Onomatopoeia of Beirut

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An elderly man peers out of his window in Beirut's historical Zqaq al-Blatt neighborhood. Al-Akhbar/Marwan Tahtah

By: Fatima Hanan Elreda

Published Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Close your eyes. Now listen. Can you hear it? It’s the music of Beirut.

Onomatopoeia in its endless variations reverberates through the city; construction workers striking their hammers, street vendors advertising their prices, customers bargaining, beggars pleading with you to spare some change, high-heels clacking on the pavement, cameras flashing and clicking, and cell phones ringing. These are but notes in the Beirut symphony.

The intricacies of urban life play out on Hamra Street, an address loved and loathed that can be set as a paradigm. Long-time-no-sees are mumbled, books are dropped, strangers bump into each other, sorrys and thank yous are exchanged, keys jingle, coffee is sipped and spilled.

Wind chimes tinkle against sliding doors, a mix of accents and languages break the predominance of “Lebanese” Arabic. Cash registers ca-ching at the bookstore, the hands of time tick-tock along.

The commotion of day-to-day activities is almost always perceived as an unbearable disturbance especially when the tractors start to roar, engines rev, radios blast, and horns honk, as if the sound wave will actually push the line of jammed cars out of the way.

“The city can taste bittersweet. Sometimes it’s too loud. It disturbs you and you can’t do anything about it because it’s out of your control,” says my friend Maryam, a Hamra resident.

Thoughts can be heard out loud, the soft music of Fairuz in the background, and the sound of gurgling hookahs pollute the stillness of a restaurant. That and the clanging pots and pans, clinking forks and knives, rumbling stomachs, sizzling fries, sloshing drinks, as yums and yucks critique the kitchen’s performance. Well maybe it is not so quiet a place. Consider the humming of conversations. This is what Maryam likes about the noise — it adds character to the ambiance.

Caged birds chirp in the melancholy solitude of their displacement. They are the refugees of a city where urbanization has chopped off the branches they call home. The itinerant fortune tellers murmur their prophecies to pedestrians while brass containers and cups ring out on the Corniche.

No. She cannot imagine Beirut without sounds. It wouldn’t be the same city, it wouldn’t be Beirut. “That would be more disturbing than having too much sound. I think it would be like a ghost city. You’d hear your own thoughts out loud. Your thoughts would be toned up a million times.”

Tamer Orabi begs to differ. He says “there’s no break.” What angers him most is that there’s nothing he can do about the noise. Those honking cars have disrupted too many afternoon naps.

Do you like any of the sounds in Hamra? He pauses. No. Tamer is inflexible in his opinion. That is, until the question is altered. He reconsiders. It’s just that the noise submerges the sounds that can be beautiful.

Now it’s your turn, can you imagine Beirut muted?

It’s not Beethoven or Bach but it is a melody of existence. Different notes rise and fall, some are high-pitched, others are too low to be perceived by the unmindful ear. Between the rhythm and chaos there is an orchestra of everyday life. You just have to listen carefully.

Fatima Hanan Elreda is a news editor at al-Etejah TV. She has a BA in journalism from the Lebanese International University and is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature at the Lebanese University.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar English's editorial policy. If you would like to submit a thoughtful response to one of our opinion pieces, send your contribution to our submissions editor.

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