i am always amused by reactive reflexive recriminating shrieks of (neo-) colonialism in reviews of the arts produced by foreigners in or on the middle east by middle eastern practitioners and critics.
hassan khan and i were at the same performance of swiss but berlin-based stefan kaegi’s radio muezzen at al sawy culturewheel in zamalek late last year (check his full review quoted below on qantara).
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’.
i missed quite a bit of the performance as it took forever to talk my way into the venue- security was mad tight and i wasn’t on the guest-list. i was later told by someone from the goethe institue (who were supporting or organizing the event) that the egyptian authorities having approved the play’s content had second thoughts a few days before the first performance was planned (the second planned performance had to be canned altogether).
the bits of the performance that i caught were focused on the government plans to unify the call to prayers in cairo. i believe the plan is to select a few muezzins and replace the individual muezzins in each mosque with broadcasts of calls to prayer. apparently all in the name of improving cairo’s noise pollution – which is absurd even by egyptian standards. (aside: i’ve often thought that broadcasting actual friday sermons would be beneficial for egypt in general, having sat through some unbelievably bad khotbas in my time- perhaps we can piggyback on the muezzin technology!).
the four muezzins featured took us through their diverse backgrounds interspersed with prayer calls, slideshows and even some live weight-lifting against a minimal but effective backdrop.
the dialog was mostly slow and dry which was frustrating initially but once the door drama had dissipated into the dark standing-room only venue’s quiet calm i acclimatized and started to enjoy the drawn out, focused rhythm of the obvious non-actors’ non-acting. hassan isn’t happy with kaegi’s choice of:
“unworked non-acting” [that] must suit his [kaegi] 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.
surely though this ‘realness’ riff is applicable to any performance you so choose to knock. this comes off as excessive sensitivity on hassan khan’s side. the uncomfortable formality seemed genuine. and anyhow if hassan’s assertion that ‘the performative presence of the non-actors seems to have been left totally up to them‘ is true, why would official-speak be the default outcome?
The four muezzins, who made touchingly awkward and mostly reluctant performers, were nothing if not charming.
hassan took a well worn and frankly tired and tiring approach to reviewing art that appropriates foreign socio-cultural-economic subjects with the usual go-to themes of superficiality, exploitation, voyeurism, misappropriation invoked:
Thus we, the audience, find ourselves in the space of voyeurism, colonial history, and its contemporary descendant: tourism.
well, there is a pace in the world for tourism. hassan fails to account for the fact that the performance, although it premiered in cairo, was not necessarily written for a cairenne moslem audience – at least not solely. although he then implies the piece is really about superficial rich-world disingenuous catharsis and pseudo-engagement:
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.
which just feels like more knee-jerk-over-sensitivity.
i thought the piece was relatively restrained and certainly not particular judgmental and yet hassan deemed parts of it:
reminiscent of the high melodrama of commercial Egyptian cinema of the 1940s.
the show is touring europe this summer. i encourage you to check it out and share your thoughts.
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