Four Cairo minaret callers bring their lives to the stage for a piece of documentary theater. Despite controversy and internal strife, "Radio Muezzin" gives a gripping insight into the world of its unlikely performers.
The mosque vacuum cleaner adds to the "Radio Muezzin" soundscape
Known as the city of a thousand mosques, Cairo in reality has over thirty thousand. Each mosque has its own minaret caller or "muezzin," who is responsible for calling the faithful to prayer.
Five times a day, the bustle of the city is drowned out by hundreds of competing muezzin singing the "Adhan" at varying volumes and with varying degrees of musical accomplishment.
That familiar cacophony is, however, soon to end. Starting next year, Egypt's Ministry of Religious Affairs plans to introduce a centralized system which will enable a small group of carefully selected muezzin to broadcast the prayer call via radio.
Instead of its own muezzin, each mosque will be expected to have its own radio receiver.
Radio technology is threatening the minaret caller's existence
The imminent disappearance of the Cairo muezzin caught the imagination of Swiss experimental theater director Stefan Kaegi. There is, he said, "something auratic" being lost.
"I'm not saying that the call to prayer is a piece of art," said Kaegi. "It is a very specific ritual with a specific function. But it has a cultural value for the people who listen to it. It's part of the soundscape of Cairo."
Together with Helgard Haug and Daniel Wetzel, Kaegi is the founder of Rimini Protokoll, a German theater group specializing in what it calls "documentary theater" - that is, theater without actors.
Instead, the people on stage are ordinary citizens with interesting stories to tell. For "Radio Muezzin," Kaegi travelled to Cairo and brought back four minaret callers eager to tell Western audiences about their lives.
As each muezzin tells his story, video screens behind him show the audience his mosque, his home, and his family. The result is both a fascinating insight into the world of the muezzin, which is tightly bound up with religion, and a gripping piece of theater in its own right.
Censorship and controversy
The production, however, is highly controversial and the Egyptian Ministry for Religious Affairs has allocated "Radio Muezzin" its very own censor, who travels with the muezzin on tour.
Sensitive to the fact that he was asking deeply religious men to talk about their faith in public, Kaegi had expected tension with the Egyptian authorities from the outset. To his surprise, however, he found that the ministry's objections lay elsewhere.
"It turned out that, in Islam, talking about yourself in a public forum is nothing bad," Kaegi explained. On the other hand, the pre-recorded footage of the Muezzin's homes was objected to because it showed poor areas of Cairo and so did not fit with the city's official image as a modern, globalized capital.
Tensions also emerged within the group itself. While three of the muezzin come from humble backgrounds, the fourth, Mohamed Ali Mahmoud Farag, does not. A former bodybuilder and vice world champion in Quran recitation, Farag no longer travels with the group. Instead, he features only on the television screens that frame the stage.
"For him it was very important to make a big difference, to have separate access and a separate hotel," said Kaegi. "His pretentions became too much."
Art or Islam?
Muezzin Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy
The three remaining Muezzin have established what Kaegi described as a very "warm relationship," both on and off stage. One is a blind Quran teacher who spends two hours on a mini-bus each day to get to work; one is a former electrician who turned to Islam after he was injured in a car accident; another is a farmer's son who acts as an unofficial janitor in a mosque no bigger than the stage.
For the three muezzin, the performance isn't about theater, it's about outreach. Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, the blind Quran teacher, said that in the beginning the muezzin were rather sceptical about the whole project. That changed, however, with the first performance.
"We felt," Bdawy said, "that people - Christian people - came to understand more about Islam. We felt how important this is and how valuable the project is."
For the muezzin, "Radio Muezzin" is about communicating Islam. For Stefan Kaegi, it is about art. This difference does not, however, seem to bother Bdawy. "My attitude towards this project is different from Stefan's," he said, "but our aim is the same: we want to succeed."
Cairo's loss, Germany's gain
"Radio Muezzin" has a particular poignancy in Germany, where the large Turkish population means that, in some urban areas, Muslims make up the majority of the population.
Stefan Kaegi himself lives in just such an area of Berlin, and said he finds it sad that German legislation bans mosques from calling the "Adhan" on the grounds that the noise would constitute a public nuisance.
The radio technology due to be implemented in Cairo was first trailed in Germany a few months ago. Ironically, the very innovation which threatens to silence Cairo's muezzin could give German muezzin a voice for the first time.
Click on the audio links below to listen to the muezzin.
Author: Kate Laycock
Editor: Kate Bowen