The Politics of Listening

Peta Bryant


Makan in Amman, Jordan is an independent artist run initiative encouraging experimentation in contemporary visual culture and the discussion of politics and social issues. Whilst ‘makan’ means ‘place’ in Arabic this artist run initiative is more a collaborative platform for facilitating production and advocacy than simply a physical space for exhibiting art works.

Makan’s most recent exhibition Keep it down, keep it quiet considered the valence of soundscapes unique to the Middle Eastern region. One of the works featured was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s video work The All Hearing[1]. The departure point for the creation of The All Hearing was a recent study of Cairo’s urban culture which reported that Cairo is one of the world’s three noisiest cities. At first I assumed that the predominant noise factor in Cairo was traffic and possibly construction for the densely populated Cairenes. However, The All Hearing reveals that Cairo’s ‘noise’ is largely due to the increasing competition to have oneself heard. Hamdan, a Jordanian born artist who is now based in Beirut approached two sheikhs in Cairo to deliver sermons about noise pollution. The video footage of these sermons, spliced between images of Cairo’s dense traffic and impenetrable spires of loud speakers, reveal that the quest for peace and harmony is more than just a spiritual exercise for most Egyptians. It is an everyday mission for sleep and sanity to facilitate a functioning work, family and social life. As an example, one of the sheiks in The All Hearing draws attention to the common plight of people living between two or more mosques. This location usually involves living with competing minaret sound systems and, according to the sheikh, diminishes one’s ability for productive prayer. In another example, the sheikh talks about the disregard shown by many Cairenes for their neighbours while celebrating weddings, when music is blasted on to the street. In these instances people are left sleep deprived and usually ‘retaliate’ with similarly loud behavior the next time they have an occasion to celebrate. Both of the sheikhs in The All Hearing contend that raucous self-expression pollutes others’ hearing with ‘shameful sounds’ that are in contrast to the peaceful tenants of Islam.

However, it is self-expression through “loud speaker libertarianism”[2] that is closely tied with individual identity in everyday Egyptian life. The larger the sound system, the greater the sound, the more one can assert themselves in a densely populated capital teeming with nine million people. It is not just the volume but the uniqueness of the sound that sets one apart from their urban brethren: localized singing, melody and adhan[3] express an identity and the badge of belonging for individuals within their neighbourhoods and the greater urban environment. People blast their self-selected music into the public arena, families announce religious rites of passage and, as Hamdan says sheiks are determined to deliver their sermon “not only to their congregation inside the mosque but also to all passersby” which makes “amplified ethics painful to hear”[4].

In January 2014, the Egyptian military government introduced weekly set themes for Friday sermons[5]. For the past year religious leaders have been able to deliver impromptu speeches to their congregations so long as they maintain the government appointed theme. This policy was implemented in the name of controlling Egypt’s noise pollution. However, it does little to effectively quell noise pollution and instead provides a means of ensuring that religious leaders do not incite anti-government action. As such The All Hearing presents a paradox whereby government policy is adhered to through supporting the purported agenda to reduce noise pollution but also disregarded through experimental collaboration with the sheikhs and taking the initiative to deliver sermons on a topic outside the weekly official order. In The All Hearing Hamdan’s satire of Egyptian government policy constitutes a political protest which draws attention to the constraints of expressing unique identities whilst also making clear the politics of listening: soundscapes have an established power to act as propaganda and incite action.


Image: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, The All Hearing, video, 2014 (still)


[1] Link to extract of video work:
Caption: Lawrence Abu Hamdan, The All Hearing, video, 2014

[2] Lawrence Aby Hamdan, Keynote address at What Now? 2015 The Politics of Listening, New York, April 2015

[3] Muslim call to prayer, made from the mosque by a muezzin. Adhans differ based on the vocal range and timbre of the muezzin at each mosque.

[4] Lawrence Aby Hamdan, Keynote address at What Now? 2015 The Politics of Listening, New York, April 2015

[5] Ahmed Maher, Egypt mosques: Weekly sermon themes set by government, BBC News

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