sounds of Siwa

I suspect Dr Who’s tardis got its signature sound from – a donkey. I decided this while lying sleepless in the heat at 1am, listening to all the noises around the house, and pondering how to describe the sounds of the oasis. There is no escaping it, braying donkeys do sound like the tardis taking off, but whenever a donkey brays here you can multiply that by up to ten, if all the nearby donkeys decide to join in.

You could be excused for expecting to be a quiet zone thanks to being so far from anywhere. When I am sitting by one of the pools at a time of day when there is nobody else swimming, or walking between the gardens on Friday when most people are at the mosque or at home, all I hear is the sound of breeze rustling the palm leaves. Or sometimes when I am in the house in the heat of the afternoon, or mid evening when people are indoors eating and few are using the main road just a few metres from my gate, there is a stillness broken only by a few voices.
But most of the time, Siwa is noisier than my last Australian home, which was a street in bustling Brunswick, Melbourne.

Being near a main road, at some times of day the rattle of the big trucks which bring Siwa its supplies from across the desert is like any main road back in Australia. At peak hour when people are returning home in the evening, there is a mix of car, donkey cart and motorbike sounds, and sometimes as close as Siwa gets to a traffic jam with assorted vehicles three deep across the street, jostling and yelled greetings. But this congestion only lasts for a few moments, not hours like city traffic. In quieter times there is the whiz of bicycles, the soft footfalls of men and women walking on the sand which covers the roadsides, and sometimes not one vehicle for 10 minutes at a time.

As everywhere in Egypt, the call to prayer punctuates the day regularly, and falls a minute or so later every few days. At the moment the first call is about 3.30 AM and mostly I sleep through it. People are out on the street late because the air is at last cooler with the dark, and outdoors is much more comfortable than inside, as the houses take time to cool after being closed up against the worst of the heat during the day.

Many houses have a bench outside, often simply a split palm trunk on logs or large bricks, or the men drag out plastic chairs or matting, sit and exchange news and keep an eye on their children playing in the streets. As I walk back from getting Habibi’s small parcel of meat, the groups of men wave and greet men, and the children run up to shake hands and chat in our still limited mix of Arabic and English. Seeing them outside reminds me of the hotter Sydney nights, when, growing up in an outer suburb, we used to leave the hot house and stroll around the street with Dad or Mum, especially in December when you could look at Christmas trees and lights through the open blinds and curtains of people’s houses. So there is talk from the men, children playing football or singing, and often building noises as people work on homes in progress after their day jobs and into the cooler hours.

Always in the background, except for an hour or two in the early hours of morning, there are the zoom of motorbikes and a few cars, and the creaks of donkey carts and clopping of the donkeys, which can range from a plodding to a thudding when they really move. There are also the steering and encouragement to go faster sounds made by the donkey cart drivers to their animals (“th th th” seems to mean go faster, sometimes accompanied by a smack of a stick, “oosh” to stop). Once in a while the more forceful gallop of a passing horse, though there are only perhaps a dozen horses in Siwa among several thousand donkeys.

Chickens, ducks and geese cluck, and sometimes squawk when disturbed for their eggs or when one of them is selected for cooking. Roosters crow, and never let anyone tell you they only crow at sunrise; if one starts up at any time of day or night, several others answer back. Sometimes the roosters will go off, followed by the wild dogs, and joined by donkeys, in that or any other order, and you recognize how many of them must be hidden away behind the houses like those behind my neighbour’s house.

There are many stray cats, so their fights and romps are added, often a hair-raising cat yeowl starts just when the other animals have settled down and you are drifting to sleep.

Sometimes goats, sheep, and a cow join the animal mix. There seems to have been a recent addition of a lone sheep in a neighbour’s house, I haven’t seen it, only heard it, and suspect it may be an early start to fattening for the feast following Ramadan.

Habibi has not minded any of the animal sounds; though I thought the donkeys would scare her she actually likes them, and sneaks out of the front yard if I don’t watch her, for a closer look at the donkeys parked behind and beside my two neighbour’s houses.

Egyptians are keen conversationalists and can get loud as well as lively, and if you don’t understand the Arabic or Siwan, can sound like they are having arguments even if they are only discussions. No-one holds back on yelling across a street repeatedly to get the attention of someone passing, or pounding on front doors and calling an occupant, so you are always hearing names being called loudly. And as I walk down the streets there is invariably a chorus of “Susana, Susana” from the children. It is still unusual for them to see a grown up woman walking around uncovered, or rather one who is no longer a briefly visiting tourist, but living with them.

Weddings happen every few days and the celebrations spread over about three nights, with tents sometimes pitched across a street to accommodate the men who gather and eat together, and electric lights, often flashing and multicoloured, strung from the house of the betrothed. The young girls wear their elaborate, sparkle and lace covered dresses, hair in two plaits and tied with red ribbons, jewellery, and henna painted hands and feet, and wander outside the house. The men and women and children pile into separate open back trucks and speed around town, singing and playing drums, and letting off fire crackers. They are often accompanied by a string of young men on their motorbikes, and it is safer to step off the street when you hear the sounds of a wedding party coming, to avoid the weaving and speeding bikes.

Singing can be heard at other times, the young girls singing rhymes as they walk down the street in small groups, often groups of sisters and cousins or neighbours (sometimes those groups are the same, as many people live close to their immediate family); or men sitting in doorways softly chanting the Koran or even a popular song, or sometimes sweet songs from young men working nearby, whose voices have not yet broken. There is one boy near my house who would be a candidate as for the Kings College choir, so beautiful is his solo singing. I am sure he has no idea how much pleasure it gives me to hear his songs echo in the concrete stairwell of the apartments under construction opposite my place, as I sit hidden behind the shutters typing.

Sometimes a harsher amplified voice repeats an advertising call, as a truck passes through selling anything from clothes to fruit to baby ducks or chickens. The callers usually sound weary of repeating their call, never enticing, and when you don’t understand what they are saying the call can have a metallic, militaristic, almost threatening tone, as though you are being warned against something rather than encouraged to buy something soft and sweet as a duckling. I am sure once I know what they are selling, the calls will lure me out rather than make me cringe as they do now when they break through a still moment.

The calls to prayer signal to me the passing of the day, and that it is time for me to do this or that – go to get food, wind down working, or take a break away from the computer for lunch. On Friday the standard calls to prayer are joined by the major mid day service. As I have a mosque one minute walk away I get to hear this clearly through the kitchen and bathroom windows. I have become used to the rise and fall of the voices, the sermon and call and response is just like that in the Christian tradition I was brought up in, or that in other faiths I have been fortunate to experience. The sermon itself can be forcefully voiced, but no more so than some of the ranting I have heard from some Christian pulpits. As with any religion, sometimes the sermon has moments of beauty, as among the words I recognize words in Arabic are those that impress on the listeners how important living a good life is, and the distractions of some things in the world that we should be watchful of, and the need to care for others. Even with my beginnings of Arabic, between the exhortations of the imam I can distinguish the softer appeals to our better nature, mine as well as those gathered inside the mosque.

Before and after each prayer time there is the shuffle of feet and bubble of conversations between the men walking to mosque, and many one sided conversations on mobile phones which have been turned back on after leaving prayers, as the day’s business dealings and family demands are resumed.

Happy noises include the sound of the neighbour’s girls at my door, often led by the two year old calling “Bibi, Bibi” because she wants to see my cat. The eldest daughter is high spirited and happy to talk with me in our broken language, and has her eyes on a young man who lives nearby, so we exchange the news of the day and sometimes little updates on our men; she likes T, who is like an uncle to her, and she knows I miss him and she misses his jokes and teasing as well.

I am missing the sounds of T in the house, from his drumming at the door when he arrives home, to the sounds of him making Siwa tea on the gas burner, pouring the tea from small pot to glasses and back. I don’t drink as much tea when he is not here, and it is mostly tea bag tea because making Siwa tea for just one seems a lonely task. I miss his laugh, and even his inability to sing in tune. While Habibi misses T but she does not miss the level he liked to play music at (which we do to unwind in the evenings as I don’t have a TV, the usual preference for evening entertainment since it reached Siwa in the late 1980s). I was used to playing music at a low level as Habibi does not like it loud, and she just moves to another room when T. takes over the volume control.

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