Soundscapes of Amman
Urban Crossroads #17

A professor of mine as a university student once made a very interesting remark about the manner in which people describe cities. He noted that we emphasize visual descriptions of the city, and suggested that we also should consider describing cities through senses other than sight, as with examining the sounds or even smells of the city. This is partly what I will attempt here, to provide a description of Amman and its activities through its sounds, i.e. describe its soundscapes.

Most would agree that there are pleasant natural sounds that we accept and even welcome: the chirping of birds or the sound of leaves moving in the breeze. There also are man-made sounds that contribute to giving urban centers their cultural identity: the call to the Muslim prayers, the ringing of church bells, or the chiming of a clock tower.

Beyond that, the sounds of the city often become sources of annoyance, or what is referred to as "noise pollution." This includes noises resulting from vehicular traffic: engines roaring and horns honking; or noises made by various types of machinery, specially those used in construction.

In Amman, we become most aware of the city's sounds during the summer, when we open our windows and also spend more time outside: on our balconies, in our gardens, or in the streets and spaces of the city.

Let me begin with the sounds of nature in Amman. In the early 1990s, my family moved to the house we currently occupy near the sixth circle. I was very surprised then that I could not hear the chirping of birds in the morning. That was because there weren't enough sizable trees to attract birds in what was then a newly built-up part of Amman. Fortunately, this has changed, and now there are enough sizable trees to bring in the birds. Since birds fortunately rise earlier than most human beings, the chirping of birds is the first thing we now hear in our neighborhood in the morning.

Unfortunately, the auditory situation quickly deteriorates as the day proceeds. The noises of traffic soon pick up. Amman also may be described as a never-ending construction site. Ever since we moved to our house, there always has been a building being constructed in our immediate vicinity. This means that one regularly is subjected to some sort of noise coming from construction machinery such as bulldozers and jackhammers.

Up to a few years ago, sellers of propane gas containers announced their presence through driving slowly in the streets of Amman and continuously honking the horns of their pickup trucks. The idea of ordering propane gas containers by phone has long been abandoned in Amman. The sellers of this product fortunately were required a few years ago to use soft music similar to what one hears from ice cream trucks instead of honking. The use of honking unfortunately is making a bit of a comeback because of lax enforcement. One at least hopes that consumers would penalize the propane gas vendors who resort to honking by not giving them their business.

Although the general situation described above is not ideal, it remains within a somewhat tolerable range. In fact, one price of living in an urban center is having to put up with the relatively high levels of noise pollution that accompany the diverse and intense activities taking place in the city. It is during summer nights, however, that all hell breaks loose in Amman when it comes to noise. In my neighborhood, the advent of nighttime often is accompanied by fireworks originating somewhere in the vicinity, usually connected to the opening ceremonies for some retail business or to a private celebration. Even though these fireworks have become regular occurrences, it always takes me a few moments to remind myself that I am not living in a war-zone, but that those deafening noises are only those of celebratory fireworks.

Of course, there also are the ubiquitous summer night celebrations taking place in banquet halls, hotels, private residence, and even in tents pitched up on vacant urban lots. These events, which extend well into the night, may be to celebrate an engagement, a wedding, or having someone barely pass their high school tawjihi exams. It is not unusual for these celebrations to be accompanied by the firing of live ammunition, a most annoying and dangerous habit that I am unable to comprehend. And of course, there is the deafening music accompanying these celebrations that comes out of speakers large enough to serve a stadium. Everyone in the area will get to hear the music loud and clear, even if they are a few kilometers away from its source. I would go as far as arguing that such music is even more aggravating than other forms of daily annoyances in Amman, such as bad driving or the lack of usable sidewalks. In the case of other annoyances, one at least can retreat from them into the privacy of one's home. The loud music, however, will follow you inside your own dwelling, as a rude and uninvited guest, and will stay for hours, usually well after mid-night.

Numerous authorities around the world view pollution in a holistic manner that includes air pollution, soil pollution, water pollution, visual pollution, and also noise pollution. Interestingly enough, legislation in Jordan specifically bans loud noises, including loud music, but I have yet to see such a ban implemented.

With the advent of autumn, we close our windows and spend less time outdoors. Also, many of the summer's noise making activities begin to diminish. Amman then becomes a quieter, calmer, and pleasanter place.

Cities are partially about a significant number of people living in proximity to each other. The closer people live to each other, the more do their daily actions affect their neighbors. We need to keep in mind that our freedoms end once expressing those freedoms tramples upon the rights of others. Noise pollution provides a clear example of this. One's freedom to make noise ends when it intrudes on the right of others to enjoy some peace and quiet.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 2, 2004