The muezzins' call to the stage

Radio Muezzin in Dublin

Von Christine Madden

19.09.2009 / The Irish Times

For centuries, muezzins have called the Muslim world to prayer. Now that many of them are being replaced by radio broadcasts, German theatre company Rimini Protokoll is bringing four of them to Dublin to tell their stories, writes Christine Madden
ONCE UPON a time, bells tolled out at appointed intervals to summon people to worship. Today, the bells we now hear in the secularised West are not so much church bells but mobile ringtones.
Not so in the Islamic world. One of the most obvious indications that you have entered an Islamic country is the regular, plaintive call to prayer, the azan, its opening “Allahu Akbar” ringing out into the sky. As prescribed prayers take place with regularity throughout the course of a day (not unlike the Liturgy of the Hours), this exhortation, called out by a muezzin, swells out into the immediate environment and represents a constant for people living in Muslim countries.
Of course, people in Muslim countries have mobile phones as well, which go off, as they do in the West, with annoying regularity. The encroachment of technology, and our subservience to it, has halted at no political, and very few religious, borders. Further evidence of this is Egypt’s decision to do away with individual local muezzins in Cairo and have the azan broadcast by radio. It may be progress, but what happens to those whose livelihoods become flattened in its wake? This is the kind of territory that German theatre company Rimini Protokoll – headed by directors Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel – loves to explore, and one of its most recent pieces, Radio Muezzin , created by Kaegi, is the result. It comes to Ireland this month as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival.
As with Cargo Sofia (seen here two years ago), Radio Muezzin explores the everyday lives of those touched by the imperatives of a globalised, technologically driven society. In Cargo Sofia , viewers became participants as they travelled around Dublin in a lorry that served as a mobile set driven by the performers. Radio Muezzin ostensibly takes place in the more traditional performance space of a theatre, but the presence of the performers – four actual muezzins from Egypt – and an elaborate sound-and-light installation transport the audience to residential Cairo.
The piece had its genesis when Kaegi brought Cargo Sofia to Damascus. When the azan is called out by the muezzins, “there are a great many different voices and they’re known for their different interpretations”, he explains. “If you climb a mountain near the city, you can hear them all in synchronisation swelling into song.” After Damascus, the company toured to Amman in Jordan, where the azan is already broadcast, and he could hear the radio being turned on, the volume being set, the interference in the reception, “and it was fascinating that they were working actively with this medium, that it was okay to hear it, that it wasn’t people but speakers”. So when Kaegi heard that they were about to do the same thing in Cairo, “I went there to get to know some muezzins. I wanted to hear what it means to them if they disappear from the acoustic soundscape of the city.”
AN AURAL MINIATURE of this soundscape ushers in the performance of Radio Muezzin . In the darkness of the theatre, the four muezzins – Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy, Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous and Mohamed Ali Mahmoud Farag – replicate Kaegi’s experience on the Damascus mountaintop for the public, and intone the azan.
What follows, in quintessential Rimini-Protokoll style, is a symphony of images, film clips that create a “live” backdrop to the live presence of the muezzins, who talk about their lives, their backgrounds and what their work means to them. Extensive use of photographs and film projection, not to mention an intricate pastiche of sound, work with the muezzins and their presentation to recreate the present-day world of the mosques and inner-city Cairo.
Although the production questions the pervasive presence of technology and its frequent use to make human presence redundant, much of the show’s vivid impact derives from the expert use of sound, light and visual media.
The muezzins themselves (none of them actors) tell the audience their stories, thereby presenting the human face of those who stand to lose out to the radio. One is blind, which used to be a requirement for being a muezzin in order to protect privacy, as a muezzin calling out from a minaret could see into people’s homes. One suffered a bad electrical accident and came to the work through learning the Koran by heart.
One is a weightlifter and professional muezzin who takes part in Koran-recitation competitions (and is one of those chosen to broadcast the azan). One grew up in poverty and was in the army before coming to his religious work. He warns the audience that he will not say more about his time in the military, just as many muezzins will not talk about money. In Egypt, a society with considerably less freedom of speech than we take for granted in western Europe, people need to be cautious about what and how much they say in public.
“We got in touch with the ministry for religion in Egypt,” Kaegi says, “which wanted us to present the muezzins that would be broadcast after the centralisation, like Muhammad Ali. But I wanted to show the different social backgrounds the muezzins brought to the mix and what kind of loss of prestige this meant to them. They wouldn’t lose their jobs, but they would lose their voice.” As theatre in Egypt is subject to censorship, Kaegi explains, “they sent a censor over to us who corrected a few things – but it was still relatively mild when we performed in Egypt. But when we played in Berlin and the New York Times suddenly wrote about it, there was a bit of a fuss.
“A lot of Arabic newspapers in particular quoted things from the article that the journalist had not researched properly, and after that [the Egyptian government] said that they didn’t want the piece performed abroad. So we had to use a lot of diplomatic skill, but in the end we managed to get permission to perform.
“Like many things in Egypt, the government keeps the arts under its control and supervision, and doesn’t really encourage people to express their individuality.” THERE WERE, HOWEVER , “no problems with the imams, even though we were presenting something like a prayer on the stage. They generally don’t think highly of theatre, but only because actors are on stage, such as with the soap operas constantly produced in Egypt that portray superficial problems. But as long as the people themselves talked about their lives, they thought that was okay.”
Radio Muezzin presents the earnest, pious face of Islam. In displaying the detailed and nuanced lives of the four muezzins, the piece coaxes the audience into an exotic world that, despite its strangeness to us, immediately feels human and familiar. “We get images from the Middle East, primarily from television, that are influenced by violence, by hysteria and dogmatism, poverty and victimisation,” says Kaegi. “If someone sees a Muslim man with a white beard, and the rest of it, the average German would think, ‘oh, a terrorist’ ­ or ‘oh, a fundamentalist’. It’s important to question that.” Along with questioning that image, Radio Muezzin also gives us a sense of the fragility and vulnerability of the individual in a world filled with larger global agendas serviced by the many ingenious yet indifferent forms of technology. “Everywhere people disappear from the visible workplace, there is a loss of atmosphere and experience,” says Kaegi. “This is particularly absurd within religious practice, as it isn’t actually about efficiency. Anyone who loses his job because a machine can do the work better than he can might get some kind of compensation, but he has lost his face.”


Radio Muezzin