Four days a week, I actually leave Cairo to take classes at the American University in Cairo (AUC), which is itself kilometers away from the center of the city. The trip, an hour in each direction, leads one to feel both a connection to the city, as countless neighborhoods, juice stands, historical sites, monuments, businessmen, street vendors, and traffic guards pass by, but also disconnected, protected from the heat and wind by the “Family Transport” buses, air-conditioned and constructive of a calm only puncuated occasionally by the honks of the bus itself and the bumps of uneven pavement. Jostled intermittently, one reaches a point between annoyance and complacency as the sterile environment, both inside and outside the dense urban landscape, wrestles through the traffic and the zahma (crowdedness) of the city.
On the bus, one attempts a bit to read, or to sleep, as the images speed or trudge by, and the aural environment on the bus illustrates an interesting continuation of the locations it connects: the desert (and deserted) suburb of AUC, New Cairo, and Zamalek, the neighborhood on an island in the middle of the Nile where an AUC residence hall is located.
In all three locations, with varying intensities, one hears a distant drumbeat or singer’s voice emanate from loudly volumed I-Pods, navigating between the private space of the listener’s ear and the public soundscape. One hears a trace hear and there of the adhan (call to prayer), chanted on campus by a student visibly perched atop a high overpass, and in Zamalek, disembodied and calling from a faraway mosque’s minaret. One hears, especially on the bus, bits of conversation either between two individuals or between one and his/her cellphone, sometimes in English, sometimes in Arabic, and most often in the language of AUC, a distinct, vernacular mix of colloqual Egyptian grammar and an English lexicon of university-related nouns (“aindi class dilwati” meaning “I have class now,” or “mafeesh homework naharda” meaning “there isn’t homework today”).
Thus, the busride to campus, important for its sounds but even more important in its the way it shuts out the noise of the outside world mediates a nearly seamless journey between two spaces very similar in their quiet, or at least their attempt at it. They are spaces protected not only from the noise of Cairo, but as well for their inhabitants from the dirt and overall sensory intensity of Cairo, and by extension the visible poverty, crime, and urban decay of Cairo.
In shaabi (working class) microbuses, in the neighborhoods they traverse, and in the shared public spaces of Cairo from the zoo to the corniche of the Nile, there are few I-pods, few recognizably English words, and above all, no pretensions to quiet. The sounds shut out by the AUC bus take on full effect where downtown meets the Nile, as bridges filled with honking cars and grumbling motorcycles mix in with the sound of families and groups of young men enjoying ice cream and strolls down the corniche. This is the loud Cairo of historical accounts and NYTimes reporters’ laments (see the links bar to the right), almost tactile in its aural attack. The comfort with which the majority of these areas’ inhabitants move about, clearly unperturbed by that which would offrend someone used to the quiet suburban landscape, makes it evident that to the extent we are a product of our surroundings, many different Cairos are producing many different kinds of people.