Technology and the Sacred Voice

Technology and the Sacred Voice


by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, TIRN and ISLAMiCommentary on MARCH 16, 2014: 

In  2007 Ukrainian-born artist Anna Kipervaser began work on a multimedia documentary project about the muezzins who recite the Muslim call to prayer (the adhan) in Cairo. In 2009, the project came to encompass a feature length documentary film for which filming completed in 2012. The film documents the tradition of the adhan at a moment of transformation in the region. After 1,400 years, wireless receivers are starting to replace muezzins in reciting the call for prayer in Cairo, though revolution and continued political unrest halts their inspection and maintenance.

“The individual voices of the muezzins,” Kipervaser said, “have defined the famous soundscape of this ancient metropolis for years.”

Her initial recordings captured that soundscape before it was to undergo a total transformation.

“In 2010 a significant change in this tradition began to take shape in Cairo,” she explained. “The religious arm of the government began implementing what is known as the Adhan Unification Project, which consisted of disallowing Cairo’s mosques from sounding their individual adhans in favor of replacing them by a single muezzin’s voice broadcast from a radio station.”

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.

Within months the Egyptian revolution took the streets of Cairo and the Minister of Religious Endowments with it. While this did halt inspection and maintenance in many of the mosques where receivers were already installed, the installation of new receivers in Cairo’s mosques continued.

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.

“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,” Kipervaser said of her own recent experience. “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.”

With the support of the Hartley Film Foundation, the National Geographic All Roads Film Project, and the Lucius and Eva Eastman Fund, her documentary feature film is now at the rough cut stage.

Anna Kipervaser and her team at On Look Films are submitting the film, whose working title is Voices and Faces of the Adhan: Cairo, to festivals this spring. The film, which captures not only the stories of the muezzins but incorporates various other facets of Cairo’s enveloping soundscape 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.

Watch/Listen below: 

While Anna and her team are locking in the final touches on the feature, here is the trailer (below). It features several of the main characters and introduces the conflict at hand.

Technology and the Sacred 

Inspiration for Kipervaser’s creative endeavors stems from her fascination with culture. She has traveled extensively and has created numerous bodies of socially relevant work.

Currently pursuing her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University, Kipervaser recently gave an academic presentation that wove together elements from her work together with research by UC Berkeley anthropologist Charles Hirschkind, Director of SSRC’s Digital Culture program Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Duke religion chair David Morgan, and Barnard College anthropologist Brian Larkin —  specifically focusing on the intersections of and the individual topics of media, mediation, mediatization, the sacred, and religion.

Her presentation was part of an academic conference held at Duke on “Islamic Media: Technology and the Sacred.” Convened by Duke professors Ellen McLarney and Negar Mottahedeh, the gathering (made possible by a yearlong Emerging Humanities Network grant from the Humanities Writ Large initiative at Duke University sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) was held in part to “seek to understand how Islamic media transform not only the social and political landscape, but also the human sensorium—the way we see/ feel/ and perceive the world.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” Kipervaser said, leading off her presentation to a packed lecture hall of student, scholars and the curious public.

“Social sciences are sometimes self descriptive whereas auto communication is a facilitation of transcendence. Religion can’t exist without mediation. The Quran is at once the Word, the highest form of Art, and mediator between us and God,” Kipervaser intoned. “We are well on our way to creating the space we need for today’s conversations.  Spiritual and ethical attunement is most directly accessible through sound and is exercised inside of our entire bodies, through somatic learning, through listening with the heart.”

She invited the audience to watch and listen some of the raw footage gathered for her documentary:

Daniel Dendra, anOtherArchitect designer, and creator of Cairo Sound Table, speaks over video and audio of traffic on the streets of Cairo with sounds of the muezzins mixed in toward the end: “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. ” (Listen/Watch here to Kipervaser’s narrated conference presentation)


Anna Kipervaser is a Ukrainian-born artist with a BFA from the Art Academy of Cincinnati; currently pursuing her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University. Her work spans mediums from her classical training in drawing and painting to printmaking to installation and to film. Kipervaser has consistently exhibited nationally since 2001, and has been the recipient of numerous grant awards and residencies including the George Sugarman Foundation Grant, New York Studio Program Residency, the Bertha Langhorst Werner Award, and the Stephen H. Wilder Traveling Scholarship. In addition to creating art, Kipervaser is also interested in curating exhibitions, performances, and screenings. She is founder and director of Manual Productions, a mobile artists space, and of On Look Films, an independent production company. 


This article was made possible by the Transcultural Islam Project, an initiative launched in 2011 by the Duke Islamic Studies Center —in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations and the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies— aimed at deepening understanding of Islam and Muslim communities. See and for more information. The Transcultural Islam Project is funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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