My grandmother’s apartment in Tehran has a balcony overrun with various herbs and tomato plants. It runs across the back of the living room, a cozy white platform that overlooks the patchwork quilt of the rest of the city. I like to escape to it right at sunset, when my grandmother and mother are usually in the kitchen, cutting open pomegranates to eat as a snack before dinner. Their voices tumble around green bowls with seeds as red as the sun as it begins to sink beneath the line of the city.
From my vantage point thirteen stories up, the constant blanket of dust that floats above Tehran makes the entire city flicker like a golden mirage. It’s my favorite place in the world, this balcony right before dusk, when my toes curl around the edge of the terrace between the pillars of the railing as I crane my neck up and observe the world around me collectively hold its breath. We wait, for this: a call to prayer.
It comes in the form of music. Bare, haunting vocals released from local mosques into the open air flow between buildings and plead to the bruising sky, to the women hanging wet clothes from clotheslines, to the men selling fresh kabobs. It is both a reminder that the time for prayer is fast approaching and also an invitation for all to join.
Although I don’t consider myself to be a religious person, let alone a devout Muslim, whenever I have the chance to visit my grandmother, I am still inexplicitly drawn to the same spot on her balcony at the same time, day after day. There is a paradoxical intimacy in the recitation, in the way I feel connected to something I barely understand. It is the same feeling I get when I skim my fingers over the pristine pages of my father’s dense Qur’an like I’m skimming my fingers over a lake; I’m aware of the inky depths that disappear beneath the surface, I just have yet to find out what they hold.
When the music disappears with the sun, I slip back inside the apartment and pass my grandmother as she makes her way to her bedroom, to where I know her prayer rug is sitting at the foot of her bed. Her call is to prayer. I’m on the way to the kitchen. My call is to pomegranates, and the fruit, as it breaks open in my mouth, tastes like sweet familiarity. I suspect her prayer tastes like somewhat of the same thing.
I haven’t had a chance to visit my grandmother or her balcony in years, a fact that is a constant weight on my chest. I can’t imagine what it must be like for my parents, as immigrants in a foreign world. My mother holds tight to the music of her childhood, playing traditional songs as she sashays around the kitchen in the evenings. My father holds tight to a different kind of music: the rhythm of tradition. Every year, during the fasting month of Ramadan, my father breaks his fast two times a day. During both times, the sky’s pre-dawn or post-dusk blue black sky watches from the window: while my mother commanders the main course on the stove, he assembles bread, yogurt and cheese on the table and waits with one eye on the clock, counting down the seconds until he can eat.
During both times, he plays a prayer from his phone, and the dua as it comes through the tiny speakers fills our kitchen with peaceful reverence. The quiet words unfurl like flowers, revealing petals upon petals of history, with roots that slip down my father’s chair like ivy, turning into ley lines that connect him to the family he left behind.
My old friend’s house in Rochester Hills, Mich. has a balcony bereft of any decoration except for a few wooden chairs haphazardly scattered around. It runs along the entirety of the back of her house, a bleak wooden ledge that overlooks the rolling expanse of her lawn. It was here that I found myself sitting one day in the middle of the summer between middle school and high school with my friend sitting opposite, pressing a small bible into the palm of my hand. I took it with reluctance, because the edges were unfamiliar and bit into the creases of my fingers. She took out her own copy and held it easily, worn down edges molding perfectly to the cadence of her grip. It was here that I received my first lesson of Christianity, an idea born through the marriage of her constant desire to talk about the religion that meant so much to her family and my endless boredom of repetitious summer days.
I was sure that the day would be taken up by extensive lectures and readings, but instead she pulled out an iPod shuffle from her pocket, which, according to her, was filled with different Christian songs of worship. We spent the rest of the afternoon going through the entirety of her collection, and while many of the songs went over my head, glossy with a decadence I wasn’t used to hearing from religion, I focused instead on how my friend listened to those songs: eyes closed with her head tilted up towards the sky, like the sun and songs she knew by heart had come together to form a perfect harmony, a call to home.
I am not a religious person. But I still have the Bible my friend gave to me all those years ago resting in a drawer. I like to take it out sometimes and rifle through the pages. It reminds me of the absolute joy she found in a chipped blue iPod Shuffle.
I am not a religious person. But some days at sunset I like to lean my head against the glass of my apartment window as the familiar call to prayer echoes through my speakers into the empty corners of my room. It transforms into my grandmother’s balcony and instead of the city of Ann Arbor, I am looking at mountains that stretch up from the horizon like earthy heart lines. I still don’t understand why my feet constantly bring me to the same spot on the same balcony. I don’t understand, but maybe I don’t need to.
Maybe all I can do is quietly, simply, listen — to a friend as she sings the church hymns her mother taught her, to a father as he breaks his fast to a prayer he remembers his father reciting a thousand times in the past, to the music in religion because it can sometimes be the music of home, wherever that may be, whatever that might sound like.