Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sounds of the City

Allahu Akbar!

It's the most beautiful sound of the azan calling believers to pray.  It happens five times a day with the times varying from around 3:00 in the morning to around 8:30 at night during the longest days in June. 

What surprised me in Egypt is that you don't just hear the azan five times a day; you hear the iqama as well.  The iqama is the second call to prayer in order to line up in the masjid.  So, that's ten calls over a loudspeaker.  Alhumdulillah that I like it!  Can you imagine if I didn't?

Clank!  Clank!  Clank!

It's a wrench hitting a metal tank to signal the portogas cart rolling through. 

I used to see family businesses bring the heating and cooking fuel to our neighborhood but not lately.  There is a shortage of the propane fuel in Egypt this winter so the delieveries aren't coming.  Instead, the men of the family (and sometimes the women too) wait for hours in the street to get a government truck to drop off a load of tanks. 

Squeak!  Asel!  Asel! 

It's a megaphone (and some feedback noise) in the hand of the honey seller.

Foooooul Abiyat!

It's the woman calling melodiously as she sells white beans from a basket she carries on her head through the streets.  Her call is usually the first one I hear in the day.  I knew, after the Revolution, that life had returned to normal when I heard her voice once again.

Ring!  Ring!

It's a bell rung by the man with foul medamnes in his big copper urns. He ladles out the hot beans into bags to be eaten for breakfast around 10 am. 

Pataaata wa Tomatum!

That's a cart with potatoes and tomatoes.  Fruit and vegetable sellers with powerful lungs call their wares throughout the day.  Though it varies from season to season exactly what they are selling.  Right now, it's tangerine season.

It's not always easy to decipher what exactly the sellers are advertising.  One man seriously sounded like he was pleading, "I lost my red kimono!"

I decided to ask my husband what was being said and he surprised me by telling me that he didn't know either.


Megaphone again.  That call of "Rabibekia" sounded so official to the husband of an American co-worker of mine that she got an anxious call from him at home.  What were they announcing?  She must find out!  So, she asked her Egyptian co-workers and found out that the man with the megaphone was picking up reusable rubbish.  In other words, he was the junk man.

Inna wa Llahi wa inna wa rajalun

Loud speaker attached to the top of a van slowly cruising through the populated areas to announce the sudden death of a neighbor, friend or family member. 


It's the man with the bicycle cart who brings us gelati.  No, it's not ice cream and I'm happy it's not.  It tastes delicious.  All the flavors of chocolate, mango and guava are mixed-up together.  I pay a pound for two cones.  The ice cream seller usually comes afterschool.  We were giving him such good business that he made our house a normal stop.  He worried about us when we were gone to the U.S. this summer.


It's a child's horn blown by the cotton candy seller. These colorful bags are so eye-catching that it's tempting to allow Mr. Boo to buy one. However, my Egyptian-American buddy told me that it's not wise. There is so much hepatitis in Egypt that having an unknown person blow into a bag which will hold food is unsanitary at the least and could even be life-threatening.

Silent Scent of Wood Burning

It's the sweet potato seller.  He doesn't usually call out.  He has a push cart with a wood burning stove.  Inside he bakes the patata asfor; yellow potatoes or what we call sweet potatoes.  They are the best!  They are so tender! 

When you buy the potatoes, he wraps them up in discarded paper which I find almost as worth my money as the edible offering itself.  I've gotten English lessons written by Egyptians, French fashion magazine ads, and handwritten notebook pages. 

I can buy a lot of potatoes and save them in the refrigerator for future use.  My 5 EP goes a long way and I can carry home a big pile of them.  When I last showed my haul to my husband, he got irate, stomped out and re-introduced himself to the potato seller.  Oddly enough, the potato seller quickly decided that he hadn't actually given me my full money's worth and added a couple more to my husband's out-stretched hand.

Helaois! Lissa!

The children are outside playing hide-and-go-seek. Kids are actually safe enough to play together outside in Egypt. It's a simple pleasure.


It's one of the numerous tuk-tuks weaving through the backstreets blaring music. It's not always Arabic. Sometimes it's hip-hop or rap. I missed hearing the tuk-tuks when I was in America.
Ah! One just went by with a simulated rocket launch sound effect. You've got to love a three-wheeled vehicle with a Napoleonic complex.

Occasionally, the neighbors will demand a tuk-tuk driver to turn down his music or they'll tell his father.  Most tuk-tuk drivers are too young to shave.  I do love when the azan starts and all music (tuk-tuk or otherwise) is immediately shut down all over the city.  That is some respect for deen!

Binti Ayah!

Around midnight, it's time for the mom of the neighbor girl to yell for her daughter to come home.  It's been a long day.


Inspiring Always said...

Ha Ha! I can't stop laughing with your translation of the words "I lost my red kimono" and to top it all, your husband didn't know either! That is really funny. And, I am still laughing.

Here, in Singapore, unless we are staying near the mosque, we will hear it over the radio (the Malay/Muslim channel) or in Malaysia, besides the radio they will also show it on TV. I agree, the azan is the most beautiful sound in the world. Even the trees bowed in reverence listening to it.

Um Dayo said...

ha ha ha! I am laughing so hard at this post because I am imagining myself reading this just two months ago and being like "whaaa??" and now, knowing exactly what you mean (almost). One lady hit my MIL fighting over propane! I was commenting to my husband that my nerves still go on edge when I hear what I think to be an ambulance or police siren, only to remember it's just a clever tuk-tuk driver! ha ha. I wrote a similar post when I lived in Kolkata. The sound you hear there is a manual horn honk honking for the pull-cart rickshaws or a bell they hang on the edge of the seat and knock when they are empty. Or, also, the chai wallas "ssshaayyy! shaaaayyy!" at all hours of the night... God, a city is just so full of sounds and smells and just sensory overload everywhere! When we go to Faqqous, I always beg him to let me stay there, get an apartment there because I just love city life!

madrasimuslimah said...

One man seriously sounded like he was pleading, "I lost my red kimono!"
- That was very funny. Interesting post.

Aishah said...

That sounds a lot like what I hear on our street here in PK. "Alu piyaz, Alu piyaz"(potatoes and onions), or "teeen dubha wale"(tin and cardboard, basically the same guy as your rabibekia guy).

We hear the adhan, but around our house they don't call the iqama over the loud speakers. There is a timing difference between masajid around us though, so for each prayer I hear the call several times.

I love the different sounds, I am always curious to see what's going on.

Yosra said...

Asalamu Alaykom Inspiring,

What a great comment to be first! Thanks for taking the time to read, enjoy and write feedback.

Singapore, eh? Wow! You are doing a whole 'nother gig! I might have to read up on your cultural differences over there.

LOVED your comment, "Even the trees bowed in reverence listening to it."

Please keep reading and commenting. I'd love to hear from you again.

Asalamu Alaykom Umdayo,

I need to call you this honorary title as it is really such a nice name.

Thanks for coming back and commenting. Really, you and I have more in common than I'd like to admit. For one thing, we're both in EGYPT!

So, you're "getting" this description, eh? Ya, I'm not sure if it translates to anyone who hasn't traveled but I'm glad you know what I'm talking about.

Faqqous? I don't know it but I can look it up. Really? You don't want to be a lone woman---even for one night---in Egypt. Keep close by your man or a family. Okay? Promise?

Asalamu Alaykom Madrasi,

So you thought it was funny too?! I'm glad I'm not the only one!

I wish I could have tape recorded him. It wasn't just once I heard the "I lost my red kimono". It was for many nights.

I lost my red kimoooooooono!" It was more like that. Not...that it helps us AT ALL to figure out what he really was saying.

I should go onto the streets and just yell crazy stuff in English like I'm selling something to see if anyone understands me.

"Snakes and ladders!"

"Nose hair trimmmmmers!"

"Toffee apples!"

Thanks for laughing along :)

Asalamu Alaykom Aishah (lots of comments in one day alhumdulillah),

I loved the info you gave about Pakistan! VERY interesting! I'm not sure how allll of Egypt is. This is around the Giza Pyramid area. I suspect life is very different in Maadi (the rich expat area of Cairo).

That different timing for the azans creates a GORGEOUS cacophony of sound. I would try to record that too but would fail because it is a miracle which only an ear can pick up.

LOVE and LIGHT to everyone who read this and laughed, enjoyed and commented. I love you all...really! You made this day end better than how it started. Alhumdulillah :)

Angelle said...

How lovely to read your impressions of the city. What a blessing to see adventure and poetry in the world around you. I'm going to go out and find some myself, now, in my town.

Many thanks!

Yosra said...

Asalamu Alaykom Angelle,

Thanks for reading! You have a good view on the world so I take your thoughts with gratitude :)

Inshahallah, we all can use our hearing to get closer to the amazing world we were given.

You are very welcome and please come back again :)

MarieHarmony said...

I loved this Yosra and it brought back memories of my fabulous trip to Egypt.
The first night I was quite scared by all these sounds, thinking how I will be able to sleep. But then it became quite easy and I was even pleased to hear them. They are giving life to the day and I miss it now that I am back to Ireland, where the only sound I hear are the driving cars on the road.
Love the Pataaata wa Tomatum idea! So funny because I tried every day to figure out what he was saying!!

Yosra said...

Asalamu Alaykom MARIE HARMONY!

I missed you! Was it fab coming here? GOOD! Alhumdulillah :)

I tried to connect with you while you were here. Most people do see the Pyramids so I thought if you were around you could stop over for a cuppa---no joke! I would have loved to welcome you in...or up to the roof to get the great view.

It is too quiet once you're back "home" right?! I HATED the quiet of my mother's this summer...and I had kind of thought I'd want it. WRONG!

Isn't it funny to figure out what's being said? LOL! I still hear callers and run to the window to see what they've got.

Can you please fill me in more on your trip? Did you post about it? I want to hear all about it!!!

Inshahallah YA RAB really I want to meet you one day :) If not in this life then in the next.

egyptchick said...

I am SUPER excited from this post because I will be in Egypt for the first time ever in Winter...coming Jan 25th....My family is worried me coming on the first day of the revolution will be a bad violent day- it was the cheapest day...hehe...here's hoping I'll be ok ( I'm sure I will be)...

ANYWAYS, great post...glad to know Egypt has tangerines and sweet potatoes....I wonder how they are prepared misry-style? Looking forward to hearing all these sounds and more :)

Yosra said...

Asalamu Alaykom EgyptChick!

Wonderful! I'm glad you're coming. If you're coming to the Pyramid area, just let me know in the comments. We can have a little hug.

LOL that you are coming the 25th. You're such a rebel! I'm not sure what will happen now that YOU are coming.

Has anyone alerted the army? ;)

Inshahallah, your trip will be easy and the time will be peaceful.

YES to tangerines! My hub just arrived upstairs with an armful. As you know in Egypt, when the food is in season you overindulge until you BURST.

The Sweet potatoes are just baked, then sliced and salted if you want. It's one of the most natural street foods you can eat here! I'll buy ya one if you come over to my neighborhood!

MarieHarmony said...

Yosra, After this trip my second wish is to come back. This time was more family orientated but next one I hope we will have the chance to go and visit around Cairo and I would be delighted to meet you. I miss these sounds very much.
I will write more about my trip on my blog:

In the meantime take care and enjoy a lovely week-end.

Nashipae said...

LOVED THIS! I know most of these sounds and am actually glad to read about the cotton candy issue which I hadn't considered. I know not to get a pedicure here but never thought about the cotton candy. It is soooo tempting!!! I always wonder what's on the wood the sweet potato man is burning. Silly of me to consider the smoke/varnish carcinogen laden fumes, but I'll eat a DOZEN of those potatoes without blinking an eye-toxic wood or not!!! Yes, we do indeed have the same sounds in Maadi. We're not in the rich ex-pat part of Ma'adi; rather, just the opposite. In addition to all the sounds you mentioned (we are right across the street from the Al-Faath masjid AND connecting hospital, in addition to having the local bread furn downstairs) I get to hear the school children across the street at the local government school, the women downstairs arguing over their place in line to get bread and the metro cruising along the tracks behind the flat we're renting. There's the occasional car accident out front because people don't like "one way" streets around here and choose to do as they please. BAM!! We're overloaded with Tuk-Tuks since the revolution, and they've caused at least a few accidents downstairs. We're in "Old Maadi," DEFINITELY not the place for the rich and famous! Not all of Ma'adi is rich, but I'm sure you know that. Sadly, our neighborhood has changed since the revolution...but not in a good way. I absolutely loved reading this post. See..Ma'adi isn't all you might think it is. :(

Anonymous said...

As salaamu alaikum!

Ah, see, you've got everyone so nostalgic with this one! Indeed, indeed, subhanallah! The one that made me smile the most was -- what I called him -- the bikya guy. I had NO IDEA he said anything before "bikya bikya biiiiiikya!" But now I know it's Rabibekia :)

There was another guy we had often in Haya Thamin, who'd bang on a gas cylinder INCESSANTLY saying... saying... I can't remember, but it was a religious invocation. Some ayah or dua or something. Goodness, it's been three years now. He was basically a peddler though, who was down and out and asking for monetary assistance. I kept him in my duas, but, astaghfirullah, was angry with him most days because he set up shop in the breezeway directly under my building, clanging away for hours. I'll just blame my irritability on pregnancy hormones!

I hadn't heard the calls for a death, though. However, that did remind me of Tarim, Yemen. For weeks I was stunned by what I thought was just a beautiful reminder, as they'd blare out melodiously, "laaaaaa ilaha ilallah muhammadar rasuuuuuuuulullah salallahu alayhi wa sallam!" And then there was unintelligible garble after that which came in stacatto bursts, and then they'd repeat the refrain again. It wasn't until a while into my stay that I figured out that that garble was. Basically, the man was announcing who had died, including his father and grandfather's names, the masjid holding the janaza, the time of the janaza, where he would be buried, and the family's house where they would host visitors. A reminder indeed. It was beautiful though, because while washing the dishes, or playing with my kid, studying or whatever, I could stop, listen to who had passed and make dua for them by name and truly reflect on death. I LOVED that practice, to say the least, and now am pleased to hear a variant exists in Cairo, as we most likely are headed back that way *sigh*.