Singing and Vacuum-Cleaning

Von Tim Caspar Boehme

05.03.2009 / taz - Die Tageszeitung

Hussein Gouda, the muezzin from Cairo, is blind. In the old days, he tells us, muezzins were usually sightless. Until the 1950s, they delivered their calls to prayer from the minaret, and people didn’t want them to be able to spy on women who lived near the mosque. Hussein himself sang from a minaret only once. Like his colleagues who also talked about their working lives on the stage of the Berlin HAU theatre on Tuesday, he calls his prayers into a microphone, and loudspeakers broadcast his voice in all directions. In the old days, the loudspeakers were made in Egypt, later they came from the GDR or the Soviet Union. Today they’re Chinese.
Hussein is one of four muezzins director Stefan Kaegi recruited for his piece “Radio Muezzin”. They all talk about themselves, their work and their families. One’s a former electrician who was involved in a car accident. The Imam then invited him to recite prayers in the mosque. Another studied law and used to be a weightlifter, and proudly reveals that he is vice world champion in Koran recitation. They talk not about religion but about their lives – or about those aspects they are willing to reveal.
The project of Stefan Kaegi, one of the three-strong directors’ collective Rimini Protokoll famed for its reality-based theatre experiments, was inspired by a decision taken by the Egyptian Minister of Religious Affairs. As of next year, if the plan goes ahead, there will be no more calling to prayer by individual muezzins. Instead, the voice of one muezzin will be broadcast over a dedicated radio channel. That would put an end to the polyphonic cacophony that is part of the soundscape of Muslim cities, the chorus of variously gifted muezzins. And also an end to the substance of their work.
At the beginning of the piece, we receive some impression of the unity among the variety as the four muezzins consecutively pitch into their songs, each singing in his own time and key. The result is not what you would call melodious, but the web of rhythms and harmonics has a beauty all of its own. The central radio broadcast will cloak the city in the impenetrable echo of just one voice, while all the other muezzins listen on.
At least they don’t need to fear for their livelihoods. As the audience learns from this motley quartet, a muezzin is expected to deal with all manner of mosque-related business. They mainly work as caretakers, responsible for unlocking the doors, vacuuming the carpets and keeping an eye on the congregation’s shoes during prayers. Everyday life repeatedly pops up in the piece: the electrician fiddles around with the screws on switches on his desk, another one vacuum-cleans the carpets strewn about the stage. Although many of them are employees of the state, the salaries are lean. One of the official prayer-callers has to work in a bakery so that he can feed his wife and children.
One of the four does not face the prospect of falling silent: Mohamed Ali Farag, the vice world champion in Koran recitation, is in demand throughout the Islamic world and one of the thirty chosen who will be allowed to call to prayer over the radio. Since minarets are prohibited from issuing recorded prayer-calls, all the transmissions will be live. Pleased though Farag is to know that millions of the faithful will then hear his voice, he acknowledges that they will not be able to see him. His colleagues are less convinced by the radio concept. Hussein is of the opinion that calls to prayer should be given individually: “It’s better for Islam.”
With “Radio Muezzin”, Kaegi has brought to the stage an aspect of Cairene society that seldom moves beyond the confines of the mosque. At the same time, and almost casually, it is also about Islam as a religion, but mediated through a social framework that permits a clear-eyed view.
All the same, it was Kaegi’s insistence on everyday aspects that allowed him to handle the subject of Islam almost playfully, with no hint of the moralizing or didactic. The same might be said of the disarming remark from the muezzin who grew a beard in obedience to the Prophet’s teachings: “But I trim it regularly because otherwise I come out in spots.”


Radio Muezzin