A short poem or a song here, the sounds of a elrababa or a elsaggat arrive to my ears while staying in my apartment in Cairo. I hear these traversing sounds and I wonder: is celebrating the glory of fruits or singing the beauty of vegetables in the heart of the street, a sonic phenomenon that is exclusively Arabic, or even Mediterranean?
This is an extract of a conversation between Radio Papesse and Noha Gamal Said.
Tell us where these sounds come from, what are we listening to?
What you hear is the chants and music of Cairo's street criers, a very interesting sonic phenomenon related to their door to door commercial activity. This audio piece is a short catalogue of different town criers: those who sing to advertise and sell their goods (mainly fruits and vegetables: honey, board bean, bread...) and those who play primitive musical instruments, such as the rebab, the finger cymbals and some small horns for selling specific products: liquorice, cotton candy... each sound, each instrument is associated to a specific product.
This sounds like an homage to a city that seems to resist modernity. You wrote us that "Cairo is one of the cities that still has the strength and right to stand and sing before modernity twists his vocal cords and teaches him to shut up for ever". Would you describe modernity as a process of urban silencing?
The street vendors add a sonic quality to the city streets. Despite their informal and spontaneous features, they demands a specific context to emerge. The aim of this piece is to highlight the minimal conditions of existence of this specific sonic phenomenon and to discuss how popular districts afford the presence of this social practice: quiet residential streets with 5 or 6 story-buildings are the best urban frames to host and help the survival of this kind of sound phenomena.
Nowadays, there is an ongoing massive transformation of the most populated neighbourhoods, buildings are turning into tower, the modern urbanism with its wide, noisy boulevards creates a mask effect upon the vendors' cries while the contemporary city is more and more into regulating and silencing the soundscape in calm zones: the gated communities of Cairo, with their walls and gates filter both sounds and city dwellers, like the street vendors...Under this changing paradigm, the crieurs de rue's sound tradition is threatened by disappearance.
Last time we met you told us about the very specific notion of al-wanas. Can you tell us why it is so consistent to our investigation into hospitality?
It is difficult to translate Al-wanas (الونس in the colloquial language or الأنس in the formal arabic language) but it describes the emotional comfort of being accompanied by other people or by their traces - such us sounds, lights, body gestures... - and it's not by chance that the term refers to a sonic utterance. This word defines the sound relation by which the city puts its inhabitants into a collective sound and body presence. The other element is the social acceptability, and here we join hospitality: these sounds demonstrate how the inhabitants accept the sonic presence of the others and let them penetrate their somehow intimate and domestic sound sphere. This is why I was recording from the balcony, the space in between the public and private realms. There is a whole sound scene that takes place in the soundscape...Sounds build a network of interpersonal relationships, sharing, collective memory, sound particularity, human cohesion. These sounds and their meanings build a shared sound culture, affirms the persistence of an ephemeral and fragile soundscape, rooted in history and crossing generations. It becomes a shared sonic culture among Egyptians and intangible sound heritage of the city of Cairo.
Noha Gamal Said is a doctor in architecture and urban design, assistant professor at Ain Shams University, Department of Architecture and urban Design - Cairo, Egypt. She is associate researcher at CRESSON - Recherche sur l’Espace Sonore et l’environnement urbain in Grenoble and member of the steering commitee «Penser ensemble le son des villes» in France.
Together with Nicolas Rémy she co-founded the Cresson Winter School that from 2010 to 2013 took place in the context of the European research project European Acoustic Heritage.
Her researches focus on the issue of memory and the sonic heritage of cities. Her researches tackle also the contemporary dimensions of cities such as sustainability, densification of cities seen from the angle of the daily sensory experience. She has participated in multiple research projects such as building interfaces: Esquis'Son! and the sound configurations of Oasian urbanism: Zerka.