February 17, 2013

Toward an Acoustemology of Muslim Citizenship in Kenya

this is a great great article that, while linking music and citizenship, also provides a cultural window into Swahili coastal society. You can find out more about Andrew by going to his website. This excerpt is part of a larger chapter from a book called Music Sound, and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience as published by Cambridge University Press.

Toward an Acoustemology of Muslim Citizenship in Kenya

by Dr. Andrew J Eisenberg (from the December 2010 issue of Anthropology News)

The problem of Muslim belonging in predominantly Christian Kenya has taken on added urgency for academics and policymakers in recent years, in light of attacks by global Islamist militants on Kenyan soil, a massive influx of Muslim migrants from Somalia, and struggles over the future of the country’s Islamic courts system, among other factors. In my sound-centered research on social identification on Kenya’s Muslim- dominated coastal strip, I explore the contemporary conditions of Muslim citizenship—in the broad sense of social belonging within the nation-state—by taking an ethnographic ear to contestations over public space that happen in relation to public sound. My method- ological approach is grounded in Steven Feld’s (1996) acoustemology of place, which he describes as an inves- tigation into sounding and listening as ways of experi- encing and knowing physical and social environments. Here I lay out some basic coordinates for an acouste- mology of spatial politics and Muslim belonging on the Kenyan coast.

Hearing Spatial Politics
I begin with a story that crystallizes how sonorous contestations over public space articulate with larger issues of Muslim citizenship on the Kenyan coast. In July 2006, the Kenyan coastal village of Kikambala played host to a dramatic dispute between a local imam and a member of the coast’s expatriate commu- nity (a woman of apparent East Asian extraction). The dispute began after the imam’s mosque was fitted with new rooftop loudspeakers, including one aimed at the expatriate’s nearby house. The expatriate made her way over to the mosque early one morning to register her consternation at being jolted out of bed each morning by the predawn adhan (call to prayer). She arrived outside the mosque while the elongated tones of the sacred recitation were still resounding and began to shout her complaints toward the edifice. The imam soon emerged to investigate the disturbance and, on finding an angry woman vocalizing a dissonant counterpoint to the adhan, offered what he would later calmly describe as the only appropriate response: he punched the woman squarely in the eye.
The imam’s violent response was received with general approval from Muslims in the local commu- nity and beyond. Leaders of Kenya’s national Muslim organizations were soon standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the imam in hastily organized press conferences, arguing that his violent action, however regrettable, was carried out in accordance with Islamic law as well as common sense. The local community of worship- pers offered a similar defense of the imam, only in a more performative manner: in the gaze of television news cameras, a group of men began constructing a stone wall to block the footpath that the expatriate had used to reach their mosque. Given that it was only wide
enough to block the footpath, the wall was clearly a message, meant to communicate that the expatriate’s actions were an attack of an equivalent brutality to what she herself had suffered at the hands of the imam.
The clash between the expatriate and the imam in Kikambala makes visible and audible the presence of competing logics of public space on the Kenyan coast. In both the formulation and delivery of her complaint, the expatriate situated herself within the “neutral” public space of a liberal democratic nation-state, a space in which any sound may be marked as noise and any subject may address any other subject without regard to minority norms of social intercourse. The imam’s response, meanwhile, was grounded in an Islamic- Swahili logic of public space, which bears its own rules of conduct and address. By investigating epistemic disjunctures such as these through bodily practices of producing and receiving sound, I seek an analysis that stays close to the subject, one that hopefully stands in tension with the accounts of Muslim intentions and desires that pervade Kenyan (and global) media narratives.

Islam, Sound and Space
Charles Hirschkind (2006) provides an invaluable starting point for an acoustemological approach to Islamic-Swahili conceptions of public space in his discussion of Muslim subject formation as a matter of engagement with the quotidian “pious soundscape” of calls to prayer, Quranic recitations, and religious sermons. Though focused on Muslims in Cairo, Egypt, Hirschkind’s work bears directly on Muslims of the Kenyan coast (and elsewhere) who engage with similar sounds in similar ways. Through “correct” listening, Muslims in coastal Kenya, as in Cairo, cultivate bodily comportments and doxic understandings that are key to what it means to be a good Muslim. The sounding and listening practices associated with the pious sound- scape thus comprise an acousteme, a system of knowing in and through sound, within which sites of worldly action are sonically transformed into sacred topoi for the act of submission that is Islam. This idea is put forward in a hadith passage, albeit in different terms. In this passage, the prophet Mohammed is reported to have said, “When the Imam comes outside, the angels present themselves to listen to the khutba [the Friday sermon]” (Al-Bukhari 1997:23). According to this image, angels literally “present” themselves (make themselves present) in the physical world, within the space and time of the pious soundscape. Heavenly beings, that is, hear the imam’s words not through some mystical mode of listening, but by temporarily joining with human beings in their worldly environment, effecting a sacralization of space.
On the Kenyan coast, the pious soundscape’s sonic demarcation of Muslim space sets the stage for large and small struggles over conceptions of Muslim communal autonomy, even, one might argue, struggles for Muslim communal autonomy. The dispute between the expa-triate and the imam in Kikambala, which involved the participation of leaders of national Muslim organi- zations, provides an example of a large struggle over Muslim communal autonomy. One Swahili friend in the port city of Mombasa opened my eyes to a far subtler struggle, the visible evidence of which can be observed weekly during the Friday khutba, in the Muslim-Swahili neighborhood of Old Town in Mombasa. Referring to a mosque that sits just across a narrow road from a police station staffed mostly by non-Muslim, upcountry Kenyans, my friend told me, “You know, those polisi hear every word of the khutba just sitting there in the station. But if just one of them would stand outside like this”— he crossed his arms and puffed up his chest, imitating a haughty police officer’s posture—“listening. ...” He completed the thought with a simple “eh-hee,” indi- cating that such a move would certainly be taken as a serious provocation.

Doing Acoustemology
My friend’s perceptive ethnomethodological observa- tion of the social choreography that accompanies the pious soundscape in Mombasa Old Town highlights both the necessity and the difficulty of doing acouste- mology in the contested spaces of the Kenyan coast. Acoustemological research ideally generates theoret- ical knowledge through an active process of listening in, involving a personal engagement with sounds and subjects in their spatiotemporal contexts. Even at its best, this form of research is fraught with method- ological, ethical and practical challenges, all of which are amplified when a researcher from the global North works among Muslim subjects in the global South, given that the latter may reasonably fear being listened in on by the former. What precipitated my Swahili friend’s lesson on the politics of listening to the khutba was a problem that had resulted from my own inattention to these challenges: A few days earlier, some worshippers at a mosque close to my apartment in Mombasa Old Town became concerned that I was making an audio recording of the khutba, concerned enough to hold a meeting on the matter after the fact. Though I was trying not to be conspicuous in making my recording, neither was I hiding what I was doing. I was naively comfortable in the knowledge that I was not doing anything in violation of professional ethics: Not only was I recording a public broadcast in public space, I was recording a broadcast of which I would have “[heard] every word ... just sitting there” in my apartment. I failed to understand, however, that as a white foreigner, my act of “[standing] outside like this,” recording, was not only inherently suspicious but also a symbolic perfor- mance within the context of an ongoing struggle over Muslim communal autonomy. Fortunately, good friends who were respected members of the local community quickly defused tensions and allayed fears in the wake of my faux pas. But the embarrassing episode stays with me as a visceral reminder that ethnographers also carry particular understandings of publicity, privacy, sound, and space, which may be subject to contestation.


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