Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Sounds, Not of Silence

This morning I hear cicadas in some brief mating sojourn. I cannot see them, for there are few trees in Tucson, and this is where I would have looked for cicadas were I in the Midwest. Not that I want to see them. I have a real “poison-them-all” attitude toward flying things with hard shells. I hear the swamp cooler and two fans, whooshing. Occasionally, a bird, and Bodie, the cat, adjusting his position in a chair before the screen door. My fingers beating at the keyboard. Every fifteen minutes, the clock tower on the university campus, a mile from here, announces itself, so that it is difficult to lose track of time. I’m sure if I listened closely enough I could hear traffic from a few blocks away, but the cicadas rule.

It is strangely quiet in this flat, spare town. Or, it is strangely quiet in this neighborhood. Most of the students have not yet returned from summer break. Even when they return, quietness tends to prevail. I’ve noticed it more since joining the neighborhood listserv after burglaries began to increase here last year. Sometimes burglaries are reported, but most discussion of thievery is characterized by its possibility and emerges from the paranoia of two old women who cruise the alleyways in search of criminals (which they claim almost always wear hoodies and carry backpacks) and refuse to open their front doors if someone knocks, their fingers perpetually poised over 911. At least this is the way they report it on the listserv.

The quietness of this neighborhood is different than the tableau of silence I imagine at my parents’ house in Illinois. It wasn’t long ago that I thought of that place as perfectly silent, almost motionless, for, when I moved to my first real town, Decatur, the city sounds punctured, as did the city light, and I found it difficult for a while to sleep and focus. Of course, the silence of this countryside is a myth, for there is always at least the rustle of leaves, the buzzing of insects, the plethora of bird calls, not to mention the farm equipment and the trains in the valley, which pass at least once an hour.

This morning, I started to read Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage. It opens with a description of her childhood in a Cairo not yet populated by the eternal honking variations of vehicles. Rarely does she hear a car horn, and the family dog always hears a vehicle coming before she does. She describes sounds both invigorating and spiritually lonely – from a reed piper to the greetings of people on the street. In spite of the absence of cars, which are so prevalent in the Egypt I knew, I can relate to the feelings of life she captures – the hearty greetings, the bustle of small business – even individual – commerce, and the growth of plants and animals encouraged by the proximity of the Nile. But mostly, a sense that life was present and acknowledged, a feeling that the existence of others mattered. I don’t want to exaggerate since the Egyptians I knew often complained that people were just not as friendly or helpful to strangers as they used to be, and there were plenty of moments in Cairo where I felt like either just another anonymous part of the hoard or just another foreigner waiting to be parted from her riches. But these moments, in my memory, are counterbalanced by acts of kindness, not only those which happened to me but which I observed from a distance, moments that I think James and I have recorded quite often in this blog. And a texture to those acts of kindness that I haven’t often met back in America.

Silence is not really about absence as much as presence and acknowledgment. I could be silent in Cairo, where “noise pollution” is deadly high, in the sense that I could feel life. I don’t know if that makes sense, but this morning in Tucson I do not feel life, and the silence feels less like silence than something palpably sinister. Where are all the people? Why aren’t they calling out to each other, talking? They know each other, some of these people who have lived here for years, but there is a lifelessness, a huddling that too easily translates to suspicion. I see this in many places in America, even the place I am from, the place that I in most ways love the most, and it makes me wonder about the ways in which Americans are destroying the capacity to love each other. This sounds dire. It is dire. When we can be suspicious of the people across the street, how can it be possible for us to cultivate the capacity to know and understand someone who lives across the ocean? I know this feeling. I live behind a fence, and it is difficult to see my house. I enjoy that. There’s nothing inherently wrong with privacy or solitude. And I stood at my window in Cairo and looked down at the street far too often to claim that I was immersed in Cairene street life. But I admired many parts of that life. I am envious of it. I wish I knew how to live like that. I wish I could be more like the man I passed in Cairo one morning, eating a sandwich, who casually offered me a bite.


Art O.T. Grid said...

I can remember this conversation taking place in the media back in the 60's and 70's – that people had lost their sense of community, that communal caring and responsibility had been killed off by the suburban, auto-centric lifestyle, that we all stayed inside watching television instead of sitting out on the front porch or in the park, watching, and watching out for, each other. And now we can carry our screens with us, and plug our ears into a personal soundtrack. Assuming that we are not just sheep who mindlessly consume without ever considering the implications of our actions (a big assumption), it makes me wonder why we so easily give up what sounds culturally nourishing – the attention and generosity of our fellow humans. Are we overwhelmed and frightened by the danger and the largeness of the world? Was there a price to pay for the old ways that we've forgotten about?

Also: I think affluence tends to get in the way of the natural flow of human interaction because it allows people to do so much picking and choosing about who they come into contact with. And some of this may be related to the difference between the more reserved Northern European-influenced cultures and Egyptian/ Arabic societies with strong traditions of hospitality...

Anonymous said...

I just discovered your wonderful blog! I've read it, from the very first post to the most recent, over the last two days. I'm an American who's considering moving to Egypt, (at some point), and I have a couple of questions for you. Is there an e-mail address where I can contact you? (I apologize if I've overlooked it somewhere on your blog). Shoukran!