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Can we do an ethnography of sound of Cairo?

Lecture May 2011

Vincent Battesti

Can we do an ethnography of sound of Cairo?

Original title:
Peut-on faire une ethnographie sonore du Caire?,
Lecture given at the conference held by the collective MILSON: “For an anthropology of sound environments”.
The 12 and 13 May 2011, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris (ENSBA) and the Musée du Quai Branly.

Lecture the Thursday, May 12th, during the session “Fields and methods I” (2:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.).



is a research program founded by the Fondation Fyssen
Coordinator : Christine Guillebaud (CNRS, Centre de recherche en ethnomusicologie, CREM-LESC/Université Paris-Ouest Nanterre)

 Abstract of the lecture:

Can we do an ethnography of sound of Cairo, of the sound ambiances of its neighbourhood?

Inhabitants and users of the Egyptian capital are sound transceivers: they do not suffer (only) a “noise pollution” (we’ll see if it is appropriate to use this expression), but they are involved, willingly or not, in the production of the soundscapes. These soundscapes are not only a result of activities within the city (passive reference), but also a collective construction, more or less voluntary (active definition).

In Cairo and its “sound matrix”, the various areas of the city have, in the urban fabric of the megalopolis, their specific identities assigned by the urbanites, their ambiance. This ambiance is not only an anecdote, a simple background noise: it is the primary quality invoked by citizens to explain their wandering here and not there in the city, to justify how they value and enjoy urban spaces. The ambiance, including its audio component, becomes part of the objectified “beauty” of an urban space. The sound signature of neighbourhoods is analysable, decomposable (inventory of different sounds), but it is also the overall listening that makes sense. These soundscapes are not due to chance, they are social productions and organized on the strong social structure of Egyptian society. We will see that ethnology can work on this curious “instant matter” with the filter of an analytical methodology. We will use essentially examples from the Cairo’s modern city and popular neighbourhoods of the Fatimid old-city, also drawing on the recent situation of an Egypt in revolution.


 Programme (in French):

Programme des Journées d’études organisées du collectif MILSON
mai 2011

 On the web:

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Vincent Battesti , "Can we do an ethnography of sound of Cairo? " (online), Anthropoasis |, page published 9 May 2011 (consulted 19 May 2024), available on: