Radio Muezzin: Al-adhan as a Public Affair

Art cannot reveal the truth about art without snatching it away again by turning the revelation into an artistic event.

(Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production.)

"Radio Muezzin" (von Stefan Kaegi). Here: Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy and Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous.

“Radio Muezzin” (von Stefan Kaegi). Here: Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy and Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous.

On February 26 at the Kule Theatre in Berlin, I saw Hotel Arabia by Carola Lehmann and David Merten, who performed their voyage to ‘Arabia’ in a way reminiscent of the early European narratives from Barbary land. The tendency of exoticising otherness was apparent, and the commodification of cultural difference was at times disturbing during the performance. Rimini Protokoll’s intercultural projects, on the other hand, are neither about sublimating otherness nor reversing the gaze, but rather about the possibilities of transferring the debate taking place in developing countries to the metropolis, through the deployment (rather than invention) of the tradition of docu-drama. Radio Muezzin, which premiered at the HAU 2 on the March 3, 2009, is a prime example of art that bridges the gap between cultures and reaches across the divide to the Other (the not I) during the ‘imperial’ present. The performance challenges the age-old division between art and public since it does away with barriers that emphasize contrived and constructed arenas of artistic production. In the process, live performance of al-adhan exposes the simulated and the genuine, art and life, to each other and to audiences as it conflates the divided spaces of artistic activity. The reconstruction of al-adhan , the call to prayer, fuses the memory-site of the mosque to memory narratives of the muadhinin (muezzins).

The overlapping calls for prayer that crisscross each other at the outset of Radio Muezzin illustrate this explosion of the performance space. The sacred aesthetics of voicing the text of al-adhan are inextricably linked to sacred symbols and forms, and are thus reflected in the laying-out of space. The scenographic dispositif, screened everyday life of Cairo, and the wise deployment of professional muadhinin rather than professional actors, renders the performance a site-specific intervention. The relationship between the performance of the five professionals/non professionals and the morphology of the surrounding atmosphere (be it indoor or outdoor) is complex and intriguing since there is no ‘outside’ of the text. In the performance, the muadhinin performers themselves become the text to be read. The performance becomes a space for these professionals to be seen as they wish to be seen – as functional agents of the society of the Islamic Spectacle that uses non-traditional media such as theatre for preaching. Their narratives and little histories convey to their audiences how their present situation derives from the past, and how the signs that structure and signify the world around them bear witness to the inextricable connection between past and present. It is precisely at this point that conflicting expectations (of director Stefan Kaegi, the technician he selected, and the four muadhinin) threaten the whole project.1

The different meanings of this docu-drama are less likely to be found in the experience of its various performances at the HAU, or the different intentions and expectations of the artists and professionals involved in the project, or the reactions of the audiences, than in the mapping of its elements and the discovery of the intersections and interstices that result.

Crossing Islamic and Secular Spaces

The performance displays an aesthetics of collage along with decentered vectors of influence that demonstrate strong affinities with minimalism. The red carpet with its demarcating lines is a strong indication of the inside of the mosque as a ritual space that is now transformed into a performance space. The carpet is purposely tangential to conform to the qiblah axis. The projected images and sounds that reveal everyday life are deliberate extensions of this ritual space. As an example, the practice of prayer in the streets is common, particularly on Fridays, and transforms public space into praying areas. Radio Muezzin reflects different layers of the religious institutionalization of Mosques as strong markers that have unleashed a more significant debate about the position of Islam in Arab nation-states. The mosque is more than a religious place where prayers are performed five times a day: it is also an administrative category connected to urban planning, bureaucracy, and legal arrangements. The mosque is also a discursive contentious field of agency: it is the most important ISA if controlled by the rulers, and a dangerous site of subversion and resistance if seized by opposing forces.

In the world of Islam, al-adhan is a sacred ritual that is performed live, five times a day from all Mosques. The decision of Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, the Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments, to implement a unified adhan in Greater Cairo in cooperation with Cairo Radio, aims to replace thousands of muadhinin with 25, who were selected to call in turn (two for every call). The main objective behind this decision, according to Zaqzouq, is the elimination of the “cacophony of overlapping adhans and microphone wars” between neighboring muadhinin, which violate the sacredness of such a ritual practice. The call will be transmitted from the mosque of al-azhar to all other official and semi-official mosques of Cairo and its neighboring areas. The mufti of Egypt, the greatest religious authority, endorsed this decision, putting an end to a heated debate in Cairo. However, through Radio Muezzin the debate is now transposed to another arena (theatre) and beyond national borders. Unifying al-adhan is also a political decision since the new urban Islamic culture in Egypt is gradually being fueled by various processes of secularization. With the growing modernizing zeal, human amnesia, and the persistent assault of hyperreality and simulation over real experience, the ritual practice of al-adhan as an important cultural heritage becomes more and more vulnerable and at risk. The new ‘radio muadhin’ will be like other simulated arenas that reflect nostalgia for a lost or vanishing ‘deep Islam’ that peppers the urban sprawl of modern Egyptian society.

  1. In an interview with the five professionals just before the third performance at the HAU, 5 March 2009, they manifested a strong commitment to preaching and were very critical toward the changes that were carried out by Stefan Kaegi in Berlin. They insisted that the work started as a collaborative process when they were selected by Kaegi, but at the end of the interview that was conducted by Ramona Moss and me, they expressed a deep concern about some of the images that were projected on the screen without their consent. They finally assumed the role of interviewers and asked about how their performances were received by the Western public. They clearly wanted to make sure that their main task is preaching and that they have nothing to do with any political agendas behind the production. []