated into Malian society, a liberal interpretation which allowed for the entwining of local spiritual or religious traditions. (At least before the Libyan Islamists ran roughshod over the country in the period post-2012.) Whatever their origins, the calls to prayer throughout Mali felt distinctive and hyper-local. The voices of the muezzins in Sikasso had a different character to those in Timbuktu, and they were equally different in Diéma and San. My intense fascination with these differences led to the recordings which I issued in 2013 as The Muezzins of Mali.

But back to this night in Ségou. Between Emily’s snoring and the thick of the air, sleep was looking increasingly unlikely. I had just unzipped the tent – to allow for some relief from both – when that sound pierced the darkness. Whatever I had heard anywhere before in my life, it wasn’t like this: a slowly modulating wail into the night that glided through uneasy intervals. Allahu Akbar, I could make out easily enough. What follows is Ashhadu ala ilaha illallah – “I testify that there is no god but Allah” – but it was delivered in a mode I’d never heard before. The call became progressively more haunting the longer it went on. I couldn’t deny the attraction any longer. I gently slipped out of the tent and headed towards the sound and out into the night. Holding out my Sony recorder like a divining rod, I found an unobtrusive corner nearby, sat down next to my machine, closed my eyes, and leaned into the sound.

As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm. As-salatu Khayrun Minan-nawm.
Prayer is better than sleep. Prayer is better than sleep.