(Please note that I am not an expert on Islam. I am just sharing what I have observed in the few days I have been in Riyadh. I'm not providing commentary in any way, shape, or form--simply observation.)
I've long been a huge fan of Elizabeth Peter's Amelia Peabody series. Amelia Peabody, an intrepid Victorian woman meets and marries the eminent archeologist Emerson. The two of them spend winters in Egypt conducting archeological digs. Emerson and Amelia have a son, Ramses, a frightfully audacious child with extraordinary ability in languages. One of my favorite scenes in the series is when Ramses and his parents are talking to a someone who had been rescued after being held in Cairo for several hours. Ramses, in an effort to help pinpoint the location where the victim was held, proceeds to give the prayer calls for the various parts of the city. His parents are horribly astonished at this random and brilliant recanting of this aspect of the city. This anecdote, while completely fictional, has always fascinated and amused me.
But it wasn't until I went to the Middle East that I began to understand the true signficance of the whole anecdote. Muslims pray five times a day. During prayer time, EVERYTHING stops, and, depending on your location, you can hear a variation of this call to prayer. To me it sounds so incredibly foreign and a bit mystical. But neverthless, it is a very real part of my day here. For example, this morning, as I crept downstairs around 5:30 to start breakfast (more about that later) the sounds of the call to prayer drifted through the walls. It was a strange accompaniment to my early morning rising. Just a few days ago, while in the supermarket, an announcement came over the loud speaker telling customers that prayer time was in 20 minutes and that the store would be closing. Fortunately, we were allowed to stay in the store and continue shopping but couldn't check out until the prayer time was over. During prayer time in the store, the call to prayer was broadcast over the store's stereo system. Even while we were on the plane, there was a special area designated for prayer time. Not all passengers utilized it, but some did.
I suppose that there will be times when I find prayer 5 times a day very inconvenient, but for now, I find it an interesting cultural custom.