Street Sounds
Listening to Everyday Life in Modern Egypt
Ziad Fahmy



Historicizing Sounds and Soundscapes

IN LATE FEBRUARY 1936, a correspondent for al-Radiu al-Misri (Egyptian Radio) magazine wrote a detailed article describing the 1936 Cairo Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition. Amplifying the goals of the exhibition organizers, the article mainly promoted Egypt’s national industrial and economic potential, while also attentively describing the diversity of sounds at the exhibition:

I sat down in a nice café in front of the Cotton Museum observing the visitors [to the exhibition] as they came and went. It was very crowded and full of people of all social classes, democratically intermingling without a fuss. . . . As I was sitting alone, I listened carefully to the cacophony that was broadcast from the loudspeaker installed at the top of the Cotton Museum. The announcer read out many commercial advertisements praising the quality of various goods. Afterward, he repeated that the Cairo Exhibition’s radio station was sponsored by the marketing offices of various Egyptian corporations and was operated by the [Egyptian] Telephone Company. The station then broadcast some musical recordings and comedic dialogues. . . . The cacophony produced by the loudspeaker was continuous as intermittently the exhibition’s small train blew its loud whistle. All of these various noises were mixed in with the sounds of one of the military brass bands. Adding to the din—and complementing all of these diverse sounds—was the constant and tedious background drone of the steam irrigation pump which was continuously running at the exhibition’s agricultural machines department. This drone was akin to a primary tune orchestrating all of these diverse sonic elements, as they simultaneously reached my ears and combined into one composition. All of these sounds were intermixed with the ever-present noise of people’s chatter and loud voices. Yes, the clamor was great!1

The 1936 Cairo Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition was open for two months—from February 15 to April 15—and in this short time, 1.5 million visitors came through its gates.2 To put this figure in perspective, in 1937, the entire population of Cairo was around 1.3 million.3 The exhibition was held at the Cairo Exhibition fairgrounds at the southern tip of the Island of Gezira (Zamalek).4 Unlike the orientalist representations of Egypt featured at the 1889 World Exhibition in Paris, the 1936 Cairo Exhibition was purposely created to visually and sonically depict Egypt as part of the modern world.5

Nineteen thirty-six was an eventful year for Egypt. On April 29, 1936, just a couple of months after the opening of the Cairo Exhibition, King Fuad (r. 1917–1936) died and the young and relatively unprepared King Faruq (r. 1936–1952) assumed the throne of Egypt. Just as importantly, in late August of the same year, the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was signed, renegotiating Britain’s 1922 unilateral declaration of Egyptian “independence” by giving Egypt more political autonomy. The British military occupation, however, which had started in 1882, would continue until 1956. As can be gleaned from the tone of the al-Radiu al-Misri article and from the extensive press and media coverage, the 1936 exhibition was a source of pride for Egyptian nationalists and modernists at a critical juncture in Egypt’s road to political and economic independence. To be sure, though, like most exhibitions, the Cairo Exhibition also exemplified commodity fetishism and was built in order to support Egypt’s growing capitalists and not just to demonstrate the country’s aspirational economic nationalism.6

Although exhibitions are often used to theorize about the optical detachment of the visual and the modern, as the quoted commentary demonstrates, the sounds of modernity were just as important and as prevalent as any visual representation.7 The blaring loudspeakers, the exhibition’s miniature train (used to transport visitors throughout the expansive exhibition grounds), the drone of the motorized water pump at the agricultural exhibit, and the sounds of the military brass bands provided a constant soundtrack to the visual displays of the buildings, industrial and agricultural machines, tractors, automobiles, and a nighttime array of dazzling electric lights. Expanding the sonic reach of the exhibition beyond the fairgrounds, the Egyptian government radio station broadcast the entire opening ceremony of the exhibition to tens of thousands of listeners.8 In addition, the exhibition had its very own “radio station” broadcasting locally through loudspeakers placed strategically throughout the grounds. The studio used for these local broadcasts was itself an exhibit, a functioning miniature replica of a radio studio. The exhibit’s radio announcer continually played music, read out commercial announcements advertising the various products that were sold or displayed at the exhibition, and occasionally announced the names of lost children, to help reunite them with their parents.

Lest we overlook the other senses, the entire experience of going to the exhibition was multisensory, as the visiting men, women, and children were sensorially immersed in the experience of walking through the exhibits by observing and listening. Most could also smell the burning coal and gasoline fueling the train, tractors, automobiles, water pumps, and other machinery. Visitors no doubt also touched, smelled, and tasted some of the foods and drinks in the many cafés set up within the exhibition grounds. Handling and touching the souvenirs, fabrics, textiles, and other products on display in the many stalls and shops was another integral part of the experience. Although in many ways the sponsors built the exhibition to be an aspirational microcosm representing the future of Egyptian agricultural and industrial modernity, to the majority of the visitors, it was simply a place for family outings and meant strictly for entertainment.

Large crowds of Egyptians of all classes attended the exhibition, including many children, who were especially making use of the branch of Luna Park that was set up especially for the occasion. The elaborate amusement park included a haunted house, roller coasters, various rides, and even bumper cars that, observers noted, were regularly used by children as well as adults. For better or worse, the 1936 Cairo Exhibition was a carnival-like ode to modernity and the potential of Egyptian economic independence. It was a loud and cacophonous affair with loudspeakers playing recorded music, and various traditional and modern brass bands performing live at different venues.9 Listening to the exhibition, instead of just noting its visual representations, reveals a great deal more about what happened at the ground level among the thousands of ordinary visitors who were strolling about, talking, eating, drinking, and riding the exhibition train or the various amusement park rides.

.   .   .

In this book, I examine everyday life in Egypt using sound and the politics of sound as one of the key tools for uncovering the changes that went on in Egyptian urban streets during the rapidly shifting first half of the twentieth century. By listening in to the changes materializing in the Egyptian streets, we can get a lot closer to the embodied mundane realities of pedestrians, street peddlers, and commuters. This allows for a more micro-historical examination of everyday people’s interactions with each other and helps us evaluate the impact of the various street-level technological and infrastructural manifestations of modern Egyptian life.10 As the twentieth century roared on, unfamiliar unmediated and mediated sounds were introduced almost year after year, with new technological innovations drastically changing the soundscapes of the streets. These generally loud and transformative inventions, ranging from trains, trams, and automobiles to water pumps, radios, telephones, and loudspeakers fundamentally affected and altered not only the Egyptian soundscape but also the lived public culture of all Egyptians.11 Indeed, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, the steady introduction of these new and unfamiliar sounds not only added to the soundscape but, by gradually drowning out and at times intermingling with other quieter manmade and natural sounds, also modified some of the more traditional sounds of everyday life.12 The growling of automobile and motorcycle engines and the hum of fluorescent lights and later on radios, refrigerators, fans, and air conditioning masked and concealed as much noise as they produced. In an urban environment, one was more likely to hear footsteps, street-side conversations, the rustling of leaves, the wind, and birds and other animals in the late nineteenth century than in the 1950s. Today, it can be difficult to imagine how a town or a city sounded in the late nineteenth century, though listening carefully during a major power outage can reveal somewhat the degree, volume, and variety of “noise” that our plethora of electrical appliances and devices produces and can also remind us of the sounds this machinery conceals.

It is impossible to overestimate the role that electricity played in completely transforming twentieth-century society. The gradual and uneven introduction of electricity in Egypt, dramatically and forever changed most aspects of Egyptian everyday life, especially changing what people saw and heard, indoors and out.13 Telephones, radios, electric microphones, and electric recording and amplification technologies transformed how people received and processed information, misinformation, gossip, rumors, propaganda, and entertainment. And it was not just these audible devices that had an impact on the urban soundscape. In the early nineteenth century, for example, Cairo’s many quarters would literally shut down their large wooden doors at night, as darkness and relative silence enveloped most of the city. Municipal gas lamps and later on electric lighting forever changed the sounds of the night. Egyptians would more regularly stay up later at night than ever before, whether by visiting well-lit cafés, theaters, cinemas, amusement parks, stores, and markets, or by staying at home in an electrically lit dwelling. A regular “everyday” nightlife, with all of its entertainment, leisure, commercial, and sonic implications, was only possible with the spread of electricity and electric lights.

Street Sounds is the first historical examination of the changing soundscapes of modern Egypt. In the following pages, this book documents the street-level effects of this sonic transition, not to examine these sounds for their own sake, but to understand the wider cultural and class implications of this sounded technological transformation and to assess its impact on Egyptian street life. The book tunes into the sounds of the past through a careful analysis of historical texts in order to assess the street-level, evolutionary impact of aural modernity. Street Sounds also addresses the sensory politics of sound and “noise,” and critically examines the intersection of state power with street life as the state attempted to control the streets. Just as importantly, it accounts for the growing middle classes as they set out to sensorially distinguish themselves from the Egyptian masses. By considering the changing sounds of modern Egypt, this book not only accounts for the large-scale urbanization and modernization rapidly taking place but, more importantly, it also amplifies some of the voices and noises of those who actively participated in this ever-changing sonic environment. Beyond examining sounds and sounded phenomena, I will be using sounded sources as one of my key analytical tools for investigating Egyptian street life, and especially for analyzing the dramatic sonic changes resulting from the successive introduction of modern transportation, lighting, and amplification technologies. Finally, Street Sounds proposes that by taking into account the changing sounds of the past, and by examining how people dealt with their daily sonic environment, a closer, more embodied, microlevel analysis of everyday life is possible.

Historians and Soundscapes

Historians have recently started listening to the past, contributing to what David Howes has described as a “sensorial revolution in the humanities and social sciences.”14 Mark Smith, one of the history of sound pioneers, has triumphantly declared that historians today are “listening to the past with an intensity, frequency, keenness, and acuity unprecedented in scope and magnitude. Once focused on just the history of music and musicology, historians of aurality now consider sound in all its variety.”15 With a few recent exceptions, historians of the Middle East have yet to explore that path, thus unintentionally portraying the past as silent, and devocalized.16

In order to pursue a more sounded approach to history, historians can learn from other disciplines that have already made progress in integrating auditory techniques. Anthropologists along with media studies scholars are leading the way in a recent explosion of media studies focused on the contemporary Middle East. Dozens of works covering contemporary satellite television, movies, and music and sound recordings have been published in the first two decades of the twenty-first century.17 Though most of these works do not address aurality and sound directly, by virtue of their subject matter, they all offer scholarly examinations of sounded sources. Works on various forms of Arab media by Charles Hirschkind, Ted Swedenburg, Lila Abu Lughod, Marwan Kraidy, Flag Miller, and Walter Armbrust are conceptually useful for historians. Hirschkind’s The Ethical Soundscape in particular—which engages with and is inspired by the burgeoning literature in sensory and aural studies—is a good starting point for much needed future studies on contemporary and historical Middle Eastern soundscapes.18 To be sure, most anthropologists and media studies scholars deal with contemporary societies, and hence are able to directly listen to the sounds and soundscapes they are studying. Historians do not have that luxury: we must use different strategies to cull and tease out sound from mostly textual sources. In addition, most of these studies deal with music, sermons, television programs, and film and not with noise, street sounds, and soundscapes.

There are many more historical dimensions to be discovered if we are open to considering sound as a serious path of inquiry for understanding the past. Sound historian Jonathan Sterne has accurately declared that “there is always more than one map for a territory, and sound provides a particular path through history.”19 More specifically, by taking into account the changing sounds of the past, and by considering how everyday people dealt with their daily sounded environment, we can provide valuable texture and context to historical examinations of everyday life and be brought closer to a more embodied microlevel analysis of street life. This is especially true in a period of rapid sonic transition, such as the infrastructural and technological transformations occurring at the turn of the twentieth century. Listening in to the sources brings us closer to the lived contemporaneity of past experience, revealing in the process how hearing and sound were critical to understanding everyday life.

In Street Sounds, I examine some of these dramatic infrastructural and technologically driven sonic changes, while also keeping tabs on the ongoing cultural and mass media representations and classifications of soundscapes, sound, and noise. All the while, I will be closely examining the developing discourses on class and modernity in relation to the changing soundscapes and the evolving construction and reconstruction of a modern Egyptian notion of noise. By “listening” to the changing sounds of early- to mid-twentieth-century Egypt, I hope not only to take into account the large-scale urbanization and modernization rapidly taking place but, more importantly, also to historicize and inquire into the significance of some of the voices and noises of those who actively participated in this ever-changing soundscape. As I demonstrate in the pages ahead, there is much to uncover if we incorporate sounds and soundscapes as part of our methodological toolkit for understanding the past. In part, Street Sounds will trace how sound and hearing fit within the broader framework of encountering, appropriating, and resisting street-level twentieth-century Egyptian modernity.


Parts of this introduction were previously published elsewhere. See Ziad Fahmy, “An Earwitness to History: Street Hawkers and Their Calls in Early Twentieth Century Egypt,” Roundtable, International Journal of Middle East Studies 48, no. 1 (2016): 129–134; and Ziad Fahmy, “Coming to Our Senses: Historicizing Sound and Noise in the Middle East,” History Compass 11, no. 4 (April 2013): 305–315.

1. Al-Radiu al-Misri, February 29, 1936.

2. U.S. Department of Commerce, Commerce Reports, Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition, Cairo (June 26, 1936), 493. This figure likely does not take into account repeat visitors to the exhibition.

3. J. W. Taylor, Egypt: Economic and Commercial Conditions in Egypt, Overseas Economic Surveys (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1948), 54.

4. Al-Radiu al-Misri, February 15, 1936; al-Musawwar, February 25, 1949. The exhibition was primarily sponsored by the Royal Agricultural Society of Egypt. Owing to World War II, the next exhibition would not be held until 1949.

5. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 1–31.

6. For an excellent history of the architectural and visual representations of Egypt’s twentieth-century exhibitions, see Mohamed Elshahed, “Egypt Here and There: The Architectures and Images of National Exhibitions and Pavilions, 1926–1964,” Annales Islamologiques 50 (2016): 107–143.

7. Mitchell, Colonising Egypt, 1–31.

8. Al-Radiu al-Misri, February 15, 1936.

9. Al-Radiu al-Misri, February 15, 1936; February 29, 1936.

10. This book focuses primarily on the street sounds of urban areas. However, similar changes, albeit on a much smaller scale, were simultaneously happening in rural areas. Water pumps for irrigation, trains and train whistles, automobile and bus traffic, and eventually electricity and loudspeakers made a sonic impact on the Egyptian countryside.

11. For an excellent examination of some of these technological changes, from trains to telephones and telegraphs, see On Barak, On Time: Technology and Temporality in Modern Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

12. For more on the transitional nature of newer industrial and modern sounds as gradually added to “older sounds,” see Mark M. Smith, “The Garden in the Machine: Listening to Early American Industrialization,” in The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, ed. Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 39–57.

13. Electrification typically spread gradually from well-to-do districts in the early twentieth century to more popular urban and even rural areas from the 1920s to the 1950s. See Chapters 3 and 4 for more detail on the electrification of Cairo.

14. David Howes, The Sixth Sense Reader (London: Berg, 2009), 35; Michael Bull et al., “Introducing Sensory Studies,” The Senses and Society 1 (2006): 5–7.

15. Mark M. Smith, “Introduction: Onward to Audible Pasts,” in Hearing History: A Reader, ed. Mark M. Smith (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), ix.

16. See “Roundtable: Bringing Sound into Middle East Studies,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48, no.1 (2016): 113–155; this IJMES roundtable was led by Andrea Stanton and Carole Woodall, with contributions from Deborah Kapchan, Michael O’Toole, Lauren Osborne, Ziad Fahmy, Camron Amin, and Ida Meftahi. For other works that take sound into account, see, for example, Ziad Fahmy, Ordinary Egyptians: Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011); Andrea Stanton, “This Is Jerusalem Calling”: State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2014); Carole Woodall, “Sensing the City: Sound, Movement, and the Night in 1920s Istanbul” (PhD diss., New York University, 2008); Adam Mestyan, “Sound, Military Music, and Opera in Egypt during the Rule of Mehmet Ali Pasha (r. 1805–1848),” in Ottoman Empire and European Theatre, vol. 2 of The Time of Joseph Haydn—From Sultan Mahmud I to Mahmud II (r. 1730–1839), ed. Michael Huttler and Hans Ernst Weidinger (Vienna: Hollitzer Wissenschaftsverlag, 2014), 631–656; and Adam Mestyan, “Upgrade? Power and Sound during Ramadan and ‘Id al-Fitr in the Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Arab Provinces,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 37, no. 2 (2017): 262–279. For a more detailed argument about the need to incorporate sound in historical research on the Middle East, see Fahmy, “Coming to our Senses.”

17. For a more detailed examination of some of the latest anthropological and media studies work on the modern Arab World, see Mohamed Zayani, “Toward a Cultural Anthropology of Arab Media: Reflections on the Codification of Everyday Life,” History and Anthropology 22, no. 1 (2012): 37–56; and Walter Armbrust, “Audiovisual Media and History of the Middle East,” in History and Historiographies of the Modern Middle East, ed. Amy Singer and Israel Gershoni (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 288–312; Deborah Kapchan, ed., Theorizing Sound Writing (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017).

18. Charles Hirschkind, The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006).

19. Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 3.