The languages of the streets

Having recently returned from a trip to Egypt, I can assure you that the languages there are quite different from ours. Duh, you may be saying now, since the primary language there is Arabic, and the old language was written in hieroglyphics. But the languages of the streets, especially in Cairo, run as deep and as varied as the channels of the Nile.

Some of the street languages are what you’d might expect. Vendors are everywhere, for example, hawking everything from little pyramids made of stone to friendship bracelets made of plastic beads. They cry out, “Brother! Cousin! My lady!” as you walk by them; one guy even yelled out “Hey, cowboy!” when Mark wore his (Canadian-made) Tilley hat one day. Too, five times a day you hear the muezzin calling faithful Muslims to prayer. And engines are everywhere. Cars, trucks, buses, minivans, tuk tuks, and heaven knows what other vehicles careen through the streets, passing each other with mere centimeters to spare and blithely ignoring lane lines, traffic signs, and the few stop lights that dot the Egyptian roadways. It’s an urban symphony.

But the streets also have languages that we don’t recognize, much less understand. Our guide in Alexandria opened our ears to one such tongue when he asked us to listen to the rhythm of the horns being blown by various vehicles. Sure, some blasts were your run-of-the-mill outraged lean on the horn, expressing indignation at some irksome maneuver by another driver. But if you listened carefully, you could hear that a few patterns were repeated by multiple vehicles. Our guide explained that those patterns had specific meanings. One series, for example, bleated out the rhythm of the words “I love you” in Arabic; drivers honk this out at attractive women. (Sigh.) The only sequence I remember, though, is four short blasts, one long one, and one short one. This is the cadence of someone saying “Son of an —-hole” in Arabic. I decided to learn that one because it might come in handy someday on Interstate 35. Travel is so broadening.

The other street language we learned about involved hand signals instead of horns. To understand this one, you need a little background information. For one thing, many people ride minibuses that run regular, self-appointed routes. One minibus might, for example, go up and back from Tahrir Square to the municipal building where residents pay their water bills. For another thing, people walk in the streets, hail transportation from the streets, and have long conversations in the streets. Sidewalks are for sissies and for parking cars on. Go figure. Anyway, people who want to grab a minibus that is going on the municipal building route stand in the street and make a pumping motion with their hands. The driver of the minibus keeps an eye out for this signal, stops to pick up the passenger, and everyone goes on their way. (Apparently the sign for a ride to the pyramids is to make a little triangle with your thumbs and forefingers, which I thought was rather cute.) Mind you, the driver is doing all of this while navigating the maelstrom of Egyptian traffic, smoking, and talking on a cell phone – all at the same time. It’s no wonder these people were able to build the pyramids; they appear to have six or seven hands apiece, all of which are busy at any given time.

So if you’re lucky enough to get to travel to Egypt, be sure and keep an eye and an ear out for the language of the streets. The country has much to say, if only we know how to listen.

4 thoughts on “The languages of the streets

  1. Your trip pix are wonderful; it looks and sounds like it was an awesome trip! This blog entry is fascinating, especially about the vehicle horns! No guide gave us that bit of info when we were there — I love it! Don’t you think the frenzy of the bazaars is like that of a beehive? A million things going on at once! I wondered: does anyone in Egypt ever slow down? 🤔 But oh, what an experience!


  2. The bazaars are indeed like a beehive, although I’d rather have honey than most of the tourist tat! We were lucky to have great guides. Both had Masters degrees in Egyptology, and our tour manager is working on his PhD.


  3. Classic Kathy: “….decided to learn that one because it might come in handy on Interstate 35. Travel is so broadening.” Still laughing my beep-beep off.
    P.S. John has turned every shade of green following your trip.


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