by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on MARCH 26, 2015*:
In 2007 Ukrainian-born artist and Duke University MFA student Anna Kipervaser conceived a multimedia documentary project about collective and individual voice — as seen through the lens of the 1,400 year-old tradition of the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) and the muezzins who recite it.
By 2009 the project was on the road to becoming a feature length documentary film – Cairo in One Breath — and will make its world premiere next month at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina.
The film documents the tradition of the adhan at a moment of transformation in the region. After 60 generations, a plan to replace the voices of thousands of individual muezzins in Cairo — by a single voice broadcast from a radio station to wireless receivers — was put into effect. This Adhan Unification Project was instituted in 2010 by the Mubarak regime, which claimed it was an effort to reduce noise pollution. Cairo in One Breath unfolds as this project takes hold, and Egypt undergoes Revolution and regime change.
“The individual voices of the muezzins have defined the famous soundscape of this ancient metropolis, Cairo, for years,” said Kipervaser in an interview with ISLAMiCommentary.
She appears to have been in the right place at the right time. Her initial recordings captured that soundscape before it was to undergo this transformation.
Beginning on the first day of Ramadan in 2010, technicians began setting up wireless receivers in the city’s myriad mosques (there are about 4,000 officially recognized mosques and 30,000 other mosques in Cairo) in preparation to receive and transmit that single muezzin’s voice.
But within months the Egyptian revolution broke out in the squares of Cairo, and Mubarak was ousted. Political unrest halted inspection and maintenance in many of the mosques where receivers had already been installed, but the installation of new receivers in Cairo’s mosques carried on.
As political transition continues in Egypt, so too the Adhan Unification Project is in a state of flux. Many mosques continue to have functioning receivers, while some have no receivers and others have non-functional receivers.
“The Adhan Unification Project has displaced thousands of muezzins. Former muezzins who now perform other duties at mosques, recite the adhan when receivers [all-to-frequently] fail,” said Kipervaser.
Recalled Hamed Abdallah, muezzin at the El-Mahmoudia Mosque, in the film, “People came to install the device, talking about some unification thing. It totally took us by surprise. A person had no choice but to be upset. It made you feel worthless. What was the point in even coming to work?”
Kipervaser said of her own recent experience in Cairo: “Today someone walking down the street cannot possibly know if she is hearing the adhan of the AUP’s muezzin or an individual adhan from a muezzin inside the mosque they are walking past.” She continued, “However if while walking, one hears the sound of the same muezzin’s voice from multiple mosques he passes and then suddenly a different muezzin’s voice, then it is clear that several mosques in the area have working receivers and some don’t. In an already pluralized soundscape, this development has added yet another layer to the overall experience.”
She added that today, “while the tradition isn’t dying, it is now teetering on a ledge.” While the government could decide to put more resources into the Adhan Unification Project at any time, and even expand it beyond Cairo, Egyptian President al-Sisi’s attention appears to be on other things that need fixing.
“The state of the adhan tradition in Cairo, is a perfect reflection of everything else in Cairo, including food security, freedom, electricity,” said Kipervaser. “Unstable. Politicized.”
Filming in Cairo took place over the course of multiple production trips between 2009 – 2012; capturing the evolution of the Adhan Unification Project, and inadvertently, the Egyptian revolution. The film is structured through the five adhans of the day, woven through with interviews of main and supporting characters and scholars, which, according to the film description “paint an emotional and historically relevant portrait of a tradition undergoing change in a time and place ripe with transformation.”
Hanafi Mahmoud, volunteer muezzin at the Sarghatmash Mosque, remarks in the film, “When you hear a live muezzin, a person performing the adhan from his heart, you feel a sense of piety. And at the same time, you feel you are in the presence of God, but this adhan is no better than hearing the radio in the street. When you drink fresh squeezed juice, does it taste the same as the juice made with chemicals?”
Controversy around the Muslim call to prayer is potent whether abroad or at home, Kipervaser explained. Money and power often play a role in who gets to hear what, when, and from where. Who gets to control sound? When is it welcome and when is it an intrusion? In non-Muslim majority societies — in cities and even on college campuses
— there are debates around whether the sounds of Muslim prayers should be allowed in public, secular, or Christian spaces.
In the film, as the sights and sounds of traffic on the streets of Cairo mix with sounds of Cairo’s muezzins, Daniel Dendra (anOtherArchitect designer, and creator of Cairo Sound Table) observes: “Sound, unlike vision will permeate all the nooks and crannies, will flow into all the openings, you can’t close your ears and not hear them, so you are forced to be immersed in it, and in that respect the transport process of sacredness through sounds is much more compelling, much more enveloping. Music brings people together, it’s in a way a spiritual thing…(sound) is the only sense that we never switch off.”
Kipervaser’s documentary feature film — produced by On Look Films and financially sponsored by the Hartley Film Foundation, with additional support from the National Geographic All Roads Film Project and the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund — makes its world premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, North Carolina as part of the NEW DOCS program on April 10. (Carolina Theatre, Cinema One, 1p)
The “NEW DOCS” program includes 49 titles, 35 features and 14 shorts, from across the United States and around the world, selected from over 1,300 submissions, including 12 World Premieres, 13 North American Premieres, and two U.S. Premieres. Nearly all of the films are screening in North Carolina for the first time. “NEW DOCS” films are eligible for the Full Frame Audience Award and are shortlisted for a variety of additional juried prizes, which will be announced at the annual Awards Barbecue on Sunday, April 12.
One of the nation’s premier documentary film festivals, Full Frame is a qualifying event for consideration for the nominations for both the Academy Award® for Best Documentary Short Subject and the Producers Guild of America Awards.
Anna Kipervaser is a Ukrainian-born multimedia artist. Her work spans installation, painting, drawing, printmaking, and analog and digital filmmaking. Anna founded Manual Productions, a mobile artist exhibition and performance space in 2003, and in 2008, she co-founded On Look Films with Rodion Galperin. She holds a BFA from the Art Academy of Cincinnati and is currently pursuing her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University, Class of 2015.
She is also screening two other works in Durham. Part one of her MFA thesis work, A deer hunt and no mistake, a program of short experimental videos, is screening on Saturday, March 28 at 6pm at Full Frame Theater. Part two of Anna’s MFA thesis exhibition, The Order of Revelation, an experimental film on 16mm, will screen at Carr 103, on Duke University’s East Campus on Saturday, April 18 at 6pm. In 2015, several of her short films can also be seen at the Athens International Film and Video Festival, Indie Grits Film Festival, Chicago Underground Film Festival, and 12Gates Video Art Fest.
* The above article updates a piece done last year on the same subject on ISLAMiCommentary.
Cairo in One Breath is part of a multi-platform project that includes a multimedia installation, online interactive experience, and sound archive.
In this video Setting Course, Kipervaser explains how the film project was conceived and why this topic piqued her interest. (Note that Cairo in One Breath was previously called Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo)
Here is the trailer, which features several of the main characters and introduces the conflict at hand.
ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).
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