Heeding the Call of the ‘Radio Muezzin’
“Beautiful sounds, nevertheless, are an integral part of Islam, the most familiar being the call to prayer chanted by a muezzin from the minaret and reciting a text from the Koran extolling the greatness of God and testifying to the faith: “There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.” As the recordings at the Festival suggest, muezzins are chosen for their powerful and expressive voices and they perform their task with all the artistry of which they are capable. The prayer is heard five times a day by Muslims in Islamic lands, although today it is often produced by recordings and loudspeakers rather than by the natural human voice.” – John Saibini, “The World of Islam: Its Music”, pg 22-23 May/June 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World
With the title “Radio Muezzin”, it is logical to expect numerous calls to prayer (Adhan) in the performance. Even after reading the write-ups online and in the printed brochures, I reminded myself to keep my expectations to a minimum or, at the very least, manageable level. I was told that in the performance, the characters would have to ‘reconstruct their lives’.
I was not told that it would reconstruct mine as well.[pullquote_right]I was told that in the performance, the characters would have to ‘reconstruct their lives’.I was not told that it would reconstruct mine as well.[/pullquote_right]
Given the small audience, I was pleasantly surprised to be upgraded and seated in the circle, rather than the foyer stalls. It would mean a more intimate session with the show.
Soon after the necessary announcements were made, we settled for the performance to start. Of course, as I have expected, it began with a call to prayer.
In the darkness.
The beauty of the human voice declaring the Oneness of God and the existence of Muhammad as His Messenger in the darkness simply reverberated…off the walls and in our hearts and souls. The clarity of diction and message simply could not be denied. Light was also slowly introduced to the central muezzin who, blind, was standing centrestage. Just as I was lulled into deep reflection and appreciation of these, the call of prayer was repeated to the left of the audience. An elderly bearded muezzin stood tall. This canon was completed by a third muezzin who stood to the right of the audience in the second level stall.
Just the plain voices, with the sincerity of calling to prayer and success, in the silence of the theatre hall and increasingly illuminating light were enough to send tingles down the spines, what more tug the heartstrings!
The play continued with the biographies of the muezzin as they were introduced one after the other. They shared snippets of their lives with videos or stills of their families, surroundings, mosques and other scenery in their background. Each character was given time and space to deliver their monologues with visual aids to literally give the audience an insight into their lives. They shared on their family, childhood and eventual appointment as the Muezzin of their respective mosques. Onstage, they also demonstrated the acts of performing the ablution and prayer.
As the lines were said in Arabic, that being the mother tongue of the muezzins, the Singaporean audience had to rely solely on the subtitles. Although this led to a slight delay in appreciating the humour, the Muezzins were still able to draw a few laughs.
Incorporated in the performance were several Quranic verses. Amongst those shared is verse 185 of Surah Al-Imran.
3:185 Every human being is bound to taste death: but only on the Day of Resurrection will you be requited in full [for whatever you have done] – whereupon he that shall be drawn away from the fire and brought into paradise will indeed have gained a triumph: for the life of this world is nothing but an enjoyment of self-delusion.
This is indeed a foreboding hint of the fate of the Muezzins in being replaced by the radio. It was also at this juncture that the audience was introduced to the radio engineer who would be responsible for the live transmissions of the Adhan by one of the 30 state-appointed Muezzins. 30 from an estimated 30,000 Muezzins in 30,000 mosques.
An interesting feature of this performance is the localisation of the show to the country it is staged. This was featured in the lines of the radio technician who explained to the audience that the prayer times of the Muslims are dependent on the movements of the Sun which, in turn, would affect the times of the calls of prayer. Some factual references were also made to Singapore such as the understanding that prayer calls are allowed in public spaces and more significantly, given the minute state of our country, that we do not have a designated country code in the China-made clock used to determine prayer times!
Included in the performance are references to the Six-Day War (an-Naksah) that occurred on June 5-10 1967. The Muezzin’s various involvements and experiences were also shared with the audience, complete with pictures and anecdotes. The Victory Sing of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 was also sung by the blind Muezzin. The lyrics, translated, were flashed on the screen for the audience. The patriotism and emotions resonated clearly.
The fourth actor was performed “in absentia”. His lines were recited by another member of the production and his acts were projected on the screen from a recording of his last performance. So, while he was physically absent, his presence was still seen and heard via technological advances. His story was quite a contrast from the other actors as his pictures showed him socialising with the rich and famous, political leaders and having a father who was a Qari (reciter of the Quran). Best of all, he was the runner-up of an International Tilawah competition and has recorded his recitations to be heard by many.[pullquote_right]As with the Adhan and other incantations or recitations, the human voice is a powerful medium to express self. It cannot be denied, suppressed or worst, silenced.[/pullquote_right]
Coming to the end of the play, the actors gathered to the front of the stage and recited the Takbir, commonly heard during Aidilfitri and Aidiladha. Shortly after, the speaker was placed centrestage and the actors exited, only to have the Adhan being transmitted and broadcasted.
The late introduction of the fourth character and the sincere admittance that the actor had left the group due to the internal tension between the members personally sealed the message of the play. The open sharing of the life stories of the actors, the revolution and the split simply emphasised the power of the human voice. As with the Adhan and other incantations or recitations, the human voice is a powerful medium to express self. It cannot be denied, suppressed or worst, silenced. Be it through words, actions or even silence, the human voice would prevail and manifest itself to be heard. While it may be soft or loud, its ability to reverberate and resonate long and far is certain.