Sydney Festival: Radio Muezzin

24 January 2012

Radio Muezzin transports us, through sight and sound, to everyday Cairo.
Radio Muezzin transports us, through sight and sound, to everyday Cairo.

Ifdal Elsaket from the University of Sydney's Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies responds to the Sydney Festival production Radio Muezzin.

The Islamic world's most famous aural icon, the 'adhan', or call to prayer, is the subject of Radio Muezzin, an innovative and profoundly moving theatre-documentary that transports us, through sight and sound, to everyday Cairo.

The production, the result of a German-Egyptian collaboration, introduces us to a group of charming Egyptian 'muezzinine' who share their stories of calling the faithful to prayer in Cairo, and their attempts to come to grips with a new government policy to silence them.

Five times a day, every day, the adhan floats out of Cairo's estimated 4000 mosques to signal the time of prayer for Muslims. Countless adhans in various melodic styles radiate from multiple directions and travel along Cairo's thick air to create a cacophony of human voices drifting above the hustle of the city.

Muezzinine, the callers of the adhan, play a key role in creating this sound.

Yet in 2006 the Egyptian government announced that it would end the multiple adhans and replace them with one centralised Adhan system, transmitted to mosques through wireless receivers. The plan would render thousands of muezzinine obsolete. In doing so, the government hopes, in the words of one minister, to 'civilise' Cairo's acoustic dissonance.

Certainly, Radio Muezzin is a poignant reflection about the loss of a unique urban soundscape, and an important mass-mediated document about the shifts of Cariene aural experiences in the face of a state-modernisation project. However, the production is also much more than this.

Social inequalities and injustice lay at the heart of Radio Muezzin, as it draws into sharp focus the economic and social inequalities that cut right across the state initiative to unify the adhan system. By controlling the minarets and placing restrictions on who can call the adhan, the unification plan will close off an avenue that, as the men on the stage attest, gives spiritual solace and employment to some of Egypt's disenfranchised.

The plight of the muezzinine, therefore, represents a microcosm of wider dissatisfaction with the Egyptian state's economic mismanagement. The production is a witty critique of a state more concerned with noise-pollution than in tackling the root causes of Egypt's social problems.

The government that proposed the unification plan has since been overthrown in an inspiring people's revolution, and the plan has been put on hold. During the production, each muezzin spoke of the recent revolution, and in doing so further grounded their message in its historical moment, and gave voice to the wider social struggles of Egyptians within which their predicament is embedded.

Radio Muezzin is a beautiful production, raw in its delivery, and deeply human. At one point during the performance, one of the muezzinine, Abdelmoty Hindawy, who has lived through almost six decades of Egyptian authoritarianism and who suffered a stroke a few years ago, apologised in Arabic to the audience. He said he was a little tired. His friends on stage helped him by reminding him of his lines. It was a touching moment and a reminder that Radio Muezzin is a story of the humanity, the histories, the realities, the struggles and the hopes that lie beneath the soundscapes of Cairo.

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