Radio Muezzin – Documentary Theatre Between Enlightenment and Exoticism

In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation

Guy Debord, 1967, paragraph 1.

Personal impressions

As HAU’s stage went dark, four Egyptian muezzins illuminated by radiant white Klieg lights started their calls to prayer from the four corners of the auditorium. My first sensation, as I intently watched the dark stage from my seat in one of the front rows, was not determined by sight and vision, but by aurality: I felt pleasure mixed with unease derived from the suddenness of the sensory impact. While the voices were distinct, they produced a pleasant harmony of multivocality, reminiscent of choral or Gregorian chants.

However, even before the four muezzins in their different garb proceeded to the stage I realized that my unease had other roots than the surprise assault on my auditive perception. Evoked by the auditive impact of the performance, I remembered my first close encounter with a muezzin’s call to prayer: I relived my night in a clay hut where I slept with twenty odd Afghan tribesmen (the men in one room, the women in separate quarters) of a herding community in the province of Baghlan in the winter of 1978. We were huddling close on mats and sleeping bags in the bitter cold early one morning when the thunderous voice of the mullah, another nomadic herder sleeping with us in the same room, awoke us from our sleep. For a moment, I conjured up the feeling of this past horror (of being roused from sleep so suddenly) mixed with the pleasure of having experienced this lifestyle during my fieldwork where the warmth and company of these men sustained me and my family (including my 18-month-old twin daughters) as Soviet tanks rolled across the country about eighty miles away on the highway from Baghlan to Kabul.

While experiencing this sensory memory, I realized somewhat disconcertingly that I was sitting on a hard stool at the HAU (not squatting in a nomadic camp or prostrating myself on a carpet in the streets of Cairo). Instead of the smell of camel-dung and sheep’s milk I was inhaling the discordant perfume assaults of my co-audience–in short it struck me that I was attending a “theatre” performance. I was the passive recipient of an enacted performance by “real” muezzins, but I was not involved: I did not touch, talk to, or engage with them, neither in dialogue nor practice. I was only participating in a spectacle, a pseudo-participatory spectator in a pseudo-reality. I was not in a real mosque, my co-audience was not praying, and we were not in Cairo.