CAIRO — Egyptians in this capital city say it is harder and harder to be heard and to have a voice, but they are not talking politics. Well, not only politics.
What they are talking about, or rather yelling about, is noise, the incredible background noise of a city crammed with 18 million people, and millions of drivers who always have one hand on the horn and a rules-free way of thinking.
“Whenever I talk to people, they always say, ‘Why are you screaming?’ ” said Salah Abdul Hamid, 56, a barber whose two-chair shop is on the corner of a busy street on the north side.
Mr. Hamid was, of course, screaming.
It was 4 p.m. in Rhode al Farag, a typical Cairo neighborhood teeming with people and shops and cars and trucks and buses and horse-drawn carts. From his shop, the landscape of sound revealed a chorus of people struggling to make a living, trying to assert themselves in a city, and in a country, where they often feel invisible.
Noise — outrageous, unceasing, pounding noise — is the unnerving backdrop to a tense time in Egypt, as inflation and low wages have people worried about basic survival, prompting strikes and protests. We’re not just talking typical city noise, but what scientists here say is more like living inside a factory.
“It’s not enough to make you crazy, but it is very tiring,” said Essam Muhammad Hussein, as he sat in a cracked plastic chair outside the corner food shop his family has owned for 50 years. He was shouting as he talked about the noise, though he did not seem to realize it.
“What are we going to do?” he asked. “Where is the way out?”
This is not like London or New York, or even Tehran, another car-clogged Middle Eastern capital. It is literally like living day in and day out with a lawn mower running next to your head, according to scientists with the National Research Center. They spent five years studying noise levels across the city and concluded in a report issued this year that the average noise from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. is 85 decibels, a bit louder than a freight train 15 feet away, said Mustafa el Sayyid, an engineer who helped carry out the study.
But that 85 decibels, while “clearly unacceptable,” is only the average across the day and across the city. At other locations, it is far worse, he said. In Tahrir Square, or Ramsis Square, or the road leading to the pyramids, the noise often reaches 95 decibels, he said, which is only slightly quieter than standing next to a jackhammer.
“All of greater Cairo is in the range of unacceptable noise levels from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” Mr. Sayyid said.
By comparison, normal conversation ranges from 45 to 60 decibels, a chain saw registers 100 decibels and a gunshot 140. Because the decibel scale is logarithmic, every 10 decibels equals a tenfold increase in intensity.
Noise at the levels commonly found in Cairo affects the body. It can cause elevated blood pressure and other stress-related diseases. It can interfere with sleep, which almost always makes people more irritable. “People need a chance to sleep, to have a chance to think, in quiet,” said Dr. Nagat Amer, a physician and researcher with the national center.
But quiet is in short supply, especially in densely packed neighborhoods like Rhode al Farag, where the streets are alive 24 hours a day with people struggling with one another to eke out a living. In the last six weeks, 11 people have been killed in fights in lines to buy some of the cheap subsidized bread many rely on to feed their families.
While noise is never cited as a reason for the spasms of violence, it is a silent enemy that makes the pressures of life that much harder to cope with, people on the streets here said.
“The noise bothers me and I know it bothers people,” said Abdel Khaleq, driver of a battered black and white taxi, as he paused from honking his horn to stop for passengers.
“So why do you do it?” he was asked.
“Well, to tell you I’m here,” he said. “There is no such thing as logic in this country.”
And then he drove off, honking.