This piece was originally published in English and Arabic on PLATFORM SPACE ––view link.

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The more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive there; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972).

I am standing in the heart of one of Cairo’s most chaotic locations. A cacophony of sounds fills the air. Ramses Square captures my attention and disrupts my balance, as I feel overwhelmed by both its ferocious traffic noise and its erratic flow. People rush in and out of the gates of Ramses Train Station, their movement echoing the arriving and departing trains. I am trying to carefully navigate the square’s disorder but at the same time my brain is grappling with the influx of auditory input, too strident and too raucous to absorb. …

I am sitting on a staid chair facing my audiologist’s desk and computer screen. I have two wires attached to my scalp. I hear a loud beep but I don’t know where it’s coming from. I feel and hear a crinkle just a moment before my audiologist’s lips start moving before me.

“Reem, can you hear me?,” he asks.

I found myself floundering through my cackles to answer his genuine question, unable to hold back. In fact, the more I laughed, the louder it became and the funnier it got. …

My Anechoic Chamber

I woke up at 8pm in my ward bed to a room full of faces and no sounds at all. The bright neon lights did not really bother me nor did the tight painful bandage holding my stitched head together but only the silence that felt too paradoxical with my room crammed with faces. While the many lips jumbled and the hand gestures conferred, my brain still not ready to let go.

I could hear nothing at all.

Four months ago and before I turned 25, I found out that I would lose most of my hearing by the time I am thirty. I don’t recall dealing with it as a loss, rather as betrayal — I secretly made a deal with life to stay fit until I am 35 then my body can decompose altogether if it wishes. Technically, I was ready for one hit but then my world came crashing down before I realise it. Soon , my scared brain developed this night-time habit of playing sounds in my sleep, often brewed with my squeaky tinnitus but I did not mind it. There has a life-shuffle playing all the sounds my brain had ever stored; let that be giggles, old embarrassing songs from MP3 era, teta’s voice or demonstrations’ chants. I somehow appreciated the sweet memories of it but not the interrupted sleep. After that came the panic attacks over the fact that I would miss what a certain song sounds like when I am thirty. For the laughs, I thought I wanted to hear Massari’s Real Love. I played it that night at 2am and loathed my teenage music taste. …

I caught myself smiling so tenderly the moment my phone screen lit with baba’s text: “I have just landed. Where are you?”

I kind of laughed at his tone in the text. Where would I be, baba? Of course, I am waiting for you at the gate as we agreed. But that’s how meticulously formal my father could be. In that moment, I couldn’t dismiss the fact that my father and I hadn’t had a proper conversation since I left home. We have been in touch but we are also somewhat out of it. It suddenly hit me that I have missed him so much without even realising it. …

Is it happening?

It’s my first week in New York City and it’s a perfect tough one. I am not sure whether it is the city being harsher than I have known her or it is me being tough on myself.

I am still in this small apartment in Manhattan, I am wide awake all night trying so hard to make mental voice notes of all the recognizable sounds. If I am torn between listening to me soul-cringing tinnitus if I switch off my hearing aids and listening to the soul crushing shouting of the neighbors and passerby with their voices and breaths stinking with cheap booze and wine if I switch my hearing aids on. To avoid the tough choice I had to make for myself, I chose to listen to something I know I’d miss before Spring arrives. I played some of the voice notes my mom ever had to send. I replayed and replayed her voice, over and over until I almost didn’t know her voice anymore. Perhaps it’s the same theory where if one tells another too many ‘I love you’s, it loses its meanings. Perhaps it’s a neurological procedure beyond my understanding since I have been training as an architect — where a repetitive array of something might strip it of its autonomous aesthetic. …

I will readily admit, I have always thought these kinds of posts dorky (I still do), but I scribbled this in my diary this morning and I have no shame in posting it here. Part of why I decided to write it is realised that my twenty-fourth year in this world did consume too many diary pages than any other year of my life. I literally had to buy a second diary notebook to pour my heart out.

At 12:00AM, I am turning twenty-five.

It hit me that a few weeks back, I imagined this day so differently. But also, life doesn’t care about my plans. My birthday will come so soon and I will be waiting for this one text that’s probably not going to come. I shouldn’t be surprised because my life at twenty went so fast and was batshit crazy that I hardly had time to acknowledge what I have accomplished and learnt. …

I think of times where I sat at the same table with a group of amazing people and felt so absent. Even though aware of my surroundings — I heard their low frequencies, fluctuating pitches and giggles. I read their faces and their lips and body languages. I stared and tried to stay focused on putting together their speech puzzle . I smelled their booze breath and I struggled to be present before I floating out of context. I was there on the table. But also I wasn’t.

These times spent at dinner tables strummed with sound waves I cannot ride are supposed to be where I ride along and learn. They are chances of meeting new people, making connections and re-visiting social circles. It is essential for humans to connect with others even if the conversations are complaints about the weather or traffic. Actually, for me, during these times I am lethally disoriented, a whinny line about the weather would bring me back to the room. …

A year on, I am still living on the 12th floor of the same building where I lived with my two friends since I moved to Sharjah. The three of us occupied apartments of exactly the same layout, but scattered between even and odd floors. I was in the middle floor. I am nowhere now. They left the country the same year. We had exactly the same view. Now it is just mine.

From my very narrow bed, so narrow that everyone makes fun of its size, I gaze outside at the sunset. I see the creek and cranes. I see building blocks made of permanent reinforced concrete housed by temporary people and broken families. Recalling Hopper’s admiration for windows, I gaze at and outside mine every day in a monotonous manner. I never had visitors. I barely see anyone around at all. Laying over the glitchy bedsheet that mama brought me from home, I am thinking about the fact that I often befriend people so fast or befriend none at all. I don’t have a certain routine over there. I seldom do new things. I also seldom get a good sleep. …

During a busy college day, my friend and I went to the document services centre on campus to get a copy of our assignment document. Standing there, I saw my friend losing her temper with the man who works there because he was not very responsive. I asked her to calm down and just raise her voice a bit and speak clearly.

The man who works at the centre wears hearing aids, a very old-fashioned pair that I do not think most of the students know what is it; it has a wire attached to a box to be placed in one’s pocket. It kind of looks like the 90s walkman, and I think this is what students think it is. But I do know, I do know well it is not a walkman device. I do know well how this man needs a clear loud voice to be able to interact, that he needs to see moving lips to read them and he needs others to be understanding. …


Reem Khorshid

Architect and researcher, sometimes writer.

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