Ziad Fahmy, Street Sounds: Listening to Everyday Life in Modern Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ziad Fahmy (ZF): I thought of the initial idea for Street Sounds in early 2011, as I was finishing the final revisions of my first book, Ordinary Egyptians. In the first book, I was dealing primarily with recorded music, vernacular theater, and zajal, and so I became more consciously aware of the importance of sound and listening to history writing in general. It became obvious to me, at that time, that more sounded histories of Egypt and the Middle East were sorely needed. We live in a multisensory world and so did the people of the past; writing a history that accounts for this multisensory environment can only enrich and nuance our understanding of the past.

Also, a bit of good luck intervened, since in 2012 I was awarded a fellowship at Cornell’s Society of the Humanities. Conveniently for me, the theme for 2012 was “Sound: Culture, Theory, Practice, Politics.” My fellowship at the society for that year was really instrumental in exposing me to sound studies form a variety of different disciplines. During my year at the Society, my readings, weekly seminars, and almost daily discussions with the other fellows from various academic disciplines were instrumental in forging my ideas about sounds and soundscapes and in convincing me to research and write Street Sounds.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

ZF: Street Sounds is the first historical examination of the changing soundscapes of twentieth-century Egypt. It highlights the mundane sounds of street life, while “listening” to the voices of ordinary people as they struggle with state authorities for ownership of the streets. The book is also a cultural and social history that examines the sonic impact of modernity on the Egyptian streets.

Conceptually, Street Sounds engages with the field of sound studies and with sensory history. I argue that a sensory approach to the sources uncovers a great deal more about what happened at the ground level, allowing for a more micro-historical examination of street life.

A big part of the book explores the modern transformation of the Egyptian streets and the sonic implications of that change. For example, I examine the sonic impact of electric lighting, loud speakers, car horns, automobile traffic, tramways, and the inevitable anti-noise laws enforced by the state. I show how these technological and infrastructural changes impacted daily life by dramatically changing how the streets functioned, felt, and sounded. An important part of the book details how everyday people reacted to those changes and how they used, shaped, reshaped, and appropriated these technological manifestations of modernity for their own use. Street Sounds also reveals a socio-political dimension of noise by demonstrating how the growing middle classes used sound and a sensory vocabulary to distinguish themselves from the Egyptian masses. In the process, I reveal the inevitable tensions and contestations between the state and ordinary people in controlling the streets and other public spaces.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

ZF: In my previous work I focused on the intersection of nationalism, popular culture, and media history. The focus of Street Sounds is almost entirely centered on everyday street life. However, my work on the early history of Egyptian media made me aware of the importance of listening and orality—not only in understanding popular culture, but also everyday life.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

ZF: I hope that both historians of the senses and historians of the Middle East can make use of my book as an example of how to use a sensory approach in order to study the history of everyday life. Although Street Sounds is an academic book, I wrote it in an accessible prose, and I hope that it can reach a wider audience. It can hopefully resonate with general readers who are interested in modern Egypt and the modern Middle East.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

ZF: I am currently writing a book on the history of Egyptian radio, tentatively titled Broadcasting Identity: Radio and the Making of Modern Egypt, 1924-1952. Temporally and conceptually, Broadcasting Identity continues where my first book, Ordinary Egyptians (2011) left off. In Broadcasting Identity, I will gauge the impact of radio’s simultaneity, as listening live to the same radio programs by hundreds of thousands of listeners had a powerful and sometimes unifying effect. Often, this effect was enhanced even further when group listening took place in public, as simultaneity was not just “imagined” but was seen, heard, and felt with perhaps dozens of listeners huddled around the radio. The repetitiveness and almost ritualization of daily private and/or public radio listening transformed these broadcasts into a mundane soundtrack of daily life that was horizontally experienced throughout Egypt. Part one of Broadcasting Identity historically traces the decade-long era of commercial radio stations in Egypt (from 1924 to 1934) and marks the contested transition to a state-run radio monopoly in May of 1934. Shedding more light on this important early period in Egyptian media history will partially fill in an important void in the history of early Egyptian radio and reveal any disruptions and continuities that took place as radio broadcasting transitioned from private radio stations to the government-run Egyptian State Radio (ESR). The second part of the book analyzes the various programing of ESR from its founding in 1934 until the early 1950s.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-5)

In late February 1936, a correspondent for the 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!

The 1936 Cairo Agricultural and Industrial Exhibition was open for two months–from February 15 to April 15–and in this short time, a million and a half visitors came through its gates. To put this figure in perspective, in 1937, the entire population of Cairo was around 1.3 million. The exhibition was held at the Cairo Exhibition fairgrounds at the southern tip of the Island of Gezira (Zamalek). 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.

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 Treatywas 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.

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. 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. 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 making particular use of the branch of Luna Park that was set up especially for the occasion. This elaborate amusement park included a haunted house, roller coasters, various other 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. 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 street-life. 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. 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. The growling of automobile and motorcycle engines, 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. 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-changingsonic 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.