Mansoura Ez-Eldin: ‘The Limbo of Sounds’

Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez-Eldin is in Shanghai, China until the end of August, working on a new project. She wrote this in Shanghai:

By Mansoura Ez-Eldin

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”

(Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities)

The author in Shanghai.

Back in 2004, when I travelled to Munich, it was my first time to go abroad. I was familiar with western culture through reading, watching movies, and having many western friends, so I dare say there was no culture shock except for the absence of noise.

Munich seemed to me a mute city. Of course there’s no such thing as a mute city, but this was what I felt at the time.

For me, the silence of Munich was intense, thick, and deep. I was almost able to touch it. It had a color, a scent, and a flavor. It was emerald green, cinnamon scented and with a tart-sour taste that resembled unripe peaches.

What bothered me was that I’ve always hated any cinnamon-related stuff and green peaches have always called up all sorts of unpleasant memories. So, it was natural to feel a bit uncomfortable, even though I loved that beautiful metropolis.

When I recall my first encounter with Munich now, I realize that Munich is not mute. It has its share of clamor and noise. I revisited it twice afterwards and immersed myself in its sounds, colors, and scents. I had my very own version of the city, a version that helped me to learn more about the sound and fury of Cairo; my noise-inventing machine of a city.

Since childhood, most of my fears had originated from sounds. For me, every sound was a coded message; every noise was pregnant with possibilities; terrifying possibilities.

I’ve always lived waiting for something to happen. I’ve always been expecting an earthquake to hit my world; an earthquake of chaos and noise or maybe dead silence.

I always had a sharp memory. At some points in my life, I preferred to live there; I mean in my memories. I knew full well that nostalgia falsifies the past, but I loved to be immersed in the scenes, fragrances, and tastes of my childhood.

This is the way my memory works; it provides me with a stream of scented, flavored, visual memories. For some mysterious reason, it chooses to eliminate sounds and voices, especially when it comes to foreign cities. I tend to totally forget the sounds of these cities and remember only silent streets, squares, gardens, and markets.

But Cairo can’t be soundless. Every city has its own talent, and my bittersweet old city is very talented in inventing noise.

While walking the streets of Cairo, I love to imagine it as a limbo of sounds and chaos, a black hole that attracts every voice and whisper to recycle them into cries or laughter, ambiguous music or moans of agony, according to its own state of mind. I like to think that this is the way in which the city conveys what it feels.

It is hugely inspiring to think of Cairo as a human being who could express her joy and sorrow eloquently to whoever might be able to decipher her codes.

I’ve always believed that one of my roles as a writer is to interpret these feelings, to make sense of them and turn them into a sensible, logical language.

I’ve always aspired to master the secret language of my city, or to be more precise, I’ve always longed to be one with my city.

In an old dream, I merged with Cairo. We formed one mythical creature, but, at the same time, I was completely aware of my individuality. The sounds of my city were like an audio background to my dreamy world. I wanted my voice to blend in well with this audio background that usurped my mind long ago, but in vain. My own voice stayed aloof and unreachable.

In the landscape of my dream, my life was an abandoned island, my memory was a haunted house, a dark haunted house inhabited only by ghosts and deafening sounds, and Cairo was a stony space with no plants, birds, or human beings.

In my mind, my magnificent city with its great history and glorious past was reduced to moans and cries of agony. These moans were not a figment of my imagination, they were truer than life itself. They were trailing behind me, trying—maybe—to remind me of the suffering of non-existent others.

Some details leave no traces in the mind, other details haunt it. My dream haunted me. I felt as though its audio background inhabited my soul and mind for good.

Every time I reconsider that dream, I recognize Cairo’s true mixed sounds of clashes, chants, screams, and in it laughter.

The noise of bullets and violence died away. It no longer exists in reality, but it lingers in my subconscious and refuses to fade easily away.

Sometimes I ask myself: Where did Cairo’s clamor, during the last few years, go? How did my memory manage to get rid of it?

It was not a chimera. It can’t be swallowed by the void. There must be a limbo of sorts that attracts only sounds and traps them there, in its cold dark bottom.

Much to my chagrin this imaginary limbo could be my soul.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin is an award-winning novelist and cultural critic currently at a writers’ retreat in Shanghai. She was received a number of honors, including: being chosen as one of the “Beirut 39” in 2009; having her Beyond Paradise shortlisted for the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction; and seeing her Emerald Mountain win the “best novel prize” at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2014. Maryam’s Maze is the only one of her novels available in English, translated by Paul Starkey, although you can also read Wiam al-Tamami’s translation of her “Gothic Night” on Granta. You can find her online at