Contemplating in Cairo – Vol. 12

Cairo is one hell of a noisy city. No matter what time of the day it is and no matter where you are, you will constantly be exposed to sounds and noises that are unasked for and that are definitely unwelcome. These noises are a part of who we are now. We have become a community that honks its horns at unearthly hours in the night, that calls out for “robabekya” in the streets and that plays its music at unbelievably loud volumes that stream out of rolled-down car windows.

When on earth did we become such a noisy nation?

The impact of this constant exposure to noise has shown its effects on many aspects of our lives. We are now incapable of speaking in low voice tones and unable to listen to anything below a certain decibel level. Not only that, but our concentration spans have noticeably decreased and we literally find it hard to concentrate on one thing for longer than a few minutes. Things are so bad now that, if exposed to some quite, perhaps in the suburbs at the wee hours of the night, your ears will whistle at the sound of silence as though they were craving for some honking and chattering.

Has noise become part of our culture? Are its effects on us so deep that we can never again live without it? Are we truly incapable of maintaining a certain volume when talking or listening to music or watching the TV?

Have we become noise addicts?

The Devil’s Dictionary (1881) by Ambrose Bierce defines noise as “A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.” I find myself baffled by the last part of this definition, but surprisingly, it matches us very well. How can noise be a product and a sign of civilization? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Aren’t civilized nations those that cherish and appreciate virtues such as quiet? Isn’t noise a sign of chaos? But perhaps the question here should be “what is the definition of civilization?” Maybe the civilization Ambrose Bierce speaks of in his sarcastic dictionary is the kind that advocates pop culture and eccentric fashion; things like neon signs, dirty languaged hip-hop music and body piercing in the weirdest of places. If this is the definition of ‘civilization’ now-a-days, please bury me here and now. But it is inevitable that too many of us see these things, noise included, as signs of civilization.

One of the saddest impacts of noise on us is that it has made us Cairenes incapable of appreciating things that we are exposed to everyday as a result of all the distractions around us. When was the last time you really listened to the lyrics of a song? When was the last time you actually held a book and read for more than an hour without interruption? When was the last time you just sat there and contemplated?

The other side of the coin is reflected in what we create. Most of the music being produced these days is, at least to me, pure noise. And the movies! Don’t get me started on the movies! A lot of them discuss very meaningful messages, that much I must admit, but do we have to do that so loudly? And what about the books? Many of the books being written by young modern writers are sarcastic and “loud”. I’m not saying they’re not good books, but they are full of noise and distractions that don’t really help in getting their messages through. Sure, not all books are supposed to discuss major issues that help uplift our status as a nation, but the percentage of these ‘noisy’ books is rising so high that it has become hard to find new literature that really feeds the soul.

Another thing that has been drastically effected by the amount of noise around us is our ability to communicate effectively. Of course noise is not the only reason behind that phenomenon, but I believe it plays an indispensable role, but that’s another topic for another piece altogether. Years and years of accumulated unasked for noise has stretched our tolerance very thin and we are losing the ability to hear and be heard. Interruption has become the normal course of a conversation between any two individuals. We no longer have the patience to hear the other person through until they are done. And, we on the other hand, are too agitated to convey our messages in an appropriate fashion.

I’m sure that noise is not the only reason behind all the phenomena mentioned here. Population rates and the over-crowded city play a major role too, not to mention the attitudes, traditions and economy status that have us all in a rut. But one cannot deny that noise is a major factor. Noise is affecting every aspect of our lives. It has unconsciously crawled its way into our very being and made us into an impatient and chaotic society that no longer has the tolerance to take its time and analyze things. We overrate first impressions and take them for granted and, even worse, we have learned to accept and settle for all the noise in our lives.

So, in a feeble trial to answer to my own questions, I would have to say “yes”. Yes, noise has become part of our culture. Maybe it’s a call for help, a way of saying “kefaya”; enough, it’s time for a change, or maybe we just got so used to it that we’d be lost without it.

Yes, we have become noise addicts. The whistling I hear in my ear right now as I sit and write this in the wee hours of the night proves it.

I need some noise. I guess I’ll go play myself some music…