The man who may have the most easily recognizable voice in the Middle East, Koran reciter Shaikh Mahmoud Hossary of Cairo, Egypt, is concerned that he may be "suffering from over exposure in the United States" as well as in his homeland.
The United States, with its large Muslim following, does not have a professional Koran reader of wide repute of its own. So the faithful rely on cassette tapes of throbbing utterances that they listen to each day. "Most of the tapes sold here are mine," said Hossary during a recent interview in his Shoreham Hotel room following his sixth American tour.
Om times past, only groups that could afford the $500 to $1,000 fee could hear the voice of a renowned reciter. But modern radio and television have brought the Muslim public the best interpretations of the Koran produced by their faith.
Modern technology has made Hossary rich. He has sold hundreds of readings to tape and record companies. A Cairo firm paid "about $6,000" for the rights to market his most recent rendition of a portion of the Koran.
Most Middle Eastern stations begin their programming with Koran readings and use them throughout the day. Hossary estimates his readings comprise "about 25 per cent of all broadcasts of the Koran in the Middle East." This is down from 13 years ago, when he asked a Cairo radio station to use other Koran readers after he learned that his voice was being broadcast from their tower 15 hours a day.
A Koran reciter of Hossary's stature is in a unique position. He makes the money of a rock star doing one-night stands, retains a large traveling entourage, is sought after and enjoys the artistic recognition of an opera star, but still accorded the kind of respect given a pope.
Since 1966, Hossary has been president of the world organization of Koran reciters. It has branches in 27 countries, with the top three Koran reciters elected as officers.
There are no prominent Koran reciters in the U.S. to the point where they could form a chapter," he said. "There is one representative in the Soviet Union, though the Soviet Union does not represent itself as being religious," he said.
"In the United States, they rely on recordings . . . Many of them do not know the (Arabic) language. It takes years of training to recite the Koran well," he said.
Hossary, 60, studied theological history and Islamic thought for 20 years. This followed a "significant" recital of what was then an avocation at the age of 15. "There was a huge crowd of people. They were very encouraging, so when I was made to believe I had a good voice, I went on," he said.
He believes that American Muslims> particularly those who do not understand Arabic, will suffer if they do not hear the Koran recitals.
"The Koran is being listened to by the whosle being during a good recital," he said. "Listening to and reading the Koran are separate activities both vital, to the Islamic religion. The Koran is recited from five times a day in daily prayer. There are verses in the Koran that direct you to listen to the Koran being recited and remember its meaning.
"Fortunately for modern technology, the Muslims in the U.S. are not deprived of anything," he continued. "But I do feel the American Muslims should teach their children Arabic so they will be able to gain full knowledge of their religion as it is presented in the Koran."
He said that American Muslims could not rely entirely on the muezzin who announces the prayers at his mosque.
"Both (the muezzin and the Koran reciter) are supposed to have a good voice," he explained. "A good voice, however, does not mean talent to recite. You would need a good voice to be a radio announcer, but it would take more to be an opera singer."
Interpretations of the Koran vary according to the talents the reader employs as he uses the language in a sort of verbal calligraphy. Hossary says his shortest version of the entire Koran runs 30 hours. "But I have one which is medium long, 45 hours, and another which lasts 60 hours," he said.
"The job of the muezzin is to stay in the mosque all day and read the five prayers . . . A renowned reciter makes as much in one sitting as a muezzin makes in a month. Reading at special sessions, I make about $1,000 a time. A muzzin makes $500 a month. Of course, not all Koran readersmake this much money."
Hossary spends about four months of the year traveling outside Egypt, mostly in Saudi Arabia. When in Egypt, he is frequently away from his Cairo home doing recitals.
"My wife has been to Haji (pilgrimage to Mecca) 10 times in her life. This is my gift to her for appreciating the nature (demands) of my profession," he said.
He said his proudest accomplishment, aside from his family of four sons and four daughters, is that he was "the first Koran reader who recited in Congress." He appeared last month during the visit of Dr. Abdel Halim Mahmoud, spiritual leader of world Islam.