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Sound ambiances of Cairo: The public space of the Wast al-Balad (Downtown)

Lecture Dec. 2007

Vincent Battesti

Sound ambiances of Cairo: The public space of the Wast al-Balad (Downtown)

 Original title:
Ambiances sonores du Caire: L’espace public du Wast el-balad (centre-ville)
Lecture given at the Conference “Accords et à cris”, Études pluridisciplinaires sur la sonorité.
Organized by the Association Shadoc - UFR Sciences humaines et Arts de Poitiers. December 5th-6th, 2007, at the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme et et de la Société in Poitiers (France).

An article has been written from this lecture. See Sound ambiances of Cairo: To propose an anthropology of sound environments.


This contribution proposes to grant an interest in this intangible material: the sound of a place. This sonorité are not only produced as a side effect of the activities within the place (passive definition), but can also be a collective and voluntary construction (active definition). and an essential component of valuation of an area by its users.
In Cairo and its “coating of sound”, the Wast al-Balad, nineteenth century downtown, has assigned a specific identity in the urban fabric of the megalopolis by the city-dwellers. Addressed in ecological terms, the city is a set of specialized territories (organised in a system) and this downtown has its central functions: today, more than a residential or even power district, it is “the old quarter of bourgeoisie” and this is the reason why it is so heavily invested by middle class and popular walkers.
The ambiance is not far from being only and simply an anecdotal and noisy background, the ambiance is precisely the quality first invoked by citizens to explain their wandering here and not there, to justify their valuation of the places. The ambiances, which their sound component is essential in Cairo, are an objectified part of the “beauty” of an urban space. Whether this space is structured according to the plants (parks) or to the mineral (downtown), what matters is the “soul” of places, which arises with the co-presence of other humans, sound producers.
In Cairo outings, the ambiance does “work” if the density is as high as in its own neighbourhood of popular origin. True paradox, these quasi-rustic urban ambiances (people have picnic on benches, on roundabouts) are created within and without cutting oneself off from an environment saturated with people, smells, urban pollution and… sounds. In fact, our walkers come here to appreciate the urban environment, taking part in the show that the city generates in watching itself, in listening itself should I say. The soundscape of downtown has then its own signature. This signature is analysable, can be split up (inventory of different sounds), but its is the global rendering that is meaningful (see audio recordings).
The main principle that rule the popular policy about the sound is the principle of saturation like popular marriages and popular festivals (like mûled) where electro-amplified music (electroacoustic effects avoided elsewhere in Egypt) voluntarily filled totally the air. There are moments of exceptional celebrations, and there are more daily moments, where the sound saturation is lower, but an identifiable signature by equally everyone. How can we describe these sound spaces, how to analyze them, what can be said about their production and about the standards that govern them? And, if the sound ambiances can be described as the décor of the moment, which acting do they then allow?

Plaquette du programme.
Colloque “Accords et à cris”, Études pluridisciplinaires sur la sonorité.
Organisé par Shadoc, à Poitiers.
5 et 6 décembre 2007 à la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme et et de la Société.
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Vincent Battesti , "Sound ambiances of Cairo: The public space of the Wast al-Balad (Downtown) " (online), Anthropoasis |, page published 6 December 2007 (consulted 1 May 2024), available on: