Manar Moursi: The Loudspeaker and the Tower
by Ahmed Hegazy
The four works that compose Manar Moursi’s The Loudspeaker and the Tower exhibition at Trinity Square Video offer varied simulations of Cairene public space. Like a felucca on the Nile, the neon blue, green and red lights of the sculptural work that is The Tower (2019) project their shadows onto the polished wooden floor. The distorted call to prayer emanating from the documentary Stairway to Heaven (2019) and crackling mechanical sounds of a zoetrope entitled Ring Road Zoetrope Night Drive (2019) recreate a Cairene cacophony of relentless, clashing sounds. In the exhibition as in real life, the low-income towns along Ring Road in Cairo are a site of multiple discourses: disruption to state agendas and neglect, authority to represent one group at the expense of others, and subversive social and cultural dynamics.
Stairway to Heaven takes a storytelling approach and centres these largely agricultural communities along Ring Road who, through fundraising and in-kind donations, build mosques and thus gain access to state support for water, electricity, roads and other infrastructural support, which alter the landscape and status of their towns. Although the state is responsible for legitimizing these developments and dictating the role of imams and their sermons, members of the communities find ways to make the mosques their own. Pressed up against cotton candy skies, Tamer El Said, a builder, is seen stacking bricks on top of a partially completed minaret. He speaks confidently on the ease of creating things one loves. When night falls, the neon lights—in the same hues echoed in _The Tower_—make the minaret visible in the darkness that would otherwise swallow it. Hani Hassan Hussein, an electrician, speaks of the intentions and significance of minaret light colour schemes. Both men, with their different relationships to these structures, are integral to their sustenance as living artifacts.
Though the documentary gives viewers access to a variety of perspectives about the establishment of mosques, there are voices that are absent or marginalized from the conversations. When I spoke with Moursi about the absence of women and Coptic Christian voices, she noted that attempting to address the dynamics of these groups would bring up a series of complications and suspicions from the government and community members. Therefore, the absence of these voices speaks to the reality of the situation—that the monopoly over representation lies in the hands of the Muslim, male members of the communities. In one scene, Mahdi Ali Attiya, a volunteer at a mosque, boasts about how it was necessary for his mosque to be taller than the Coptic church nearby. In a country where Copts are the minority, and are discriminated against institutionally and interpersonally, Mahdi’s minaret power play is a clear expression of Muslim supremacy. In another scene, a group of farmers are found lying against blocks of stone bricks, adjacent to patterned rugs of brown, red and purple hues. One of the farmers, Ali Abdel Ra’ouf, speaks of how priceless his land is to his family and expresses concerns about the way political shifts and the push for urbanization monetize land use. The mosques, visited or not, enable a rise in buildings, markets and infrastructure, forever altering the lands that nourish the lives residing on them, and the sounds of the loudspeaker, embraced or not, shoot out into every nook and cranny of a space within earshot.
Under the guise of defeating religious extremism, Egypt’s military dictatorship exercises severe surveillance on mosques. This enables the state to target suspected dissidents of diverse political views, including those associated with the former political party in power, the Muslim Brotherhood. Since imams are expected to perform sermons dictated by the state, they need to adhere to the script, and ensure visitors do too. But, even if they adhere to the rules of the establishment, they could still be subject to its wrath if they are suspected of threatening it. With these figures in mind, Moursi invokes the parrot, which has long been the subject of persecution and disruption in folk tales. In a tale from One Thousand and One Nights (1704), a surveillance parrot catches its owner’s wife committing adultery. After the truth is revealed to the husband, he confronts his wife. The wife conspires against the parrot, and the owner executes the parrot on suspicion of lying about the affair.
In another tale, by Jalal al-Din Rumi, a merchant captures a parrot—separating it from its lover. A year later, the captive parrot executes a surprising escape plan; it plays dead, is removed from its cage, and shoots out into the sky—heading toward its lover. In Moursi’s The Parrot, two performers embody towers, loudspeakers, lights and imams. Accompanied by a soundscape of faint imam voices and loudspeaker static, the man and woman mimic, and ultimately break from, the conventional roles of their personified objects and subjects. In the beginning, the man holds up a metal structure reminiscent of a tower over his head, remaining firm and still in a dominant stance. Later, the woman, wrapped in multi-coloured string lights, holds up a loudspeaker, creating an opportunity for feminine visibility typically marginalized in mosque spaces. Eventually, the performers, in plain, all-black outfits, go on to mime an imam—moving their hands in many directions, including toward Allah, the mouth, heart, mind and audience— who preaches through movement, not speech: a practice that can be found in only a few mosques accessible to deaf and mute peoples. These developments reveal a multitude of subversions: the performance does not take place in a mosque, the usual setting for sermons; and the performers—especially the woman, who is not wearing a veil—are not dressed in conventional attire. Furthermore, even though the woman emulates some of the man’s movements, she also contradicts them and creates her own. She, too, has something to say, even if she is not given the space to reverberate it through the loudspeaker.
Before I leave the exhibition, I spend a few minutes watching Ring Road Zoetrope Night Drive. I can’t take my eyes off the beauty that presents itself in the collection of small, lit minarets flickering through the television screen, but the competing sounds, of crackling from the zoetrope and the call to prayer from Stairway to Heaven, steal my focus. In a way, I am back home in Cairo, absorbing the city’s sounds, sights and political dynamics—as dissonant and illuminating as I remember them.