[Marxism] Radio Muezzin
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Mar 21 06:54:24 MDT 2009
Perhaps the only benefit I get out of jet lag when I visit Istanbul is
waking up 4 in the morning and hearing the muezzins calling people to
prayer, which this article reminded me of. Now this would be a play that
I would go out of my way to see if it ever hit NYC.
NY Times, March 19, 2009
A Call Silenced in Cairo Is Warmly Received in Berlin
By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
BERLIN — On several recent evenings four muezzins from Cairo took to a
carpeted stage at Hau Zwei, a Berlin theater, and talked about their
lives and jobs. In their stocking feet, as if in a mosque, they showed
family snapshots and pictures of their neighborhoods, and explained to
the audience how to wash and pray according to Muslim ritual. “Radio
Muezzin,” conceived by Stefan Kaegi, a Swiss director, is a one-act
play, a documentary, really (performed in Arabic with subtitles), the
concept for which arose after a decision in 2004 by the Egyptian
minister of religious endowments, Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq.
The minister announced that the public racket caused by Cairo’s hundreds
of muezzins leading the daily calls to prayer all at slightly different
times and over scratchy loudspeakers across the city was simply too much
for residents to bear any longer. The ministry would henceforth choose
the 30 or so best muezzins, who would take turns broadcasting the call
to prayer live via a dedicated radio channel to be boomed into the
streets from the roughly 1,000 government-run mosques around town. Those
not picked would have to find new work.
Of course there were instant rumors that the plan was actually an
American-sponsored plot to gain control of the mosques and stifle
extremists in the storefront prayer rooms that had sprung up throughout
the city. The plan did not go into immediate effect. The goal is to
enforce it next year.
Meanwhile the play, which laments the decision’s impact on the lives of
ordinary muezzins, like those onstage here, not to mention on the people
who would no longer hear them, had its premiere in December before a
select audience in Cairo. It was too politically touchy an undertaking
for Egyptians to embrace openly, according to the play’s promoters. So
that single performance was paid for not by Egyptians but by the German
federal government and the Berlin mayor’s office. You might say “Radio
Muezzin” was as much about Germany promoting diverse voices as it was
about Egypt’s silencing them. Not that there aren’t plenty of ethnic and
religious troubles in this country.
Berlin alone is home to 220,000 Muslims, but the first mosque in the
former Communist half of the city opened just last year, to far-right
protests. Protests have greeted the building of mosques all across
Germany, and the one now under way in Cologne has become a frequent
lightning rod. No calls to prayers are permitted on the streets here or
in many countries across Western Europe, and some opportunistic European
festival directors, contemplating taking on this play, have reportedly
considered asking the muezzins to publicly chant the azan, as the call
to prayer is known, precisely to provoke a scandal and to generate
Even so, an abiding culture of tolerance and civility ranks high among
this city’s traits, and the applause from the audience the other night
was long and heartfelt. Berliners were clearly charmed.
And why not? The four muezzins, who made touchingly awkward and mostly
reluctant performers, were nothing if not charming. Hussein Gouda
Hussein Bdawy, who’s nearly blind, described finding his calling when he
became a muezzin, gaining as part of the job the sheik’s robe and hat
that he had always dreamed of wearing. Proud of his work, he didn’t even
mind the roughly two-hour commute from his tiny apartment to the mosque.
He spends the long bus ride listening to radio broadcasts of the Koran,
he said, switching stations only to hear the soccer matches of the
Egyptian national team.
Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy, a retired electrician, the most
voluble of the bunch, then recounted having been badly injured in a
traffic accident. He became a muezzin, he explained, after the imam in
the mosque where he spent much of his time recovering noticed the
mellifluousness of his voice. Some years ago, Mr. Abdelsamia added, he
almost died while trying to repair a short circuit when a co-worker
failed to shut off the power first. To demonstrate to the audience what
might have happened, Mr. Abdelsamia hooked a pickle to a pair of live
wires onstage. The pickle smoked for a minute or two. Mr. Abdelsamia
then pointed to a callous on his forehead. It comes, he said, from
constantly prostrating himself in prayer.
As for Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous, a quiet, somber man in a long
robe, he described leaving his family in the Egyptian countryside, where
he couldn’t find work, to become a muezzin in the city. Today, he said,
he needs to supplement his meager muezzin’s income by moonlighting in a
bakery. Like other muezzins he is also responsible for vacuuming and
tidying up his mosque. Luckily, he said, the one he works in is only big
enough for a couple dozen worshippers.
By contrast the last of the four, Muhammad Ali Mahmoud Farag, dapper in
a dark suit and the youngest by far, chants the call to prayer from
Cairo’s largest mosque, which accommodates tens of thousands.
Soft-spoken, socially well connected and enormous (he’s a bodybuilder,
and pressed some barbells during the play to prove the point), he was
born into a prominent religious family. Not long ago he took second
prize in a worldwide Koran-reading competition in Malaysia. He showed
photographs of himself with fellow competitors in the lobby of the hotel
where the competitors stayed, and outside a McDonald’s.
One of the few dozen chosen by the Egyptian ministry to broadcast the
azan, he closed the evening’s performance, chanting alone. Controlled
and low-key, his voice was richly ornamented.
But it was instead the cacophony of all four muezzins, with their
different rhythms and accents, chanting together, as they did when the
play began, that stuck in the mind. Lifted up by their devotion, they
made not a racket at all but rapturous music.
How especially beautiful it sounded here, where, unlike in Cairo, even
the busiest neighborhoods are underpopulated and hushed. Mr. Abdelsamia,
the electrician, remarked at one point what a loss it would be for Cairo
not to have the variety of muezzins’ voices ringing through the streets.
Having won over the crowd, he milked the applause at the end of the
play, waving his arms and even taking a solo curtain call.
That provoked the audience to clap a little louder before filing out of
the theater, into the dark stone-silence of Berlin.
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