Jerusalem soundscape

When there are more mobile phones than people, one is constantly exposed to the fury and the intimacy of one side of an exchange.

The yowl of cats fills the night air as a pair of feral moggies, with arched backs, stand their ground eyeball to eyeball, whisker to whisker. It is a fearful sound that I've never heard voiced with such intensity as here in Jerusalem. Just one of the many new sounds that I've had to assimilate as part of my melding into life here since I made aliya from the UK a year ago. At about five in the morning, as night first lifts from the sky, the low resonance of a distant muezzin can just be discerned. A poignant reminder of where I am and with whom I share the Jerusalem soundscape. In the morning as I race to work, I'm regularly greeted by the swooping squawks of parakeets as they trail their verdant tail feathers through nearby trees. Not indigenous birds but descendants of escapees who found Jerusalem, rather like the cats, a hospitable breeding ground. Does one day pass without the whine of a siren penetrating through one's deepest, innermost self? An ambulance. We let it register without a conspicuous flicker of awareness. Conversations continue, a second siren and the tension is palpable. One ambulance is a woman in labor or a heart attack. Two ambulances a road accident. More than two... it's a suicide bombing. That's the Jerusalem adage I was taught soon after arriving. I well remember the day I went to Givat Ram. The sound of the ambulances reverberated through the valleys, their wailing drone trapped by the hills around. I didn't need to be told that this was the accompaniment to tragedy and disaster a suicide bombing in French Hill. And tonight a sudden loud sustained bang, and our conversation was punctuated by an inappropriate comma while we scanned an internal database of sounds. Possibly ... fireworks. In England the sky was only filled with these explosive sounds on one night of the year, November 5th a night that commemorates the foiling of a plot led by the Catholic Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. A cascade of similar booms and bangs followed, confirming the fireworks hypothesis. In my early months here I found it difficult to understand why there were so many nights of fireworks when they produced sounds that are so close to life-destroying explosions. But then here perhaps we are determined to prove that life really does go on as usual or even more so. There are the meaningful silences too, and silence has its own subtle inflections. On Shabbat as the traffic diminishes, the stillness is filled with the heartfelt melodies from the yeshiva across the road. And of course the commencement of the Sabbath itself is heralded by the single tone of a siren, the same tone as signalled the relief of an "all clear" in wartime, and the familiar sound which announces those minutes of silence at times of remembrance throughout the year. Life in home and street is forever being intruded upon by the insistent noise of irritable car horns a sound that reaches fever pitch if the road is rendered temporarily impassable by a taxi or bus picking up or letting down a passenger. There are the piercing beeps when metal detectors pick up a pocketed ring of keys or mobile phone. And then there are the ubiquitous mobile phones. In a nation where there are more mobile phones than people I am constantly exposed to the fury and the intimacy of one side of an exchange. Never before have I been privy to so many private lives. The public use of the mobile phone in my part of England would have been regarded as highly indiscreet. Of course I can only eavesdrop on the English speakers, but they seem as uninhibited and passionate as I imagine the Israelis to be. That brings me to perhaps the most pervasive sounds that reach my unaccustomed ears the cadences, new and mysterious, of the Hebrew language. In the first months strings of words merged into a continuum of incomprehensibility. The radio station Reshet Aleph has become my nighttime companion in an attempt to train my ear to transform the seamless stream of sounds I hear into distinct word packages. A useful way of filling the hours of my habitual insomnia. And then one morning my half-sleep was stirred by a rhythm and poetic pattern of sounds. I listened entranced. The item was announced and I realized I had been listening to a reading of a poem by Yehuda Amichai. The beauty of his language had transcended my complete ignorance of content. I'm still a regular nocturnal listener to Reshet Alef and can now identify words I understand, but they hang like beads strung far apart on an invisible thread there is too little understood to make sense of the whole. And so I am forced to continue living in a sea of sounds endlessly mouthed at me and leaving me washed over by total ignorance. There is, however, the unbounded pleasure of hearing my children chattering in Ivrit. My aliya was for their future, and to hear them merging into Israeli society is a great joy. They are on a path of truly belonging to this country of ours. For them, my prayer and hope is of a Jerusalem soundscape of familiarity that holds no fears.