December 8, 2008

Reflections on small livelihoods / Vivre au Caire


The winter falls upon this city, though not as it has done in other cities I have lived (for lunch today, Eugénie and I ate a grand salad with delicious fresh local tomatoes that tasted the harvests of August). Even still, December through February are assuredly months of mildness and calm. The sun sets just after five o'clock in the afternoon; there is a familiar briskness in the evening and morning hours; the pomegranates are smaller, and the oranges less orange; the temperature hardly reaches above 55-60°F during the days and the dryness is assuredly more bearable. These are pleasant shifts in the atmosphere for those of us here who are biologically prepared for the harsh survival of winter, for it tricks us into pausing our nature somewhere near the climax of summer, near the intimate conclusions of sandy affairs and the reticent approval of promises to ourselves for career, for family, for cause. It feels to me, as a temporary entity, as if there has been allotted to me meteorological permission to engorge in endless reflection. Or perhaps this is itself a symptom of travel.

These softening's of nature only highlight further the miasmic ailments of Cairo's industrial endeavors, and its indifference to make policy changes which benefit the livelihoods of Cairo's nearly twenty-million inhabitants. IMG_5492One needs only to swipe the inside of their nostrils, as I now do after a days gentle stroll along the Nile, with a classic white cotton q-tip to see the deleterious affects of pollution over the course of what would be ones lifetime as a Cairene. Rates of childhood asthma and various cancers are needlessly astounding. The ecstatically inspired pallets of cloth de-saturate to a milky spread of grey as the sun sets in Cairo, fighting mid descent to cut through the malaise of black fumes on low horizon. Though the city does, from time to time, fine or temporarily shut down the industries which have been publicly scolded as the most prevalently toxic, it ignores entirely it's millions of cars driving with no muffler, yellow smoke bellowing from underneath, and drawing the trail of it's path with one chemical or another through the leaks in it's rusted belly. There are reasons that Cairo has become the one of the most polluted cities in the world.

IMG_6129 Early anthropologists and voyagers delighted in the rich aromas each street of Cairo offered. I am delighted to become more attuned with this sense of smell which before, i often overlooked. The ways fruits swell with aroma in the sun. How shisha's calm incense transcends by association, simply walking through their clouds. While there are your many splendid perfumes of spice and infused flowers, they can often overwhelm one to the point of disgust as the smells of gasoline, smoke, pollution, and animal excrement's soak the nasals throughout a day. Even still, Cairo can awaken your experiential potential as a nose bearing being. The livelihood of Cairo often begins in the body.

May my body be but a temple of creation; shall my ears be the gates and vestibules to the source.

I seek to sort, through my developing library of “sonicological” findings and documentations, the generally ceaseless noise from the sources of identifiable sound. Blessed be the sheep in the traffic jam, and all praise to the muezzin in the marketplace. These things which place the ears in a contextualized listening situation amidst the chaos of white. It has a different addiction than I had expected, that is, to stop listening my ears become tired and in need of stimulation. IMG_6452Here, the more I focus and train to hear as a microphone, the more energetic and special each moment becomes. The softer even sound appears, like small strings stretched tautly across a room so that you cannot pass without breaking into the space. It was difficult to understand at first why nearly all cars honk their horns as often as possible: to express annoyance, to express happiness, to follow the music’s beat bellowing from their loud but incapable speaker systems, to respond to the other cars honking, to "express through memorable action as a testament to their own existences as 'being', and, as one who can act, as a being of human experience". But it is also an act of community.  The communal acknowledgment that each is in the same situation as his neighboring car. The way some old women scream in melodramatic, sustained frequencies in the street, sometimes even to the confusion of the other inhabitants of the neighborhood. IMG_6572 But that song too is an expression of communal despair. It is the sonic relationship that is shared with the spiritual, of the muezzins. I remember being in Sarajevo, listening from the top of the hills all the thousands of muezzins, unaided by speakers or microphones, swirling like a storm within the sharp half-eggshell of mountain tops which holds the echoes to a firm yolk within. How the muezzins here have the same potential of being integrally positive sounds to the city, but are too often under the direction of hacking shisha addicts just out of bed, with little to no sense of tonal accord, over expensive looking sound systems which are barely competitive with a child's paper megaphone (with regard to both clarity of voice and roundness of timbre). But still, they are expressions of how the community shares in sound. How noise in the streets connects everyone who bares witness, to the same experiential happening and memoire (regardless of their interpretations of it). This is an invaluable lesson in listening for a young composer like myself.

Below: Public water gourds for drinking / fontaines publiques

IMG_6449 This is the vibrant life of Cairo. There are blessed moments of serenity and calm. Moments when all passerby's seem to be moving in step with each other, silently. Moments when the soft reminisces of old friends over coffee seems to fill the street with a warm concerto accentuated by the rumbling water of their shisha pipes. There is such tenderness between the people who pass each other everyday. There are moments when it seems there isn't a single light on in the city. These too are the characters which embodies this place. I feel great affirmation from the writers of the past who wrote of this place, but their experience was not my own. Their Cairo did not have the modernity it does today to round it's exotifying effects. But they also didn't have the opportunity to witness the plethora of portable cell phone rings chiming like Cagean symphonies of sample, media, and intendable action. They didn't have laser light shows and projections in the small back alleys preparing the children for the festival of Eid al-Adha. It is a different interactivity, this Cairo, but one which encourages a reconsideration of its conversation with the past.


De décembre à février c'est aussi l’hiver en Egypte. Il fait bon, entre 15 et 25 degrés, le climat est définitivement moins sec et chaud qu’en été. Il fait nuit très tôt, vers 17h30, une légère fraicheur se pose alors sur la ville. Malgré ce climat agréable la pollution est envahissante. Le soir, à la tombée du jour il n’est pas rare d’apercevoir de gros nuages gris ou rougeâtres au loin sur l’horizon. C’est à cause du sable venu du désert disent certains ! Même si cela est en partie vrai, il ne faut pas oublier que les millions de véhicules qui circulent chaque jour dans la ville aggravent le problème. Les nombreuses industries lourdes installées à la périphérie de la mégalopole sont aussi mises en cause. Ainsi, il y a quelques années le gouvernement a dû fermer certaines usines le temps de chasser le trop plein de nuages toxiques.

IMG_5536 Selon certaines études, passer une journée à respirer l’air du Caire reviendrait à fumer un paquet de cigarettes. Si vous ajoutez à cela quelques chichas quotidiennes, le bilan pulmonaire est sombre. Le Caire serait la ville la plus polluée au monde après Mexico. Mais, des personnes ayant vécu à Mexico ont tendance à ne pas être d’accord avec ce classement. Une chose est sûre, vivre au Caire n’est pas ce qui se fait de mieux pour la santé.

La pollution sonore est une autre nuisance importante. Les Egyptiens aiment le bruit. Le klaxon est l’outil indispensable du bon chauffeur, sur la route il faut se faire entendre, même si vous êtes seul, klaxonner est essentiel. Toutes les sonorités et les tonalités sont utilisées, du vieux système enraillé à la sirène de Police. Les sifflements sont aussi très appréciés des cyclistes. Pour attirer le chaland ou tout simplement pour discuter, les vendeurs crient plus fort les uns que les autres. Radios et télévisions reprennent les chansons et rythmes à la mode en coeur. L’instant suprême intervient lorsque les appels à la prière se mêlent aux hurlements des ramasseurs de poubelles et des voisines en colère. Des miliers de sons enrobent alors la ville et vous plongent dans un état second où plus rien n’est perceptible. De temps en temps le calme revient au bout d’une ruelle calme, seul le frémissement des chichas et les claquetis des joueurs de dominos percent le silence.


Le Caire est une ville sale mais il y a bien pire. Nombreux sont les habitants et les enfants à vider leurs poubelles dans les rues. Alors que les animaux errants servent d’équarisseurs, les marchands de légumes nourrissent leurs bêtes avec les restes organiques du jour. Parfois un feu illumine une ruelle sombre, les amoncellements de déchets partent alors en fumée. Au Caire, les détritus ne polluent pas bien longtemps le sol.