To introduce every new day in Libya, even before the coming of light, is the call to prayer. From mosques in separate directions and varying distances come the simultaneous recitations of the Athan, making pre-dawns sound like rhythmic rounds of overlapping melody.
The voices, distinguishing in depth, recite God’s name. Their elongated notes collide, leaving only the name to resonate in the silent streets. Sandals shuffle sleepily to the nearest mosque because the day in Tripoli has begun.
This is something I missed living in a non-Muslim country – this natural role that religion assumes in daily life. But, after moving to Libya, I was surprised to discover the extent to which prayer seems to shape life; how it influences the pace at which people live.
Aside from starting the day, prayer schedules the day in Libya where 100% of the country’s population is affiliated to Islam. It organizes daily life, and has a great influence on the people’s general perception of time.
Time, more often than not, is based on the sections of day, or the gaps between the five mandatory Islamic prayers. Instead of referring to time based on the clock, Libyans often base time on the most recent prayer.
I’ve found that this structure is luxuriously laid-back, and is structured around a loose system that takes getting used to.
Activities are deemed culturally appropriate in specific prayer slots, and plans are made based on the same standards. For example, most wedding invitations I’ve seen do not write an arrival time for guests since the time is considered to be a given.
Social visits are ordinarily planned in the evening, between Asr and Maghrib prayers – a thee-hour time gap. Showing up anytime within that time frame is considered appropriate.
This perhaps is the hardest thing for outsiders to grow accustomed to, simply because it distinguishes drastically from the hurried and meticulously scheduled days in other parts of the world. Leisurely activities there are planned at specified times, and punctuality is always expected. Not following the clock in Western countries is interpreted as a lack of respect for the other party’s time.
When I first discovered Libya’s system, it seemed that Libyans didn’t care to be punctual. Either that or I was missing what everyone else found obvious. I had a lot of questions for female relatives who seemed to be experts on the structure of Libyan social life. How did they know when guests would arrive? Why didn’t they just agree on a time to meet? Wouldn’t it be easier?
Their answers were simple. It would be rude to designate a specific time when inviting guests since it would risk make them feel unwanted before then.
Instead, women seem to possess an internal sense of the rhythm of life in Libya, almost a sixth sense. They can prepare and expect guests without ever letting time complicate the occasion.
There is a degree of convenience in the structure, I have found. In the afternoon (the hottest time of day), more commonly known as the Thuhria, the bustle of the streets dwindle down to workers going home, and to people who are out only because it is absolutely necessary.
This is a luxury I have learned to enjoy since convenience is expensive abroad. Praying in fitting rooms at shopping malls, in parking lots at work, or in an empty classroom are examples of convenience where Muslims are a minority.
Though, this nonchalant take on time in Libya does negatively affect the swiftness of jobs getting done, for the most part I find myself envious of this mentality. It seems Libyans enjoy a more natural lifestyle, where family and social responsibilities are prioritized over work or an individual’s career-obsessed goals.
Libyans are able to structure their days around their religious duties and what they find convenient considering their North African climate.
So, to respond to the many curious Libyans who ask me, “Ama kheir?” – Which is better? I’d say that living in Libya definitely has its advantages.
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post‘ on May 27, 2012