by Brooke Anderson

The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

August 25, 2011

BEIRUT: As a taxi goes past a nightclub blasting music, the driver honks loudly to make sure potential customers hear him. Meanwhile passersby have their mobile phone volumes on high to make sure they can hear any incoming calls on Beirut’s noisy streets.

And so goes the competition to be heard, as noisemakers drown each other out, leaving many to wonder when or how it will end. With the city’s ongoing construction, boom in tourism and heavy traffic, there appears to be no respite.

“The problem in Beirut is that noise is everywhere, so you don’t feel it directly. You feel nervous and angry, and you don’t know why,” says Khaled al-Akhras, an engineering student at the American University of Beirut.

“If I don’t travel for a few months, then I feel tense.”

As time goes by it only appears to be getting worse.

Two years ago residents of Gemmayzeh took to the streets in their pajamas to demand an end to local bars and restaurants keeping them awake until the early hours of the morning. Less than a week later, the government closed more than 15 unlicensed pubs and restaurants, and a couple of days after that a curfew was imposed on the neighborhood’s eating establishments – 11:30 p.m. on weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends. And then street signs began appearing noting “Gemmayzeh is a residential area.”

Although restrictions have gradually eased since then, residents continue to complain about the noise caused by late-night revelers and the traffic they bring to their narrow streets. The controversy has led a number of bars, as well as customers to move across town to Hamra. Until recently the university district has been known for its coffee shops, but now with the new bars and concomitant traffic Hamra might have surpassed Gemmayzeh in its level of late-night noise.

Last year, AUB visiting professor Marjaneh Fooladi from the Hariri School of Nursing did a study and suggested proposals to mitigate noise pollution, which has been found to cause stress, irritability, anxiety and insomnia. She suggested that offenders of habitual honking, generator use and construction noise in Beirut be fined.

Fooladi noted that “because Beirut is a city where commercial and residential zones are in the same place, drivers must realize that unnecessary horn honking echoes in homes where families sleep and rest.”

She found that adults under stress manifest socially unacceptable behavior in the presence of children by honking horns and speaking foul language, and children helplessly watch their parents and copy them. Fooladi said that “this vicious cycle must be broken.”

Lebanon has virtually no rules restricting noise levels. Those that do exist, such as construction work only being done during the daytime, are rarely enforced. And when the law is laid down, such as in Gemmayzeh, merchants say they suffer loss of business.

“There hasn’t been a solution to the problem in Gemmayzeh. All the bars are going out of business,” says Paddy Cochrane, managing partner of the Alleyway, a cluster of small businesses just off Gouraud, Gemmayzeh’s main street, and himself a neighborhood resident. “Gemmayzeh quieted down in an unnatural way.”

The anti-noise movement in the West started in the 1970s, when researchers began publishing reports about the health effects of noise and what the public can do about it. “The Fight for Quiet,” a book written by Theodore Berland in 1970, led to the passage of the Noise Control Act of 1972. Today, in the U.S. and other developed countries, there are thousands of acoustical engineers working to reduce noise levels, says Ted Rueter, director of Noise Free America. Developing countries on the other hand tend to place “an excessive focus on economic growth.”

In Lebanon, on the other hand, “there’s a generation that doesn’t care about noise,” says Dr. Elias El-Basha, a neurosurgeon who specializes in sleeping disorders.

“Lebanese don’t have time to concentrate on these things. In Manchester, you don’t flush the toilet in the middle of the night because you don’t want to wake up the neighbors,” said El-Basha, who studied in the United Kingdom before returning to his home country in the mid-1970s.

He says that Beirut’s noisiness affects people’s sleep and subsequently affects them psychologically and physiologically. “It affects productivity and concentration, and in the long-run it will have psychological disturbances, such as depression and forgetfulness.”

Until things change, to get a better night’s sleep in Beirut, El-Basha suggests residents install double-glazed glass windows to reduce the impact of the sometimes noxious sounds.

But having a window as a sound barrier is little comfort for Marwan Faour, a financial analyst who lives in Ramel Bayda, next door to a construction site that sometimes wakes him up at 6 a.m.

Until things change, Beirut residents will continue to find creative ways to cope with the city’s noise.

“When I came here seven years ago, I thought it was the noisiest place on earth,” recalls Cochrane, who moved to Beirut from Ireland. “Now I don’t notice it. Maybe I’ve become desensitized.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 25, 2011, on page 12.