Friday, August 12, 2011

Sounds: Or, The Minutiae of Ramazan

I am completely in love with Radiolab, a science-based radio show from NPR. I have all the podcasts saved up, along with This American Life, Car Talk, and Wait Wait Don't Tell Me. All of these together kind of serve the same function as the somewhat newly released Calve peanut butter, which is that they act as a kind of slow-release for the building pressure of homesickness that comes from missing little things. And one thing I totally miss is driving around with my parents listening to NPR.

Radiolab is my favorite, though even though it's never been on during family drives. Every episode contains a million thrilling factoids about how things work and what your brain is up to and the completely chance events that exploded to make the world how it is now. Anyway, seeing as how both the hosts are Oberlin graduates cum professional radio and production guys, they're really interested in sounds, and what sounds do and how they affect us. One of the most pleasing episodes discusses, among other cool things (like how mothers use their voices the same way to talk to their babies no matter what language they speak), is how sound is "touch from a distance." Which it is. The vibrations of sound cause air to touch the cilia in your ear making them move, which sets off a series of reactions and echoes that your brain eventually interprets as something meaningful.

And not to keep going on about babies, but sound is how we touch our babies before they're born. And to totally go on about babies, you want to know something cool? All of us have lived in the bellies of our grandmothers, in a way. That's because egg cells form in the female fetus before birth. So the egg that made you was in your mama while she was still in her mama. Cool, right?

So that's why I like Radiolab. There're all kinds of nifty things to know about the world.

Is it making a sound?
Anyway, sound. I like sound. Isn't that a stupid and vague thing to say? I like smells, too. If I had to choose my favorite sense it would be a tie between smell and sound. But here's one thing I like about sound: A single thing doing something makes a small sound. Hundreds of those things doing something makes a totally different sound, or even a synergistic sound. Like leaves. If you rub two leaves together, they just go "sssht sssht." But thousands of leaves on a tree make the sound of wind. I suppose that wind is completely silent unless it has something to rustle or whistle around on. And even if there were none of that, the only sound it would make is the one of hitting your ears.

Which means that the sound of wind maybe doesn't exist unless someone is there to hear it.

Zen moment.

Chomping coral is what I do best!
Okay, I'm done.

So I really like what happens to sound when it gets repeated by lots of things. For example, once I was snorkeling in Hawaii on a shallow reef. I didn't want to go back on shore and deal with the annoying company there, so I decided to follow this one parrot fish around and see what it got up to. I followed it for a long time, and what it mainly got up to was scraping at the coral with its beaky mouth. Then I realized its beaky mouth was making a tiny, dampened sound on the coral. After that I saw another parrot fish doing the same thing, and I could hear it too. Then I noticed all around were parrot fish scraping on the rocks, hundreds of them, and they were all making the same sound. So under the sound of the water and the waves was the dull echo of all the parrot fish scraping the coral all around me.

Even tasty fish are fucking scary.
And then I realized I had swum out past the edge of the reef where it dropped off sharply and I was suddenly in very deep water. Parrot fish were scraping away below me farther than I could see down. When I looked out I swear there were ominous giant shadows of monstrous giant fish that maybe were something innocuous like tuna, but maybe were some sort of 4 meter predators of parrot fish. So I made my way back, sort of slowly so as not to draw their attention. The fact is, even though I like fish, deep down I'm fucking terrified of being in the water with them, that one may come up from below, or come up next to me and look at me. Or eat me. Or decide to play with me. Whatever. It's scary. I have bad dreams about that fairly often, actually, of being surrounded by malevolent fish, or falling into dirty water I know is full of malevolent fish. Also baby animals multiplying out of control and some of them are dead and some of them can talk.

Okay, then.

Not the worst birds ever.
Another example is once I was standing a safe distance away from a flock of Canada geese. On the one hand, geese suck because sometimes they get inexplicably pissed off and chase after you flapping and hissing, and if there's one thing birds shouldn't do, it's hiss. On the other hand, they're slightly less unnerving than other birds because their eyes are a little less beady and they don't have the awful, jerky movements of chickens or pigeons. They don't turn their heads quite so suddenly, looking at you and not looking at you at the same time.

These particular geese were pecking at the grass. At first I heard the sound of one goose pecking, and then all of them pecking and it was so nice, all thumpy and still. When I pointed this out to the fellow I was dating at the time, he wasn't the least bit interested, which was probably one of many early hints that things weren't going to work out between us, but like many such hints, I let it go and then the relationship took another two years to die an explosive death but it all led to me coming to Turkey in its way, so you can see why the geese were important.

Get it?
You know, I started off this post thinking I didn't really have anything to write about so I was going to talk about Ramazan sounds for a couple of paragraphs and hit "publish" without really getting into it too much. Now look what's happened.

Ramazan in the summer must be a bitch. I'm sure you're not to put those two words together in a sentence, but check it out, I just did.

Seriously, though, you would have to be either really freaking religious or really freaking superstitious to put yourself through this ordeal. And I admit I don't quite know where that distinction between "religious" and "superstitious" lies, but I'm always surprised by who fasts and who doesn't and I make myself crazy wondering why they fast and wishing I had known earlier about that particular predilection because maybe I would have handled certain things differently or if it would have mattered if I did.

Still, I kind of like the Ramazan atmosphere. I like these early weeks of it when it seems to be making everyone happy. The later weeks they start getting a bit frayed and tetchy, but in the beginning there's a celebration feeling around. And I'm guessing this feeling doesn't come so much from religious fervor as it does from the sense of a special once-a-year thing is taking place, a time where people do the same nice things they've always done at these times, and maybe they think back on previous Ramazans and how the steps of their lives are marked in a way. I mean hell, I totally love Christmas even though I don't love Jesus. I even love singing LE Christmas songs, and I relent a little on the "No Jesus" and "God Is Not A Given" policies I otherwise have in my house, because how else would I get to sing LE "Away In A Manger" and "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing?"

Pretend it's the view from my house, okay?
Before the sunset ezan that signals when everyone can break the fast, the tension starts to build. I've liked hearing it in my neighborhood on these quiet clear evenings, when everyone has the windows open. Mothers start screeching for the kids on the street a little more frequently, and there's a crescendo of crashing in all the kitchens. You can even hear the sounds of all the food, plates, and cutlery being laid on tables. Right before the ezan it all goes a little silent, when everyone just sits, poised at their tables. Even most the babies seem to know not to bother crying, and if they do, their mothers just glance at them with tired smiles and assure everyone the baby is fine how it is.

And then the ezan. I don't know if you can feel or hear the collective sigh of relief as everyone chugs a big glass of water, or if I just imagine I can feel that because I know what they must be feeling. After that, there's only murmuring and the chink of metal on plates for awhile, until people start to loosen up and talk more. The cigarettes all get lit around the same time, and the kids explode back onto the street where they will stay until around midnight.

The other night I was out on the balcony and I could hear several neighbors in my building as they started washing dishes after iftar. Naturally all the men were still at the table having manly conversations while the women continued in the massive effort that is iftar, which was serving in my mind as further reiteration of the point that being a woman here kind of sucks.

Not happening near my house.
And then I realized I could hear all the dishes being washed next door too. And across the street. Since the guys in the minibus yard were still relatively quiet, I could hear the dishes being washed a few buildings over. And up the hill behind me. And across to the next street on the other side. I listened some more and I was pretty sure I could even hear dishes being washed way across the valley and up and down the hills over there. It made a pleasant tinkling cacophony with regular crescendos and periods of near quiet, with all the water running and women's voices in the background punctuated by the occasional crashing and laughter. How cool is that, that enough people would be doing something in their houses at exactly the same time that you could hear the music of it? It's a hundred private spaces converging into a single sound.

Anyway, it took a long time to get to where I started with the title, but that's all I have to say about that.


Anonymous said...

Hi Stranger,

I enjoyed this post so much. I remember my first Ramazan evening in a residential neighborhood in Kartal -- standing on the street in the last glow of light, and nothing to be heard but forks and knives, clink clink clink, and otherwise, quiet. It was striking and really lovely.

Thanks for sharing. :)

Stranger said...

Isn't it nice when it catches you by surprise?

Thanks for the kind comment.