WHENEVER I THINK of takbeerat al-Eid, I remember the curtains of my childhood bedroom—how Mom surprised me one afternoon, saying she had bought me new pink (pink!) curtains. I loved their color and sheer fabric. I could see the glass balcony door behind them, and behind that, the green wooden shutters. When the shutters were open, I could also see the rooftops of the city. And from the rooftops of Tripoli seemed to rise the takbeerat every Eid morning.
Every Eid morning, I was awakened by the sounds of the prayers from the city’s mosques: Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. The word takbeera means “to say Allahu Akbar (God is Greater) once,” and takbeerat is its plural form. Takbeerat al-Eid, which preceded the Eid prayer, repeated Allahu Akbar and added words of gratitude and worship. The chanting usually began on the last night of Ramadan and resumed at sunrise the next day. Though the takbeerat were recited on both Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr always felt more special for me. The prayers woke me and made me anticipate the unreversed day—Ramadan was over; Eid was here. After a month of fasting, you drink and think, I am drinking. You eat and think, I am eating. I always stole a few bites of wara’ ‘inab from Mom’s pot, early in the morning. The night before Eid, Mom cooked the wara’ ‘inab on a slow fire for hours. The scent of the stuffed vine leaves infused the house, and so did the prayers.
The prayers were a song I’d memorized over the years. As soon as I heard them, I’d start humming along in my head. It wasn’t the words that drew me in as much as the repetition, the rhyming, and the rhythm—an incantation of sorts. These prayers had a beat faster than that of the adhan, which lingered longer on the words Allahu Akbar, and they were carried by a multitude of voices. There was something communal about them, something that said the entire city was celebrating, giving thanks.
The takbeerat sometimes awakened me early enough to catch my father before he went to visit his mother’s grave. I put on my new Eid clothes and went with him. I wondered why we visited our dead on the first day of Eid. My parents said it was to reassure them we remembered them, even in our joy. If I didn’t catch my father, I went later with my mother to visit her family’s dead. In the graveyards, I remember once listening to similar chants. I don’t remember the words, but they resembled the Eid takbeerat in their musicality. I was mesmerized by the men with the beautifully orchestrated voices, sitting on the white plastic chairs in the cemeteries, singing hymns—what for, I wasn’t sure. The Eid’s arrival, and the dead, and God.
God, says the Qur’an, is closer to us than our jugular vein. Though I’m not what one would call a traditional Muslim, I choose to believe this: that we contain divinity. And when I can’t sleep, I sometimes find myself (almost instinctively) chanting the Eid takbeerat in my head. Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. The rhythm and repetition soothe me, and probably the connection to my childhood, too. Perhaps what we love best about our favorite religious rituals is what they remind us of.
I don’t remember whether or not I could see, from my balcony, one of the speakers projecting the takbeerat across the city. In my mind, I see a speaker on a building opposite us, though I’m not sure it really existed. I call my mother and ask her, Was there a speaker on one of the buildings opposite us? She says no, there was nothing visible to us. Talking to my mother, I remember how the takbeerat ended with asking God to forgive our parents, for they have raised us. This was my favorite part of the prayer. My least favorite part said that the faithful believe despite the hate of the nonbelievers. I didn’t like this kind of dichotomy, which I realized, even as a child, was part of other religions, too. I wanted to exist beyond this us-versus-them mentality. On the phone, my mother says, But if you see it in your mind, then it probably exists.
It probably exists, this speaker in my mind in the city behind my bedroom curtain. This speaker, one of many, projecting Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. And I’ve been saying I’m inhabited by this hymn of calling out and gratitude. I’ve been saying the music preceded the words. The words seemed to be there merely to fill a longing, to be carried by a choir of voices across a city. But lately, I’ve been thinking about the words, too—about how, even here in the Arab world, Allahu Akbar has become associated with isis and terrorism, with death and the slitting of throats. Strange that as I’m summoning these Eid al-Fitr memories, as I’m writing this, it’s Ramadan. A few days ago, on the eve of this month, there was an attack on a bus full of Coptic Christians in Egypt. Yesterday there was a bombing at an ice cream shop in Baghdad. And look at Syria. So much daily blood.
What speakers full of prayer could drown out such grief? What God/Allah is greater/akbar than this? How do I listen? When this month ends, the Eid takbeerat will go up again. And despite what’s happening around us, and my secular mind, I try to remind myself of the possibilities inside those words. I try to reclaim the now fear-inducing Allahu Akbar, see it as a reminder: there is something akbar, something greater. We are the speakers, and there is music inside us. A meaning bigger than us exists within us, all of us, no matter what we choose to call it, no matter what hymns we play to conjure it.
Zeina Hashem Beck’s most recent collection, Louder than Hearts (Bauhan), won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her poem “Maqam” won Poetry magazine’s 2017 Frederick Bock Prize. www.zeinahashembeck.com
This essay and the eight that accompany it in our issue will appear as part of Stars Shall Bend Their Voices: Poets’ Favorite Hymns and Spiritual Songs, edited by Jeffrey Johnson and forthcoming this fall from Orison Books.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.