El Sawy Cultural Center
December 5, 2008
Sudden darkness, and then the vocal clash of three live muezzins calling to prayer. So began Stefan Kaegi’s latest production, Radio Muezzin — quite literally mimicking the sound of Cairo at dawn. Like so much documentary ethnography, this opening will claim to transport us somewhere else.
The three muezzins then begin, somewhat tediously, to introduce themselves. Two are employees of the Ministry of Religious Endowment, and one is an informal muezzin. They take us on a tour of where they live and work, peppering their talk with details about their relationships to their calling, augmented by a backdrop of demonstrative video sequences that display their homes, their neighborhoods, and, most importantly, their mosques.
At first I am surprised and confused. The performative presence of the non-actors seems to have been left totally up to them. Soon enough, though, my surprise wears off as I realize that perhaps Kaegi has never really been interested in his subjects, but only in their ability to act as ciphers, to demonstrate their affiliation to a culture and to act as guides into that space. In that case, such “unworked non-acting” must suit his intentions, authenticating the experience and providing the audience with emblems of the “real” — but what that means in terms of actual performance is that the protagonists invariably revert to the default gestures of official-speak: didactic, monotonous, and uncomfortably formal.
The impact of this approach upon the formal structure of Radio Muezzin is entirely negative as the pace quickly drops into a litany of monologues. The muezzins recount their biographies, expound on how they began their careers, and pontificate on their choices of beard — snippets of information that, besides lacking any fascination for us locals, are also quite clumsy and obvious in their desire to appear to shed light on practicing moslems. Notable was an almost infantile interest in signifiers of otherness — beards, uniforms, interiors of mosques, here gaining a new currency as they become transformed by the context of stage and audience. Kaegi’s refusal to stylistically and aesthetically register that transformation, however — to work with his acting subjects on the level of presence, on how they would inhabit that stage — meant that the material remained merely ethnographic and thus fetishized.
Things get even worse as the muezzins interrupt their monologues to pedagogically demonstrate how children memorize the Qur’an, how to perform ritual ablutions, and, ultimately, the Islamic act of worship itself. The critical moment is when the muezzins reenact their prayers onstage. An act transformed from living ritual to merchandise derives its meaning from the expectations of the audience rather than the emotional investment of the participants. Thus we, the audience, find ourselves in the space of voyeurism, colonial history, and its contemporary descendant: tourism. The parallel to the tourist experience, where a tour group is treated to tribal dances, is inescapable. The performance is complicit in the production of certain types of pleasure; it feeds a gaze that is hungry for nostalgic, made-up images of primitivism, sensuality, and violence.
Radio Muezzin grew mildly interesting when it introduced the issue of the ministry’s plan to centralize the call to prayer through a broadcast operated by the state. But although it seemed at one point that this might have been the central axis of the show, the way the performance meandered through its material made it hard to discern what was actually central; everything tended to become incidental detail. Near the end, a fourth muezzin, named Mohamed Aly — one of the thirty chosen by the ministry to perform the future broadcasted calls to prayer — is introduced. He is clearly more affluent than his colleagues and of a different class background. Kaegi may have been striving to make a point about the social transformations Egypt is undergoing, but it’s a point superficially made, reduced to a metaphorical duel between Aly and Abd El Moaty (the informal muezzin) by juxtaposing their respective biographies one an immigrant worker in Saudi Arabia, the other a highly respected international Qur’an reciter—a contrast so simplistically drawn as to be reminiscent of the high melodrama of commercial Egyptian cinema of the 1940s.
Kaegi, member of the celebrated Berlin-based troupe Rimini Protokoll, has carved a niche for himself within the world of contemporary performance-based arts by focusing on a documentary theater, anthropological in tenor that takes its subjects — usually members of marginalized communities — and proposes to put them center stage. The implicit claim is that in doing so, he humanizes unknown Bulgarian truck drivers, Indian phone operators, and Egyptian muezzins, providing them with a platform while allowing the audience to move beyond its comfort zone. It seems, however, to be more a service for the guilt-ridden colonial consciousness, a form of (in a term coined by a smart and secretly angry friend) “poornography.” The privileged audience gets a taste of its unknowable nemesis, demystifying the enigma while paradoxically enhancing its mystique — a night out with a shot of feel-good humanism.
Never before had I seen an audience so neatly divided — almost all the Egyptians present (of different generations, backgrounds, and artistic persuasions) were in a silent state of shell-shocked anger, either clapping perfunctorily or refusing to clap altogether, while the sizeable foreign contingent enthusiastically applauded.
After years of engaged discussions, one knows only too well that it’s pieces like Radio Muezzin that will receive the support of institutions; that otherwise critical voices will laud what they’ll call a courageous exploration; that different criteria are applied when art travels; and that formally weak, conceptually poor, badly performed pieces will be triumphantly touted as examples of successful engagement with the Other.