Arabic Isn’t the Only Language Cairo’s Drivers Speak

A cityscape of Cairo centers on a traffic circle with an Egyptian flag in the middle. It shows the massive traffic jam taking place on the streets of the city.

With more than 20 million residents and millions of cars on the road, the Cairo metropolitan area is the largest in the Middle East and has one of the worst traffic congestion problems in the world. And it’s been that way for decades. Since 1950, the Egyptian capital has grown by more than 700 percent.

The constant traffic jams led locals to develop their own car honking language in the 1990s. As traffic got worse, drivers needed a standardized way to communicate a wide range of emotions amongst themselves. They began using different combinations of short and long honks to make words, similar to Morse Code. Knowledge of the car honking language spread in local coffee shops—"ahwa” in Arabic—where men meet to share the latest gossip.

In contrast with how drivers use their car horns in American cities, a lot of the messages shared in Cairo are positive. “Thank you,” the most common phrase communicated, consists of two short beeps. If you want to continue the positive thoughts, “take care” is expressed with one long honk. The phrase “I love you” consists of four short beeps, followed by one long one.

“I love you” may seem a little intimate for strangers behind the wheel, but Cairo’s drivers use it to deescalate tense situations or express appreciation when someone gives them the right of way. Drivers will also share their excitement for newlyweds by honking “congratulations” with a long combination of beeps.

If someone is crossing the street and not paying attention, they may hear a combination of beeps that means “Open your eyes.” Although most honks are positive, a few beep combinations translate to some of the common expletives you might hear on American roads.

For now, the car-honking language continues to be a way for locals to express themselves and stand out from the rest of the crowd in traffic jams.

Learn More:
This Secret Language Connects Strangers in Cairo