Our Cairo taxi driver was paying only cursory attention to the lane stripes as he zigged and swerved down the highway, but that wasn’t what was frightening me.
It was the fact that it was long past midnight, and he - like everyone else out on the road at that hour - was driving with his headlights off.
“Headlights are very, very bad, my friend,” he explained, turning around to face us in the back seat as his taxi careened down the dark highway at 50 mph. “They run down the battery.”
Every few seconds the driver tootled his horn, as did all the other motorists around him that night.
They were all flying blind, like bats, and using their horns as a form of automotive sonar.
The amazing thing was that it seemed to work - there were no collisions, not even a near-miss.
I thought about this the other day as I read of the Egyptian government’s new campaign to crack down on excessive honking in Cairo.
They might as well try to reverse the flow of the Nile, because no metropolis on Earth is so in love with the automobile horn.
When I close my eyes and think of the sounds of Cairo, I don’t hear clear-voiced muezzin (or their modern replacements, scratchy recordings) calling the faithful to prayer. I don’t hear water pipes burbling in the cafes, or fruit-sellers haggling in the markets.
What I hear is the ceaseless, insistent, cacophonous, deafening honking of car horns.
Cairo drivers honk to alert other motorists of their proximity, both at night and in the daytime. They honk at pedestrians darting across the road.
They honk a quick warning as they sail through red lights. They honk at drivers who may be thinking of cutting them off. They honk just for the heck of it, a nervous habit in a nervous city.
Near our hotel was a street lined with auto part stores, and my wife, Jeri, and I couldn’t help but notice that the window displays were dominated by bigger, louder, fancier horns. There were two-tone horns, horns that played tunes, shrieking horns, klaxon horns, foghorn-sounding horns, horns with enough sonic throw-weight to capture one’s attention amid all the other horns.
At one shop, I asked about the local habit of driving at night with one’s headlights off.
The owner told me that Egyptians believe headlights inevitably drain their batteries, whether their engine is running or not. With the awful alternators in most Egyptian autos, he said, they could very well be right.
In Cairo, the shop owner told me, the average car wears out three or four horns over the course of its life - but goes to the junkyard with its original headlights intact.
The louder replacement horns for sale in these shops are among the things the government is considering banning. There is also talk, according to news reports, of mandating a device that hushes horns after a short beep.
On the narrow, jam-packed streets in this city of 7 million, police soon will start handing out fines of up to $30 to excessive honkers - two weeks’ salary for the average Egyptian.
Perhaps it will work. Perhaps one day Cairo’s traffic will be as silent as the feluccas scudding across the Nile, or the hot afternoon breezes blowing in off the Arabian Desert.
As soothing as that sounds, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea.
The only thing scarier than driving at night with no headlights is driving at night with no headlights - and no horn.
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