View of El Moez street in Cairo
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Cairo’s Symphony

AUC alumna records Cairo’s soundscape

By Elizabeth Lepro

For a few months in 2018, I lived in an apartment in downtown Cairo near the French Institute, in a room I had chosen primarily because it featured two French doors that opened up to a balcony. From up there, I could watch Cairo go by. Young men balanced bread trays on their heads as they pedaled past on bikes, men stretched their legs as they smoked in foldout chairs, women walked arm in arm, and the pigeon keeper on an adjacent roof tended to his flock.

When I was home, the doors were open. That meant, even while lying in bed, I could also hear Cairo go by — the scrap merchant repeating robabekya to market his wares; the muezzin’s adhan, or call to prayer; the steady hum of chatter and laughter and the occasional hi-hat of an argument; the trills and coos of murmuring pigeons and the honking. Always the honking.

For many Cairenes, these noises are so commonplace as to be unnoticeable. But for those of us who have left the city or moved to its outskirts, hearing its soundscape can bring on a visceral wave of nostalgia. Which is to say: If you don’t notice the sounds of the place you currently call home, you may come to appreciate them — even miss them — with some distance.

That recognition is what graphic design alum Nehal Ezz ’21 and her best friend and project partner Youssef Sherif have delivered with Sounds of Cairo, a collection of the city’s most recognizable sounds, which includes bites of all the aforementioned noises and more. The pair’s goal is for the recordings to one day make up an online database of sounds, some of which may otherwise be lost to time and development.

“I realized, ‘OK, what about the sounds in Cairo?’ because they’re sort of musical sometimes.”

Ezz, who is originally from Cairo but now lives in Saudi Arabia with her family, got the idea for the project while making a video for a World Music class at AUC.

“I realized, ‘OK, what about the sounds in Cairo?’ because they’re sort of musical sometimes,” she said. For the project, Ezz recorded some audio herself, but when she went looking for cleaner, high-quality sound bites on the most popular online sound libraries, “I couldn’t find anything for Egypt. Even on YouTube, I couldn’t find sounds available for me to use. So with the guidance of my thesis adviser, [Associate Professor] Haytham Nawar, I decided to create a database where the sounds can be preserved and archived.”

Right now, the project exists on a website, a YouTube channel and an Instagram account. A more formal, searchable archive is still in the works. To capture a representative sample of sounds, Ezz and Sherif broke the audio into categories: economic, social, religious, wildlife and transportation. Robabekya would fit into the economic category, while chatter and laughter would be slotted into social.

Ezz and Sherif distributed a survey to collect input on which sounds should be recorded, but Ezz also went looking for more particular audio to capture — sounds she associated with the Cairo of her childhood, like the whistle of a cotton candy vendor, the milk seller banging on bottles and the sound of the makwagi, a person who irons clothes using their feet. These were more difficult to track down.

It doesn’t mean those sounds no longer exist, but they may be more rare, especially for those who can afford to move out of more populated areas and into houses or apartments on the city’s developing outskirts. A pre-coronavirus pandemic report showed that Egypt was the world’s fastest-growing real estate market, thanks largely to a dramatic upsurge in housing development in Cairo’s satellite cities.

“The newer places, they’re very, very quiet — the compounds and the closed areas,” Ezz said. That was doubly true during Egypt’s pandemic lockdown, when the recording process unveiled the stark difference between how neighborhoods beyond downtown Cairo were able to pull back from public life compared to places where commerce and culture happen in the streets.

“When I compared the sounds that I got before and those I got after, I felt like it only affected certain areas of Cairo,” Ezz said. “Downtown people went on with their lives as soon as they could be outside again.”

Sounds of Culture

Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer is credited with coining the word “soundscape” in the 1970s. The term “acoustic ecology” was born when Schafer, like Ezz, noticed that as society changed, so too did our acoustics.

“The sounds of the environment were changing rapidly, and it seemed that no one was documenting the changes,” Schafer wrote in his memoir. Schafer would go on to create the World Soundscape Project — an admirable initiative that, despite its encompassing name, was focused largely on Canada and Europe.

The concept caught on, and soundscape projects facilitated by more accessible technology have since blossomed worldwide. AUC faculty lecturer, guitarist and composer Paweł Kuzma, who was Ezz’s professor for the World Music class that inspired her project, pointed out that soundscapes are popular among electronic music artists around the world.

“Soundscapes have various uses — as textures in music genres like noise, avant-garde, ambient, really anything that includes recordings, but also music therapy, city planning, environmental studies, meditation and — as with Nehal’s project — preserving cultural elements,” Kuzma said.

Still, finding formalized soundscape projects like these is a bit more difficult in Egypt. That doesn’t mean soundscape projects don’t exist in Cairo, but like sounds from your childhood you want to preserve, you may have to go looking for them.

A City in Tune

When you begin researching soundscapes, you find that the city is an instrument. People handle it differently; they use it to make their own music and come to their own conclusions.

The act of recording forced Ezz to pay more attention to individual sounds within the cacophony as she was walking around downtown Cairo. Under the overwhelming noise of traffic, she heard the street vendors selling specific items. “I started appreciating the sound a little bit more, how it contributes to the whole soundscape,” she said.

Sometimes Ezz recorded surreptitiously, while other times she explained the project to her subject. Outside of an academic setting, not everyone understood the mission. “They were like, ‘It’s just going to sound like Cairo,’” Ezz said. She explained that it’s possible Cairo might not sound the same in the future. Some people understood. Others replied, “‘No, it’s always sounded like that; it’s always going to sound like that.’”

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