When cities grow and change, it is easy to take stock only of what is distinctly visible: new buildings, new bridges, new roads.
What fades away more gradually are the sounds that define these places — noises that may seem to live in the background of our experiences but in fact have the power to evoke some of our most visceral memories and feelings.
In Cairo, one of the world’s great ancient cities — and one of its noisiest — ambitious development goals and a soaring population have led to dramatic urban changes in recent years.
Old architecture is crumbling. Highways and flyovers now cut through historic neighborhoods. Construction of an administrative capital, costing tens of billions of dollars, is underway in Egypt’s desert, about 30 miles from Cairo. Egypt has planned a gradual relocation of government offices to the new development.
The changes — some of them controversial among Cairenes — are reshaping the Arab world’s most populous country.
Overwhelmed by the chaos of older neighborhoods, many residents who can afford it are moving to modern, quieter compounds on the outskirts of the current capital — seeking relief from congestion, traffic and, yes, noise.
This migration looks to dramatically remake the city’s soundscape in the years to come.
For the past several years, Youssef Sherif, 28, and Nehal Ezz, 26, have wandered the Egyptian capital in search of the cries of street vendors, the tap tap tap of metal workers in their shops, the cacophony of chaotic traffic. Their goal is to capture in recordings what Cairo sounds like — right here, right now — before these noises disappear. They are collecting the sounds to share on an Instagram account and eventually hope to establish a searchable database of sounds.
Call to prayer
Cairo is nicknamed “the city of a thousand minarets,” a nod to the countless mosques — large and small, old and new — that dot the city. Five times a day, muezzins call Muslims to prayer through large speakers, the “athan” reverberating through neighborhoods. Several muezzins can often be heard at once.
Drivers in Cairo are not afraid to lay on their horns. Different honks can signal anything from rage to a friendly hello. Taxi drivers beep to let prospective passengers know there’s space inside. Minibus drivers, often driving at breakneck speed, call out their destinations as they stop to pick up or drop off riders, who cram into rows of well-worn seats.
Massive infrastructure projects are trying to reduce traffic congestion, although many Cairenes say new roads and bridges have introduced their own sets of problems and will forever alter the layouts of historic neighborhoods.
The repetitive call echoes through many of Cairo’s neighborhoods all day long, as men on bikes, trikes and donkey carts invite residents to come outside and hand over their old belongings, including appliances and assorted unwanted junk. These merchants pay a cheap price and then depart with their haul. The term, bekya, comes from the Italian roba vecchia — or old stuff.
Horse-drawn carriages transported people through Cairo long before car traffic clogged the city. Some colorful carriages, known as hantour, still travel the city’s streets, the clip-clop of their horses’ hooves evoking echoes of the past.
Coffee and tea — often served with a generous heap of sugar — are integral to the Cairo experience. In many traditional neighborhoods, tiny hole-in-the-wall ahawi, or cafes, can be found on nearly every block. Some are sparsely decorated, with just a few wooden chairs stacked outside. Old men are often the main patrons, watching the world pass by, catching up on the latest news or hunching over backgammon boards. Other cafes, some of which have taken over entire alleys, feature colorful plastic chairs and tablecloths. Stray cats often weave between customers’ legs, hoping for snacks or affection.
In Cairo’s many crowded markets, vendors often give their vocal cords a break by setting up small loudspeakers that project recorded versions of themselves calling out their prices. The speakers compete with one another, demanding to be heard as the day’s prices repeat on a loop.
In the morning, Cairenes collect around tiny kitchens attached to colorful food carts, waiting to be served foul, pronounced fool, a savory fava bean stew. Metal ladles clank against bowls as proprietors scoop the sizzling stew into fresh baladi bread, a staple of the Egyptian diet.
Amid the maze of streets in some of the oldest parts of Cairo, shopkeepers perch beside rows of enormous sacks, filled to the brim with brilliantly colored herbs and spices — their combined scents wafting through the market. In more modern neighborhoods, shopping can be done instead at a supermarket.
Cairo’s persistent evolution makes for constant construction. New buildings crop up regularly, with billboards for luxury residences crowding the city’s highways. The rumble of heavy machinery and incessant clattering is heard throughout the city, often irking unlucky neighbors.
In the many workshops that dot older neighborhoods, the scraping and rattling of metal workers wielding their tools blends into the broader soundscape of the market.
The Nile River runs through the heart of Cairo. The natural quiet of its lapping waters, the gentle creak of wooden sailboats called feluccas and the soothing splash of fishermen casting their nets can offer a respite from urban frenzy. But at night, the river lights up with colorful party boats, and residents crowd riverside bars, cafes and casinos. The thump of music can at times echo through surrounding neighborhoods until the early hours of the morning.
The hum of thousands of air conditioners provides constant background noise through the city’s scorching summer months, when temperatures routinely reach the upper 90s. Newer neighborhoods offer more breathing room than the city’s older quarters.
In gated communities and new compounds, the hectic sounds that ring across busier parts of Cairo are muted, replaced instead by a quiet hum of traffic and the chirping of birds. Near new shops and restaurants, swanky fountains spout streams of water, masking the chatter of cafe-goers.
Some Cairenes see these neighborhoods as a welcome respite. Others see them contradicting the essence of Cairo.
In a perpetually growing city, such change means the city’s soundscape will continue to evolve — until one day these newer sounds may themselves fade out and be replaced.