Some people recognize Cairo by the sight of the Pyramids, the minarets, the river that flows backward through the middle of a desert.
And some recognize it more accurately by the sound of car horns, of donkey whips, of prayer calls raining in muddled surround sound, of epic 30-minute string preludes to Umm Kalthoum arias, of the sounds of travel.
Smell may be the strongest sense tied to memory, but for me, sound has always been the strongest sense tied to travel.
Take a walk through The Attaba—the second largest market in Cairo that ends, appropriately, at the beginning of the first largest market in Cairo (Khan El Khalili). It starts with microbus drivers shouting out destinations:
Ramsees, Ramsees, Ramseeeeeeeeeeeees! DokkiDokkiDokkiDokkiDooooooooooooki! ElGhoraya……….Ghoraya……….Ghoraya……….Ghorayaaaaaaaaa! Ramsees! Dokki! Ramsees, Ramsees, ElGhoraya, Ramsees, Dokki, RamDokksees, GhoseesDokrayseeskiorayaseesDokseesDorayamseesDokaaaaaaaaaaaaaya!
Listen to the drivers like an out of tune men’s choir: A bass, a baritone, a tenor, and even a few altos. As the microbuses leave, their voices trickle down the road as drivers continue to call out destinations along their route. At each intersection, in lieu of using traffic lights, they use the sound of car horns. Louder at intersections, still loud but not quite as loud beyond intersections. Drivers in Cairo will take to the road without working brakes, mirrors, mufflers, transmissions, without a steering wheel, but no driver would dare drive without a working car horn.
“Sebaa wa noos, sebaa wa noos, sebaa wa noooooos!” (7 and a half, 7 and a half, 7 and a haaaaalf!) You first hear a vendor yelling out prices. You now hear 40 vendors yelling out prices. Everything has a rhythm and a meter. Prices are yelled out in 3/4. Always 3 times in a row, with a crescendo, and a tenudo on the last beat in each measure. Fortissimo. Always fortissimo.
It looks like this:
On the left, there’s the sound of hundreds of sugar cane branches being shoved in a grinder, and the aftersound of sugar cane juice pouring out into a pitcher. On the juice-bar counter is the sound of coins clanking, 1 pound coin for each customer, followed by gulping—a stein of cane juice downed like a shot glass—then the slamming of cups afterward, followed by a few belches that customers try to suppress but come up anyway.
On the right you hear the sizzle of grease falling into a spit fire and the chopping of onions from a street-cart vendor, mixing liver onto bread. Sounds of footsteps. Keep walking.
The sun has set. You know this not because you’ve seen the sunset, but because you hear the blasting of prayer calls from 10 mosques that somehow produce a 15-part harmony.
There are voices of Egyptians. Laughing about politics, debating politics, fighting over politics, but in the end, always laughing. Then, there is the voice of Egypt—Umm Kalthoum. Her voice booms even though the recording is scratchy, played on a cassette tape in a car stereo system (the car sounds older than the cassette tape. You don’t see the car, hidden between the ranks of bumper cars; instead you hear the muffler, the busted intake valve, the fender scraping against the ground).
You feel like you’re in a record store. You can make out 5 different songs and 3 different recitations of the Quran played over car- and shop-radios. But the car horns remind you that you’re not. Sounds of footsteps. Keep walking.
Roadblock: you hear the it before you see it. It’s the sound of a hundred soccer fans spilling out into the street of a coffeehouse watching Al-Ahly play Zamalek because there aren’t enough seats inside. You start to walk through the rows of fans seated on lawn chairs in the street, when suddenly Al-Ahly scores, everyone screams, and you—even though you think soccer is just foosball with real people—find yourself screaming and asking to join a table.
Photos are nice, but vacation albums deserve soundtracks.