How To Disappear In Cairo's Eternal Cacophony

Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany's latest work offers a novel approach to dealing with the capital's overwhelming excess of aural stimulation.

Inside Cairo's bustling Khan el-Khalili souk
Inside Cairo's bustling Khan el-Khalili souk
Laura Cugusi

CAIRO — It is almost impossible to isolate oneself from the infinite sonorous manifestations of urban life in Cairo and find refuge in a place that is empty of noise.

Even in the intimate space of a private apartment, the outside world mysteriously finds a way to reach your ear and hit your senses, disturbing, entertaining and confronting you with unexpected appearances and uncomfortable questions 24/7. We can choose what not to listen to, but we have less control over what we want to hear.

Writer Haytham El Wardany's latest work ironically attempts to provide an original strategy to deal with this often overwhelming excess of aural stimulation.

Through a series of mental exercises capable of inducing a subtle, temporary alteration of consciousness, Kayfa takhtafy ("How to disappear") extracts the reader from the daily urban cacophony, forcing her to sharpen the senses and identify, pull apart (disassemble), and gradually re-assemble the elements that compose the surrounding soundscape, in which the “self” is lost between the awareness of the present and the presence of the elsewhere.

The manual leads the reader through a perceptive journey across the borders between the here and now, personal memories, history, and imagination, challenging her to an internal dialogue with the fragmented voices of consciousness.

“How to disappear” is the first in a series of art publications named Kayfata ("How to"), curated by artist-curators Maha Maamoun and Ala Younis.

The Kayfa ta series was conceived as an alternative way to respond to society's perceived needs, explored through periodic conversations with diverse groups of people around collective issues and current events concerning — but not limited to — the present time in Egypt and in the region.

In the particular case of Cairo's troubled past, an intensity of experience has inevitably had a numbing effect on many. “Disappearing” and focusing on the act of listening means, in a way, to slow down and temporarily escape the permanent state of visual distraction and the urgency of contemporary urban life to gain distance from the automatic mechanisms through which we individually and collectively experience public space.

For the past couple of years El Wardany and Maamoun have shared a common interest in the overlooked act of listening and the human ear, specifically the threshold between the intentionality or inevitability of accepting and rejecting.

“Like a balcony,” El Wardany says, “the ear is simultaneously inside and outside, and listening can turn into a special mode of interaction with our surroundings, so different from seeing and being seen.”

They also share an interest in experimenting with different genres in writing without sticking to a particular form.

As media and entertainment industries struggle to catch the public’s attention, drowned in a constant flood of news, there has been an exponential diffusion of the “how to,” self help and tutorial format. This format works, as people increasingly demand easy answers and half-digested information in order to face the most diverse life challenges, from cooking to building a 3D printer, to forgetting the person who broke your heart.

Kayfa ta's ironic reinterpretation of the mainstream genre is an interesting tactic to introduce an unusual art object in an ordinary context.

“That is why we used a Trojan horse as logo for the series,” said Maamoun. “We wanted people to access artworks out of their usual context of exhibitions and galleries. Disguise it, subvert the expectation, and create surprise.” The logo is designed by artist Doa Ali.

The book was introduced at CIC’s current show, Meeting Points 7, but was also made available — and initially conceived — to be sold in libraries and newsstands. One hundred and fifteen copies were sold in only a few days at the Maadi bookshop Kotob Khan, and there will be a second edition soon.

The book's simple, accessible language (both in its English and Arabic editions, even though it was conceived in Arabic, like the rest of the projected series) and minimal yet intriguing design make it appealing to diverse audiences.

“I enjoyed the opportunity to work in an art context without the editorial restrictions of book publishers that need authors to stick to a genre, in order to frame the content into a set of expectations to attract the general public,” says El Wardany, whose writing practice lies mostly in journalism and literature.

The tone of the manual fluctuates between the mundane and practical to the philosophical and poetic.

The book is asymmetrically divided into two sections. The link between the two would appear weak if it weren't for the common thread of aural experience, one internal, pragmatic and active, and the other external, passive and reflective. But it can be seen as a strength if the author and curators' intention was to destabilize and unsettle expectations about form and content.

The aural exercises are followed by an Annex consisting of a list of keywords broadly referring to what the author calls “the miseries of the middle class.” This glossary turns out to be a collection of stories that many long-term residents of central Cairo will immediately find familiar and inevitably visualize as short film scripts.

Somewhere we hear a woman getting out of control, screaming violently at her children who are not ready for school. An angry man turns the house upside down as he complains that he cannot find something important that belongs to him. A boy's name is being called incessantly from a window until the calling stops and we know he must have finally appeared. A motorcycle engine sputters, moving away to the next errand. Kids are imprisoned in apartments full of bulky furniture; their only freedom is to make noise, until something topples — a sound limit is crossed and an unwritten contract breaks.

The tensions, social struggles and class inequalities that can be masked and hidden from sight are made evident through noises and voices that are hard to ignore. We start to wonder about the many reasons why that man must be so frustrated, or how many hours the delivery guy spent in traffic.

The tensions, social struggles and class inequalities that can be masked and hidden from sight are made evident through noises and voices that are hard to ignore.

The Annex’s short stories are critical to a certain idea of the “middle class,” or those reactionaries who usually benefit from the staticity of the political situation and lack of change. A social class that is particularly concerned with establishing, maintaining and defending borders.

For many, Cairo's overwhelming soundscape is simply unbearable to deal with on a daily basis, so that — those who can afford it — do everything they can to keep the excess of stimulation (and information) under control by “abolishing the outside ... the ultimate source of danger,” carving out an artificial, protected space indoors, shielded by the safe and steady hum of air conditioning units.

In the chapter titled “Panic,” we are reminded of how precarious this apparent stability is, like in the days “when the city was left to look after itself” and the disrupting sound of revolt burst into the comfort of middle-class homes, leaving so many still wondering: “Are those real voices or has madness turned the backing track of news reports into an echo chamber of chanting in our heads?”

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

➡️


"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more Chicago Bulls or running of the bulls? Let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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