By Jennifer Reinhardt
Noisy. Chaotic. Overwhelming. All three adjectives regularly describe Cairo on any given day. Home to more than 20 million people, the sights and sounds of the city often can cause a sensory overload. Yet respite from the noisy, chaotic, and overwhelming cityscape is offered five times a day by local muezzin performing the adhan, or call to prayer.
Considered an art form, this oral tradition dating back to the time of Muhammad is an integral component to the experience of the city itself. Coming from nearly 4,000 mosques all over the city, this a capella harmony of so many human voices raised in song has the power to disrupt and transform the daily lives of millions of Cairenes.
Often starting vaguely out of synch in different musical keys, tempos, and pitches, the adhan is alternatively referred to either as a symphony or a cacophony. Wanting to “put an end to this randomness,” Egyptian Minister of Religious Affairs Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq recently unveiled Tawheed al Adhan, or the Adhan Unification Project, to systematize the call to prayer in 2010.
Under this plan, the multiple adhan will be reduced to a single recording transmitted from al-Azhar mosque, picked up by wireless receivers in local mosques, and broadcast by loudspeakers. This plan will dramatically alter both the soundscape of Cairo and the lives of millions of Cairenes who experience the adhan.
While considered a great honor, the position of the muezzin is traditionally the role of the blind, handicapped, aged, and those suffering from extreme poverty. As soon as next year, thousands of muezzin will be forced to join the ranks of the unemployed.
Additionally, as with most oral traditions, no tangible record of the adhan exists currently.
The need to document and honor this 1400 year-old tradition before it is erased from the social landscape and collective memory forever was immediately recognized by the talented artist and curator Anna Kipervaser during her stay in Cairo in 2007. Anna sensed the urgency to create a record of each individual muezzin and their adhan, and she plans to present her documentation to the Library of Congress and other educational institutions, producing a digital library accessible to scholars worldwide.
No sound archival project of this magnitude has been undertaken since the mid 1900s when John Avery Lomax made 10,000 recordings in the Deep South, effectively preserving American folk music as we know it today.
Anna also serves as the executive producer and writer for OnLookFilms, an international team of experienced filmmakers that will begin shooting the documentary Voices & Faces of the Adhan: Cairo this September.
Following the chronological structure of a single day, this film will trace the adhan through the different neighborhoods of Cairo. Footage of the streetscape and melodies of the adhan will be interspersed with interviews of the muezzin and ordinary Cairenes (Muslims, non-Muslims, shopkeepers, residents, and tourists alike) to illustrate the impact of this tradition on the general population of Cairo.
By capturing so many different perspectives, the film hopes to create a more complete visual and aural portrait of the city, focusing on the “individual and collective journeys of the people of Cairo, their daily lives, and how they step between the madness and the beauty of life in time to this accidental symphony, the call to prayer.”
Conscious of the “Western gaze” and the bias to preserve developing countries as untainted by the modern world, the film actively avoids casting value judgments on the effect of the adhan and its relationship to new technology in Egyptian society.
Rather, as executive director Miguel Silveira eloquently puts it, the film’s main mission is to record a memory in such a way as to transcend cultural barriers and expose the common human connection, capturing “something not Muslim, not Cairo, but something universal to everyone.”
Throughout the end credits, the film will include clips of rituals from other traditions (Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Baha’i, Native American ceremonies) to show how some aspect of the call is included in every culture. By highlighting our similarities instead of emphasizing our differences, Voices & Faces of the Adhan: Cairo has the power to bridge many of the social, religious, and cultural divides thereby impacting politics as well as the arts and humanities.
When passionately describing the source of inspiration and broader mission of her project, Anna explains how, in her experience, a great majority of people remain unfamiliar to the world at large, and what they are exposed to on the news about other cultures (in particular Islamic) is negative. It then “becomes our job, not just on film stuff, to bring humans together on a base level as humans and inspire people to be interested in each other. Period.”
If you are interested in supporting Anna and the team of OnLookFilms, or in learning more about their project, please visit their website at http://www.onlookfilms.com.
Jennifer Reinhardt is a recent graduate from the University of Chicago specializing in Near Eastern studies and Music. A member of the Middle Eastern Music Ensemble in Chicago, she also spent last summer in Syria with the Middle East Fellowship on their “Damascus Summer Encounter” cultural immersion program. She is looking forward to moving to LA in September and becoming more involved with projects sponsored by the Levantine Cultural Center!