Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 13, 2010

More About NOISE: Bonkers Egypt

What is Noise, what causes Noise, and how to lay back and enjoy it!

Last time I wrote about noise and the Egyptians I was in a good mood and the whole thing was rather funny.  Well, it’s still funny, but this time I am not in a good mood.  As far as I am concerned, they can all fuck themselves. With a garden implement.  Or with one of those jagged rocks they are always throwing at each other.

At this moment in time (the afternoon of the twelfth of May, 2010) Agami is gearing up for the summer.  It is, after all, a summer resort; great globs of people will come pouring in from other parts of Egypt to enjoy the milder climate, the beautiful beaches, and the relatively relaxed atmosphere.  And Bitosh – the road in and out – will be transformed into the South Beach of Alexandria.  Without the poofters, of course… unless you count the little boys holding the big boys’ hands, but we won’t go there, will we?   Now last year, due to the monetary crisis, many if not most of the apartment buildings were half-empty, meaning that – although the entire district was still pulsating with enough noise such as would cause the Empire State Building to lose its windows, I was spared the comings and goings and trampings and yellings of other people in my own building.  And what a relief that was.  Because even though on most nights it was still like being trapped inside a jet engine at full-throttle, there was no-one above me or and no-one below to bang on their drums or to have a great fight or to play the Qur’An or to burn the garlic for their koshery during the occasional quiet moments.  

This summer is not going to be good.  First of all, the apartment owners from one end of Agami to the other have recovered the greedy glint that their eyes had lost in 2009.  That means not only are they rushing to build an extra two or three storeys atop each one of their buildings – an easy matter if you have a some concrete and a few bricks, two extra weeks and a large contingent of miracle-working Nubian construction workers working twenty-four hours a day (with no lights provided during the hours of darkness – but, then again, Nubians are miracle workers, and they don’t even stop for lunch).  And it also helps if you don’t care if the building crumbles at the end of September.  You can always rebuild it next spring.  It’s the Egyptian Way.

What has happened – and unfortunately for me, it has happened with a vengeance in my building – is that all the apartments that were empty last year have been taken for this  coming summer (which is very unfair on me, because let’s just say, I liked being spoiled).  This means one thing: NOISE!   To the left of me, the new owners are busily sawing through concrete walls and tearing up the floor.  To the right and below of me, they have been pounding on walls and the ceiling for the last week and a half, probably trying to knock the building down so they can put up another one – with smaller apartments and much higher rents – before the beginning of June.  Now, at a certain time every evening – just after the arrival of the mosquitoes and, coincidentally, after the night prayer – the families who will be soon moving in to their new apartments congregate in their living rooms; they cook dinner, and discuss everything that is going on in their lives. At full volume.  And then, of course, the television is blaring and the inevitable teenager is practicing his talking drum (which he will be later playing at a wedding).  And since no one here ever bothers to close their front doors, and since they bellow at the top of their lungs – and since the grinding and pounding continues regardless – and since they also feel obliged to play the Qur’An at such a deafening level as to be heard above all the other noises, a little (slightly intolerant) Westerner like me starts to feel a little sorry for himself.  Then, of course, this is Wednesday, which means the disco next door will rev up its engines to a ear-shattering roar at about three-thirty in the morning, and will continue on until nine, which is just about the same time as the pounding and the grinding starts all over again. Now, don’t get me wrong, the minute that  any one of these noises pauses for at least a minute, I will instantly feel refreshed and reborn – just as though I had gone on holiday to a remote little isle where there is only an Atlantic gale to disturb the peace and quiet.  It’s pathetic how easy I am to please.

The building across the street was (until they added an additional two stories during the first week and a half of this month) a nice quiet three storey affair, and the apartments in it were – for the most part – occupied by the wives and sisters and mothers and grandmothers of husbands and fathers and brothers and grandfathers who live elsewhere with their side of the family.  This is, of course, not an unusual arrangement and there’s nothing to say about it except that it is the way it is.  The family is Bedouin, and the women are an absolute delight.  It goes without saying that I can’t go over there and drink tea with them, and they obviously cannot come over here. In any case – with the exception of one of the daughters, who is about fifteen and goes to school, the women never leave the apartment.  Instead they phone local merchants – who are probably members of their extended family – and the merchants send round provisions to them.  The women then lower a basket or two from the balcony, and the merchants fill them up, after which the women pull the baskets back up again. A tidy and efficient arrangement if ever there was one.  I wonder how it would work in one of those American Golf Resorts?

Now, in spite of the fact that I cannot have any social interaction with these ladies, I have developed a most wonderful bond.  It is totally stress-free; we never argue; we never quarrel over how she burnt the garlic when she made the koshery or how she hung my washing on the line. In fact we don’t talk at all.    Our relationship can be called a ‘meeting over the laundry lines’ arrangement.  I may well have mentioned this before, but this family (at least the women) are so delightful they deserve to be given another round of applause.  For what happens is this: they spend an inordinate amount of time hanging washing from the balcony and beating carpets, etc.  It’s the women’s fulltime job. I, on the other hand – being a man – only hang a couple of things from my line in the morning and take them in at night (and since what I hang out is invariably underwear, I don’t hang it from the balcony where it can cause a kafuffle, but from a little folding contraption that cannot be seen by other apartments, and from which my knickers cannot offend my neighbours).  Every so often, it happens that I go out onto my balcony to hang my little delicates at the same time they are out on their balcony engaged in one of their many pursuits (hanging out washing, beating carpets, scrubbing the balcony, etc.).  At this point, we either exchange greetings or we don’t.  It all depends upon which other family members are in the apartment at that time.  If one of the fathers or sons or brothers or grandfathers is visiting, the ladies do not acknowledge me and I do not look over at them.  Because it is they who have to make the first move, and if one of their male relatives is present, I am strictly off-limits.  However, if none of the males are there, and the aged grandmother – who is, by the way, completely veiled – happens to be safely tucked away inside – it is safe for them to wave, after which they start jumping up and down in this deliriously wonderful Egyptian shimmy.  I then reciprocate.  And there we are, dancing and shimmying – they on their balcony across the alley and down two floors, and me across the way and up above on my little rooftop.  We only ever do this for a five seconds or less, because basically it’s not a cool thing to do. But they are so sweet. And because they are ‘good’ girls and I wouldn’t hurt them for the world, I am very, very careful.  In other words, if they do not wave first, as far as I’m concerned they do not even exist.

More and more, these ladies are being visited by a nephew – or at least I assume he’s a nephew – and he is clearly there to keep an eye on them.  Last year, when he was only about fourteen he would join in the fun, and occasionally he would even bring out his talking drum. However, he is now fifteen, very much a man, extremely macho –  which means he smokes like a chimney, looks very cool and his phone is never out of his hand;  he is very much their protector.  So when he’s out on their balcony (or even in the apartment), they are strictly off-limits to my eyes.  It is called life.  But in any case, they are a joyful little family, and just knowing they are there adds to my happiness.

Mentioning my neighbours’ method of shopping for food, reminds me of something. When I first arrived here last year, the first thing I did was to shop at all the food stalls and little grocery stores up and down Bitosh in order to make friends and establish myself as someone who was living here and not just another tourist . And believe me I am very glad I did, for I made a lot of friends.  And although on most days now, I run over to the local Fadhalla supermarket in the centre of Bianki just to save time, I do enjoy my neighbourhood shops and try to keep well in with them.  Now, the first lesson I learned was not to shop for food in the local food stalls at mealtimes.  Simply because hospitality demands that you will immediately be given the merchant’s food (which has just been lowered down in a basket from the family apartment above the shop).  Now it goes without saying there is an established etiquette to this.  For, of course, if they had their way they would really like to eat their own meals themselves.  Anyway, it goes something like this: they offer it three times and you refuse it three times, and then you buy whatever it is you wanted, drink the cup of tea you really can’t refuse, and move on.  They really are enchanting people.  If only they didn’t love noise.

Now, as everyone who has lived in a Muslim country knows, the call to prayer is sounded at several appointed times each day, twenty-four hours a day.  Now because theirs is a lunar calendar, the times of the prayers change by several minutes with each passing day.  Also, each prayer time also varies depending upon how far east or west you are.  This means that even in the mosques only a block or so away, the Azans will not be called at exactly the same times as in the mosques immediately adjacent to your building.  Now, in each block there can be more than a dozen or so tiny, storefront mosques.  In fact, within five minutes’ walk from my apartment there are at least twelve.  Now, of course, in the days before amplification, the muezzins would stand on a high place – such as a minaret – to make sure the azan was heard.  Now, let us just say that amplification is God’s gift to the Egyptian. Whereas before, the calls were lovely and mellow and very much like clarions, now – thanks to amplification – they are blasted out with a deafening wail than can sometimes cause you to spill your coffee or fall off your chair. These calls are sounded twice before each of the five daily prayers: the first time about ten minutes before, and the second just as the prayer is about to begin.

Since the azan is called from each and every mosque by its own muezzin, this collection of amplified blasts can be rather impressive – as well as intrusive.  Now I asked a good friend of mine who happens to be an Imam, why it seemed they were each trying to overpower the other. After all, all the mosques are full for every prayer, every person goes to his own mosque, and so it isn’t as though they are trying to poach from each other.  And you want to know what he told me?  He said they are simply competing to see who is the loudest.  In other words, he who has the biggest toys wins.

It goes without saying that this same rule applies to the Friday sermons. Each one is screeched through a sound system which is turned up to the volume of a blast furnace. In fact, the harangue is so loud in each case that even if you wanted to hear what the Imam or Sheikh was actually saying, you’re out of luck. However, let me say this (and I am not fudging here): it is part of the fabric of life; I’m used to it, and if I don’t like it, I can always leave.

That being said (and this I think I did mention it before), when the disco is blaring full-throttle and it’s rattling the window panes (those that are still unbroken) and the guys in the disco are holding conversations and screaming over the music while they are dancing, the mosques – when they are calling the dawn prayer – can overpower them all without any trouble at all.  And I think that is cool!  Imagine it happening in South Beach (plus, here, nobody is drunk).

In January, I spent some time taking a French/Arabic class in the French Cultural Centre (anything to actually avoid coming to grips with my Arabic).  At one point one of the more zealous of the Egyptian students demanded to know why it was against the law to play the Qur’An in one’s apartment in Paris?  And he was very, very serious about this.  Now, ordinarily when this guy got going on one his pet rants, I made it a practice to hold my tongue and to forget about it.  After all, it is none of my business.  But on this occasion, I felt it was time he was corrected on one or two counts.   I told him that anyone can play anything they wanted in their apartment, at any time of the day or night – just so long as the neighbours were not forced to listen to it in the apartment next door.  I pointed out that most countries in the west have such things as noise ordinances, and if you blasted everything out the Egypt way you would end up with a very stiff fine.  The professor, an amazing linguist from Tunisian who had lived much of her life in France and in the United States and who was blessed with a dry sense of humour, laughed and turned to me (me, who always sat up front with the woman and not in back with the men who never stopped talking all the way through any of the classes) and said with a great beaming smile, “But they like it loud!”

But then again – and this I said before – when it comes down to it, anyone’s life can be filled with a wall of sound, and you simply cut it out.  That’s what the Egyptians do.  They simply do not listen to it.  It’s sort of the local version of a noise ordinance.  How spoiled we are in the west.

Now this same guy is also the one who was lambasting the Swiss for banning minarets; he accused them of fomenting anti-Islamic prejudice. To which I pointed out, that – if he cared to look it up – there was no mention whatsoever of a minaret in the Qur’An, and that the whole injunction had to do with noise. I then pointed out (being on a teat by this time) that in most non-Muslim countries of the world the Azan was never proclaimed outside.  And since every single person knows to the minute what time the prayers are held, until recently there had never been any problem. And I did even suggest that if everyone had simply minded their manners and respected others – and had not blasted the Azans so that they caused avalanches as far away as Klosters, perhaps there would have been no ban in the first place. In which, the very lovely unamplified Azan could have blended in with the church bells in a beautiful two-part harmony.  Yes, I know life is not like that, but in my head lives such a simple world…

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