CAIRO — Cairo is not exactly a city of peaceful strolls and chirping birds. In this metropolis of 13 million people, the din of honking cars, screaming vendors, blaring mosque loudspeakers, and roaring buses can be unbearable.
"Sometimes it's like a bomb exploding," says Michel George Michael, a French teacher at a university who lives in the densely populated Shoubra neighborhood. "This noise hasn't an end. It continues all day."
In fact, Cairo's noise leads to lower productivity and health problems, according to Sohair Mehanna, an environment and health specialist at the Social Research Institute at the American University in Cairo. With noise reaching the 80 decibel level, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would liken Cairo's racket to a diesel truck revving only 50 feet away.
Now the Egyptian government is doing something about rising noise levels. It will launch a major antinoise campaign beginning early next year:
*The blaring of horns typical of many trucks and buses will be banned, with violators facing a $150 fine and the confiscation of their horns. Car drivers will face a similar fate if they honk excessively between 12 midnight and 6 a.m. - or even once in designated hospital zones.
*Many mosques will be able to use their loudspeakers only to call people to prayer, not to blast their sermons into the streets.
*The government will support its efforts with an antinoise publicity campaign, including the dispatch of schoolchildren into the streets to wave signs with crossed-out horns at honkers.
The antinoise campaign begun by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) started in the early 1990s, as part of a comprehensive program to stop all forms of pollution in Egypt, including air, water, and solid waste.
According to a 1995 law, the loudest industries and activities have three years to quiet down to 55 decibels. The EEAA will assist by suggesting ways to lower the noise. But if the offenders don't comply by 1998, they will be shut down, fined, and taken to court.
It will not be easy to stifle a city where noise is part of the culture. Drivers honk constantly to caution pedestrians, attract riders, or just out of habit. Loud midnight conversations on the streets are commonplace. Children play soccer at 4 a.m. Muslim religious leaders blast out their sermons throughout the day and schools blare the national anthem, while students sing along. A family looking for a quiet place to picnic or a business executive needing a tranquil stroll to wind down would be hard-pressed to find such a place.
EEAA head Saleh Hafez says in the long run the city can change. "In Europe, if you honk your horn, people will [criticize] you," he says. "We want to develop such a community here, gradually - we can't do this overnight." Mr. Hafez hopes by the end of 1997 Cairo's residents will begin to experience a more tranquil Cairo.
As part of its antinoise campaign, the government monitored noise levels throughout Cairo. One of the loudest areas is Cairo's Attaba Square. The square, in a popular, central locale with cafes spilling onto the streets, shoppers looking for bargains in stores, and traffic and honking from the convergence of several major streets, measured 82 decibels.
The lower-class district of Shoubra Al-Kheima measured 73, equal to the roar of a lawn mower at 100 feet, according to the FAA.
Most environmentalists supported the antinoise campaign. "In one year, noise cannot be stopped, but we have time and we must start and support the EEAA in their plan to impose a quieter city," says Magdy Allam, secretary general of the Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations Steering Committee.
While fighting noise is not as important as improving Cairo's air or water, environmentalists say, a victory will aid other efforts to clean up Cairo. "Any success in the war against pollution is positive, because it builds a sense among the public that things can be improved," says one Western environmental specialist. "The ordinary citizen can't tell how much his health is improved by less air pollution, but he can certainly feel if there is ... less noise."