[Note from Patrick Cox: In Boston, where I live, honking is not considered a skill, and the car horn isn't much of a tool. Hitting the horn is a way of giving obnoxious voice to your frustration at the rest of the world as represented by the idiot who just cut you off. In Cairo, and in many other cities, drivers are more expressive and creative. They're also noisier: many Cairo drivers put in a louder horn when they get a new car. Below is reporter Julia Simon's take on car horn speech.]
I lived in Cairo a little more than two years and whenever I’d walk down the street and hear a honk, I thought was just a…honk. It turns out, that honk has a meaning.
The honk—four short bursts followed by a slightly longer one—means: “Open your Eyes.” It’s directed at people who aren’t paying attention. Or in the words of Hicham Uhmarey, a Cairo cabbie, people who are “crazy,” and not looking up.Uhmarey has been driving the streets for two decades. He says that in Egypt, honking is a language. Drivers combine short and long honks to make words, like Morse code. He says most drivers speak this language, not just taxi drivers.
Uhmarey took me for a cab ride around Cairo for a little lesson.
It probably won’t come as too much of a shock that a lot of the honks represent such descriptive swear words that I can’t translate them here. But the honks aren’t just for other drivers. Some are for women that drivers see walking on the street. There’s a special one for “I love you.” Honking is a male language.
Even so, some women do know they’re getting honked at. But they may not know whether the message is “I love you” or “Oh, beautiful woman.” To the untrained ear, they sound similar. What’s more, many of my female Egyptian friends don’t know any honks at all. Even among the few who drive, many haven’t gotten the chance to learn the honking language.
But I am proud to say that I am now officially a student of honk. Hicham Uhmarey confirms that I can now honk “I love you.”