Singapore Arts Festival Blog

Testing the Silence by Rui An
June 21, 2011, 5:20 pm
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Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi (Rimini Protokoll)

At the Singapore Arts Festival last year, Rimini Protokoll astounded us with Cargo Kuala Lumpur-Singapore, a road trip into unknown nooks of our city that melded the revelatory power of theatre with the lyricism of the everyday. As we travelled down the roads within a theatre-on-wheels, mundane sights coalesce to form an evocative meditation on migration, pondering both the physical act of displacing oneself as well as the attendant emotional and socio-political ramifications. One would also not forget the two truck drivers, who charmed us not only with their vivid memories of long-distance driving, but also with the endearing little stumbles they commit as they take on what is possibly their first foray into performance.

This theatre of the quotidian is once again realised at the festival this year in Radio Muezzin by Stefan Kaegi, a Swiss director from the aforementioned collective. Taking the stage this time are the muezzins from Egypt, chosen ones in the Muslim world who lead the daily calls to prayer (adhan) from the minarets of the mosques. The stories of four muezzins are represented, of which three are articulated by the muezzins themselves, as they stand upon the stage and narrate the vicissitudes of life that have led them into their present occupation. Their stories, at times dramatic, at others mundane, are presented in an austere, unembellished form. They are simply told, in most instances with that assured, authoritarian cadence devoid of charade or any visible attempt at showing through gesture. Clearly, it flies in the face of the mythical adage, that one must show instead of tell, but despite so, the piece still manages to exude a tender humanity, tinged at times with pathos and humour.

It takes a sleight of hand to achieve this delicate fusion of theatre and everyday life, for life, despite all its authenticity, requires careful calibration upon its transposition to the stage, without which the slice of reality would be but a banality, authenticity without persuasion.

For Radio Muezzin, intrigue is already created by its premise: the distant, ostensibly insular world of deep religiosity fascinates with its otherness. For a country that is pathologically uptight about maintaining a strictly secular public sphere, open displays of piety, upon a national stage no less, is a curiosity. The audience enter the theatre with a kind of anthropological gaze, our minds open to the unfamiliar and seemingly incomprehensible, with the ultimate intent of bridging the distance between self and other.

The stories of the four muezzins are presented with a full plenitude of gritty, autobiographical details. The first muezzin, Hussein Gouda Hussein Bdawy, is a blind Quran teacher who travels to the mosque for two hours every day. He relates his excitement in donning the sheik’s outfit, of which he is able to enumerate the cost that went into every article of clothing upon him. “Four hundred Egyptian pounds for the tailoring”, he says. The second, Abdelmoty Abdelsamia Ali Hindawy, is a retired electrician who becomes a muezzin after a terrifying accident left him with a metal plate and seven stitches in his leg. The third, Mansour Abdelsalam Mansour Namous, hails from the countryside and spends much of the day vacuuming the carpet in the small mosque. The fourth, Muhammad Ali Mahmoud Farag, the youngest and most accomplished of them, is the only muezzin absent in the line-up, having departed the production previously due to differences with the rest of the cast. In his place are a video projection of his past performances and a stand-in who reads out his impressive accolades as a bodybuilder and the runner-up of the 47th World Competition in Quran Reading.

A certain magic happens when these personal anecdotes are placed within the full splendour of a proscenium theatre production, where there is a script, an impressive set and a leering audience to contend with. The stoic muezzins stand upon a large, ornate carpet, each before a video screen and illuminated by green neon lights that create a surreal atmosphere. The colours are brilliant; the set is like a Technicolor sanctum of Muslim piety. The imposition of the theatrical upon the real pushes the performances towards a certain threshold, in which the overriding artifice and all its iridescent polish causes the little slippages of the amateur performers to become, by contrast, a kind of revelation. The awkwardness and jittery inhibition of the muezzins show through throughout the performance and it is this tension between the glossiness of their environ and their artless, non-theatrical selves that makes these brief glimpses of humanity all the more precious, honest and resonant. We begin to feel for them; the exacting anthropological gaze we came in with is softened into an empathetic response. This is real life seeping through the veneer of the theatrical, which surmounts art to reveal itself in all its luminous clarity.

The stark visuality of the set sustains our act of gazing. As the muezzins recount their lives and times, documentary footage of the streets of Egypt and the day-to-day bustle within the mosques plays behind them. The images are direct transcriptions of what is said verbally; rarely is there any deliberate attempt at incongruity. The images amplify the text unremittingly; they must not detract from it, for the voices of the muezzins must be heard in their unadulterated purity. In the case of the fourth muezzin who cannot be present to deliver his voice, an effort is made to highlight the ineffectuality of his replacement. The stand-in makes no attempt at re-embodiment; he does not hide his surrogate status, instead from the outset, he acknowledges the futility of his re-presentation. Verisimilitude, the quality of achieving mere likeness to the real, is not an aspiration of this stage.

As the audience, one is here purely to listen. Everything is plain, lucid and ingenuous. The false notes of ambiguities that often demand of the audience to play the role of the thinker, to negotiate the issues on their own terms and derive their own conclusions are eschewed. There are no riddles to untangle, no disparities to reconcile. The piece is characteristically unthinking, with little of that postmodern reflex through which a piece displays its self-awareness. In place of introspection is complete projection, to be consumed by the gaze of a compliant, unquestioning audience. One must accept the utterances of the muezzins as they are, for like the chanted verses of the Quran, the words are pure signs – a fact that is put forth in one instance when the surtitles go off and all we hear is the deep, soulful voice of the muezzins. This is listening at its purest and most uncompromised – the act of piety the audience must necessarily perform.

Piety defines also the relationship between the artist and his subjects. In contrast to the trenchant, provocative approaches taken by some practitioners in the treatment of religion-based subjects, Kaegi appears to be examining the world of the muezzins via a purely phenomenological lens. Within the text itself, there is little to suggest the advancing of an artist’s statement; Kaegi’s voice defers to that of the muezzins. When the show veers into the touchy areas, such as the position of women in Islam, for instance, its manner is light and detached, leaving the muezzins to speak for themselves. To the question on why women are not allowed to perform the adhan, one of them answers nonchalantly, “because the Prophet never asked [them] to do so.” Granted, there are those sporadic specks of irony that are clearly devised: a wooden divider that is often used in mosques to segregate the women is used here to hide the testosterone-loaded, weight-lifting gear of Mr. Mahmoud, but they are so benign that they register as nothing more than comic asides.

But the fact that the work is conceived to be seemingly apolitical does not mean that it is capable of transcending the politics that surround its creation. The absence of Mr. Mahmoud, for one, is a sobering indication of the tides of change in Cairo that has left an entire generation of muezzins silenced. The Minister of Religious Affairs has denounced the cacophony emitted by the thousands of muezzins each day across the city and is selecting the city’s best thirty muezzins to take turns to broadcast a centralised adhan via a radio channel. Among the cast, only Mr. Mahmoud has been selected to be a part of this elite cadre. While the differences that led to his departure from the show are not spelled out, it is not hard to make a guess what happened.

Towards the end, as a radio engineer appears to demonstrate the new technology through which the adhan would be emitted, one cannot help but notice the absence of the one person who has been qualified to use the contraption. Prior to Mr. Mahmoud’s departure, he would end the show with a rousing solo chant, but here, his silence is deafening.

The context in which the show is performed can also embed within it significant political undertones. In its 2009 premiere in Berlin, for instance, where loud calls to prayer are prohibited, the piece became a reflection on the waves of protests that have erupted in response to the building of mosques across the country. In an overwrought socio-political climate where overt religiosity is too often misconstrued as extremism, is there still a place where one can practice his faith freely and yet still abide by the contract of his society?

Similar questions can be asked within our society. Would the rapturous music we hear in Radio Muezzin still be appreciated beyond the asylum of the theatre? Or would it too be condemned as noise that encroaches upon the sterile, vacuous silence that is our secular space?

Ho Rui An


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