Many places claim to be the “city that never sleeps”. But compared to Cairo, most cities seem to be vacant.
When we first got to Cairo, we heard a lot of strange noises. Cars honking, people talking loudly, the strange squeaking hissing sound men use to get your attention, people on the street yelling what sounded like “bikya!”, and of course the call to prayer.
We often wondered: What do these noises mean? Why is there a predilection towards using the horn? What are the vendors on the street crying? and so on.
So here it is — our guide to the sounds of Cairo.
The Sounds of Cairo in a nutshell
Some parts of the world are culturally quiet; some are culturally loud.
In Northern Europe, for example, people are mild and quiet. You can walk outside in open spaces with quite a few people and hear almost nothing. It’s common to ask people to be quiet for no good reason other than respect for others.
In the Middle East, the culture is different. People have a different attitude to noise — it’s more welcome. And this is reflected in the noisiness of Cairo.
Cario’s a city in which:
- Cafes start getting really busy at 11pm and remain open until dawn.
- Car and scooter drivers don’t just honk their horns to alert of danger. They may be telling you they’re coming through, making a pass at a woman, or cursing someone out (via the rhythm of the horn)
- People prefer talking on phones to texting.
Here’s an audio clip so you can see what Cairo sounds like yourself:
Cairo’s Traffic and Cars Honking Horns
Cars, motorcycles, and people pushing carts are always making some kind of noise. The traffic situation in Cairo is challenging for non-Egyptians. No matter where you live in Egypt, and almost any time of night, you’re going to hear vehicles honking.
According to various drivers, car honking can mean different things, depending on the pattern. They can be interpreted as criticisms of someone else’s driving, permission, generally courtesy phrases or of course, just outright swearing (not something we know much about yet).
But from what we’ve seen and heard, this is what honk patterns in Cairo (and Egypt) mean:
- “I’m a motorcycle and I’m coming, in a regular way down a regular road, and also my headlight is off” (bibip, bibibip, bibibibibip)
- “You’re driving badly” (beep beep beep) (can translate to “son of a dog”, which is pretty bad)
- “Hello, friend!” (bip bip)
- General harassment at women (bip bip bip, bip bip bip, bip bip bip). (I heard one claim this means “I love you”, which is annoying, because why turn that phrase into one of harassment?)
- “*#$(@#*)#@(!” (bip beep bip or beeeeeeeeeep) — this actually literally translates into a swear word, which is weird because… it could be any swear word
- “I’m a motorcyclist and budding thumb percussionist” (bip bibi bip bip bip beep bep bep bibibib beep beep)
- “Thank you/Sorry” (beep) — actually happens!
- “Traffic light?? This is insane, I’ve been here forever!” (general cacophony of complaining beeps and agreeing beeps)
- “I’m going into a roundabout… not sure how this is going to pan out” (cautious bibip)
- “I’m a taxi and do you want a ride?” (bibip and flashing of lights, which are otherwise off) “You sure?” (bibip) “REALLY I’M HERE LOOK AT ME” (BEEP BEEP accompanied by slow down and stare)
- “My soccer team won!” (beep beep bip bip beep or some other rhythm)
- “We/someone near us is getting married!” (similar to the soccer team one)
- “Excuse me, I need to get through cars 90 degrees to me” (boop boop boop booboboboop)
- One million other things
For a little data to back this up, at time of writing, I set my timer for one minute and heard 83 individual car honks from my apartment, and it was 9pm on a weekend night. This is 100% normal.
The Call to Prayer
The call to prayer (أَذَان, adaan in Egypt), is ubiquitous in the Islamic world. It happens five times a day and is the general alarm clock to tell Muslims it’s time to pray, wherever they are.
The call to prayer is haunting and can be quite beautiful to hear, although it wears a lot of people out after a while.
How nice the call to prayer sounds depends on if you’re Muslim, how close you are to a mosque or loudspeaker, how well your local adaan is chanted (some do it better!) and, honestly, how tired you are.
Here’s a pretty good rendition of the call to prayer we found on Youtube. (“Most beautiful?” Not sure. Still, 20M+ views is solid.)
Historically, people conducted the Islamic call to prayer from the minarets of a mosque. You knew it was time to pray because there’d basically be chaos in any major Muslim city with many conflicting calls to prayer clashing against each other.
Around a decade ago in Cairo, the government attempted to centralise it all. They broadcast the call to prayer from a central place to speakers all over the city.
The problem is, this centralisation was more of a suggestion and wasn’t well received by people doing the call (particularly in older mosques) who wanted to keep a local community feel. So now we have one more voice to add to the mix.
The one thing that did get enforced was the correct time for calls to prayer. They all happen at the same time now, according to the precise times of sunrise, sunset and noon (see the definitions below). It’s more unified now.
What are they saying in the Call to Prayer?
We had heard some of these words before, but we were curious to know what the whole thing was. They recite the following verses a number of times:
- God is the greatest (ٱللهُ أَكْبَر, allahu akbar)
- I acknowledge that there is no god but God (أَشْهَدُ أَنْ لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله, ashhadu an la ila illa llah)
- I acknowledge that Muhammad is the Messenger of God (أَشْهَدُ أَنَّ مُحَمَّدًا رَسُولُ ٱلله, ashhadu an muhamadan rasulu llah)
- Hasten to the prayer (حَيَّ عَلَى ٱلْفَلَاح ، حَيَّ عَلَى ٱلصَّلَاة, hayya ‘ala s-salaah, hayya ‘ala l-falah)
- Prayer is better than sleep (الصلاة خير من النوم, as-salaatu khayrun min in-nohm) — only said for dawn prayers.
I’m pretty sure the last line is a way of saying “c’mon get up. No, sleep is not better than prayer.” Isn’t it, though? Or is it not?
When does the the Call to Prayer happen?
You’ll hear it five times a day. The times when you’ll hear the calls to prayer are:
- Dawn (فجر, fagr): First light (about an hour before dawn). This actually happens a few times, ending at dawn, kind of like multiple rings of the alarm clock.
- Noon (ظهر, duhr): Roughly noon. Precise definition is “After the sun reaches its peak in the sky”
- Afternoon (عصر, ‘asr): Afternoon, about 3-4pm. The precise definition of ‘afternoon’ is when the shadow of an object equals its length plus whatever length the shadow was at noon.
- Evening (مغرب, maghrib): From when the sun begins to set (about an hour before the sun has set)
- Night (عشاء, ‘isha): At the end of twilight (about an hour after the sun has set).
Not sure when these are and want to make sure an enthusiastic prayer chanter doesn’t override your conference call? Google is your friend!
Who does the Call to Prayer best?
Every time we hear the call to prayer we either think “Wow, this guy is nailing it” or quite often “this one needs a little practise” (sorry).
The actual techniques vary between different members of the muezzin, the people appointed by mosque for the call to prayer. But they generally follow a rule taking it easy at the beginning and then cutting loose as the call goes on. In the first repetition, they limit the tonal range, and don’t add in any flourishes.
As performers of the call to prayer start repeating, they lengthen the syllables, extend the tonal range (even over an octave) and add in melismas, extending a syllable, moving between different notes.
We idly wondered if there was an equivalent of American Idol. And there is. They’re not big, but people do compete. Everyone wins, I’m sure. Except idols, which are banned in Islam.
Kissing “booss booss” or “squeak squeak” sound
This is a sound I had never heard before Cairo. It sounds a little like a loud “kiss kiss” sound, or a loud percussive hiss, or a very loud series of squeaks through the mouth.
It’s used by men on the street a bit like a loud whistle is used in Australia or the US. It’s used to:
- Call out to their friends from across the road (“Ya ali! boosss boosss“)
- Weak sales pitches. “Hiss hiss”, then pointing at a restaurant
- Try to get your attention (especially if you’re a lone female)
- General sexual harassment
- Get people out of the way if they’re on a bicycle and you’re a pedestrian, especially if they’re selling something (so it becomes dual use; “either get out of my way, or get over here and buy something”)
I couldn’t find a name for it — I asked around. People did it for me, or said they call it a “hiss” or a “bos”.
Using this sound is an indicator of social class, one friend told me. A man would never do it to a person he considered inferior. He’d only do it to someone he considers higher up, as a way of teasing him.
It would be unheard of to hear the sound in higher circles, e.g. in a professional environment.
Recycling collectors: “Bikya!”
This is one we were happy to finally capture in audio.
Old guys cycle around neighbourhoods with cargo bicycles yelling out a single word: “Bikya!” repeatedly
We were befuddled at first. “Bikya! Bikya! Bikya!” Drove us crazy. What was he saying? Is he selling some delicious snack we don’t know about? We wanted to know. Unfortuantely, we didn’t catch the word clearly enough to explain it to friends. (To us it sounded more like “F*** yeah!” which wasn’t very helpful.)
One day we got lucky — a bikya guy cycled past while we were walking on the street with an Egyptian friend. Our friend explained it to us: “bikya” is short for “rubabikya” which apparently meant “recyclable trash like electronic goods and furniture”. In any condition. They want it so they can on-sell it.
We were curious about this word, “rubabikya”. It dooesn’t sound at all like Arabic. Our friend didn’t know, but a bit of Googling gave us the source of the word: it comes from the Italian “roba vecchia” which literally means “old stuff”. Solved!