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Call to Prayer Mingles With Verses of Grief

Times Staff Writer

In coming days, his voice will echo across rooftops beyond the Tigris, a call to prayer in a city at war. But, now, a mother and her son must be mourned.

It didn’t used to be this way. The Karada community was once a sliver of sanity amid the rage seeping across Baghdad. These days, though, the streets of this Shiite stronghold are ripped with bomb craters; the black banners of the dead, their names scrawled in yellow and white letters, flutter from courtyard walls.

“In the time before all this sectarian violence, our mosque would receive maybe one or two deaths a month. Ordinary deaths, deaths of the elderly,” says Ali Mahmood Ali, the muezzin, or prayer caller, at Al Zuwiya mosque. “But now we have nonstop condolence services.... They’re victims of explosions, assassinations, kidnappings. We have so many we can’t fit them all. We tell people to reserve.”

Amid such circumstance, a man is allowed any bit of quiet joy he can muster. Ali points to the mosque’s new minaret. Built with ivory stone from Mosul, and inlaid with green and turquoise tiles, the spire is nearly finished, and soon the bags of mortar will be hauled away, the courtyard will be swept and eight loudspeakers will broadcast the call to prayer in all directions.

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“My voice will travel to even remote places,” says Ali, the son of a muezzin, who began reciting verses from the Koran when he was 10, landing his first job as a prayer caller at 13. So much has happened since then, boy turning to man, voice deepening and thousands of prayers recited against setting suns and half-blushed moons. Ali likes the intricacy of the minaret and how it brings fluted splendor to streets of drab, closed-up houses.

“Whatever you give God,” Ali says, “will be multiplied for you later.” He sits on a green carpet in the prayer room. His thick oval face is speckled with black and white stubble and his stomach strains the buttons of a linen shirt. His eyes are dull pinpricks, his hands rough and brown. He knows the mosque like some men know their closets. He is caretaker and tea maker, the one with keys to all the doors.

But it is Ali’s voice that gives the rest of him resonance. It is throaty and damp, and sometimes when he speaks, the words lilt as if set to ancient music.

Work on the minaret began in 2004. The U.S. occupation was a year old, and pockets of violence in certain neighborhoods foreshadowed the strife between Shiites and Sunni Arabs. Imam Fadhil Muhsin Salloom asked his followers for donations, saying that since the mosque was built in 1973, it had longed for a minaret with narrow dome and a blessing written in gold to mark this land as a place of God.

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“There was supposed to be a minaret all the time, but we couldn’t afford a proper one,” says Ali, 50. “We had to simulate a minaret by putting a few metal rods on the roof and attaching loudspeakers. My voice didn’t travel so far. Then one of our rich people, Ahmad Zanboori, gave us land that used to be a garden. Our campaign began.”

Money from worshipers and condolence donations from grieving families trickled in. Gradually, like a flower growing from dust, the minaret rose above the courtyard walls, peeked over the date palms and pricked the desert skyline. But even as it grew, the killings in Baghdad multiplied, and on some days car bombs and mortar rounds shook the mosque, rattling its windows, riffling its curtains. The laborers on the scaffolds stayed busy, chiseling stone and daubing from buckets of wet cement.

Ali is happy for this, but as he speaks, a condolence line grows and men kiss cheek to cheek, some whispering into the ears of the bereaved. Boys bring glasses of water and cups of bitter coffee poured from pots blackened in ash fires. The wind is hot. The names of the dead are posted: Faiza Hussein Alwan and Abbas Zaki Yahya, her 12-year-old son. They died with 30 others in bomb and mortar attacks not far away.

As many as 100 Iraqis die in Baghdad each day. Coffins bob in the traffic; revenge is plotted before the grave is dug.

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“We are heading toward the worst,” says Raad Ahmed Hasan, a banker and mourner whose eyes turn wild behind his glasses. “I am so hot-tempered about what is happening to my neighborhood and to my friends. They are dying.” Hasan yells. A few mourners stop and listen, then walk beneath the minaret to pay their respects. The mosque’s guards lean Kalashnikov rifles against their legs, fiddle with 9-millimeter pistols at their sides.

Two Shiite clerics in white turbans join the condolence line. One of their bodyguards, Haidar Habib, wears a gray suit and a pistachio-colored shirt, the outline of a gun visible.

“This neighborhood once symbolized calm and tranquillity,” he says. “We were always against Saddam and his Sunni Baathists. That’s why the terrorists are targeting us now.” The clerics whisk across the courtyard. Habib follows, hurrying along the razor wire and barricades. The entourage speeds away, past neighborhood boys sidling close to their fathers and rows of shops that aren’t so pretty anymore.

“What can we do?” Ali says. “There’s a saying by the prophet Muhammad: He who struggles to bring food to his family is doing the noble work of Allah. We must go out and do our daily work. We have to leave our homes to earn money to feed our families. But we never know if we’ll return home safe and sound at the end of the day. There are no more sanctuaries.”

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Alwan and her son were loved. It is late afternoon and mourners still come, patted down by guards at the courtyard gate, gazing for a moment at the new minaret. Ali sits on the green carpet. He closes his eyes, words lifting from him like song:

“O God, Bless Muhammad and the descendants of Muhammad.

In the name of God, I beg nobody but Him.

From whom I fear nothing but His justice.

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And I follow nothing but His words.

I cling on nothing but His faith.”

The verse drifts from the mosque and is carried away by the wind.

Times staff writer Suhail Ahmad contributed to this report.

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