The Art of Honking in Cairo

Cairo, Egypt

November, 2017

Yesterday, I went to downtown-ish Cairo, to a street called Mohamed Ali where, even 10 years ago, scores of musical instruments were handmade by craftsmen. Now, only a few oud (lute-like instrument) shops are left; the rest of the music stores import their stringed instruments.


Sandro, who is an Italian-Egyptian, went with me. I enjoyed hearing what he had to say about the culture clash that is the Italian community in Egypt. He went to an Italian high school here, though it is now closed because 2/3 of the Italians here left during/after the 2011 revolution.


Most people in Cairo do not have cars. They are super expensive to maintain and there’s nowhere to park. We drove around for a long time, sometimes caught in traffic jams that were interesting because they do not solely consist of cars. People wander in and out of the car-filled street and that is totally expected. Donkey carts, push carts, bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles weave in and out of the cars, which follow no discernable traffic lanes. The streets are completely chaotic, loud, colorful, and jammed with everything from flags to bread vendors and car parts and bras.


Somehow I am most fascinated by the people carrying large bundles. (I’m a bit shy to take pictures—is it even OK to take pics of people without their permission? I don’t know.) I saw women with large bundles of who-knows-what in plastic bags on their heads. I saw a man riding a bicycle, swiftly, down the street with a large wooden ladder balanced perfectly on a piece of twisted cloth on his head—both hands on the handle bars. I saw a dwarf carrying a huge bundle balanced on his shoulder—it was heavy and it was larger than he was—as he wove through the tiny spaces around the cars.


What I cannot describe fully is the cacophony of noise—honking, yelling, music, more honking—none of which I understand. You probably are thinking…you don’t need to “understand” honking! But actually the honk is an art form here. There is a language to it. The pattern of honks corresponds to words in Arabic. So you can curse someone out with a particular honk pattern. The most basic honk is a tiny bip that means, ‘I am here.’ This is the most used honk because no cars honor lanes (and they aren’t marked anyway) and you typically just barrel onto a road with this bip because you can’t see if anyone is coming because of all the vendors on the edges of the road. So you just go. With a bip to announce your presence. Then if someone gets too close (like closer than one inch) you bip them. Or if you see someone heading into your space you bip them. Or if you need to edge into someone else’s space because you need to turn or avoid a donkey—you bip them.


If I’m standing on a street corner, and I hear a bip I now understand that it is a taxi saying “I’m here, do you want me?” Of course, there are 100 taxis looking for fares so I’m getting bipped a lot.


Sandro finally found a parking spot. There are no parking lots. Just haphazard street parking. We were stuck in abysmal traffic and a man approached the car parked right near us with his keys—o glorious day he was leaving! An old man came up to the departing driver holding a blue plastic chair with which to block the spot as he pulled out. Then the negotiations began.


Anyone nearby saw the spot opening up and began bidding on the right to park there. We got it after some intense discussion mostly because the other cars couldn’t reach the spot easily and we were right there. It cost us 30 Egyptian pounds (about $1.20). The old man will also watch the car to make sure it is not damaged. It is not his spot—he’s just an entrepreneur.


Walking down the street on our way to the music shops made me so happy. Where I live in El Maadi, lots of signs are in English because it caters to foreigners. This place is hard core Egyptian. No roman alphabet at all. Just the beautiful flowing Arabic script. It is an art form, their writing. All around me are the sounds of Cairo, most of which have no meaning to me.


There’s something delicious about standing amid a press of humanity and sounds and colors that are so totally different from anything with which I am familiar. To my right are low, rough tables of pita bread, fresh out of the oven, with circling flies. To my left is a fruit stand. Further down is a loufah stand. (I’m still mad I didn’t buy a loufah—they are as long as my arm and could be cut into many.) Behind these vendors, who are set up in the street, are the storefronts. Lots of electronic stores in one area. The next area, right before the music shops, are the furniture makers. One store has ornate carved cornices and decorative strips painted gold.


Other stores have the bones of ornately shaped couches with fluted backs and curved legs ending in what look like paws. They do not do plain. You have to go to Ikea for that, but Ikea is more expensive than this handmade stuff.


As we walk down the street, I see large (30 gallons or so?) blue plastic thermos containers in several spots usually sitting on a chair at the interface between the car traffic and the main footpath, which usually would be the curb area but in Cairo there are no rules so this interface is whatever works best on that day.


On top of this particular large thermos is an orange plastic cup. I watched a man walk up, grab the orange cup, fill it with water from the thermos, drink it, replace the cup and walk on. People need water. And they don’t worry too much about sharing spit, I guess.


We find the music shops. I want to buy a viola. I see lots of drums, tambourines, guitars, violins, and ouds. But no violas. We walk into every music store in the area and finally speak to a man who says he does the ordering of all string instruments for Cairo and there are no violas. In a city of 20 million, there is not one viola?


This confirms my reason for wanting to take up playing this instrument. I took violin lessons for two years about 25 years ago and I loved it. But I also love playing music with others and I dream of playing in a string quartet. I’d never be good enough to compete with violin players and the cello is simply too big for me and my itinerant life. But the viola…no one likes to play it because the music is written on the bass clef so it can be confusing to those who play the violin, which is written on the treble clef. Plus violas just aren’t that common. So if I play the viola I will always have a spot in a quartet. Particularly in Cairo, apparently.