Whistle While You Work

August 30, 2009

Soon after we moved into our apartment in Dubai, there were many times we noticed a noise which seemed to be coming from somewhere in front if our building. It was a familiar noise; that of a whistle being blown repeatedly. Now, this is not an unexpected noise in a city; the frequency of the whistling suggested a policeman directing traffic. But where the noise was originating from was a mystery. With the massive Metro construction project blocking almost all of the street in front of our building, the traffic is well directed by a standing army of concrete barriers, and quite restricted as to where it can flow. There would be little that a traffic cop would be able to do in such a situation. (Except maybe practice his whistle blowing, and they don’t seem to be that bureaucratically minded here.)

To deepen the mystery our initial attempts at locating the source of the whistling were repeatedly thwarted. At first we only heard it while in our apartment, and when we noticed it and went to the balcony to investigate further, it stopped before we could get a bead on exactly where it was issuing from. Kind of spooky. Later, I sometimes heard the whistling while I was out in the neighborhood running errands, but the high walls surrounding the construction area that was once a street prevented me from seeing where it came from. So it was several weeks before the mystery was finally solved.

One day while I was at home, I noticed the whistling had started up again. Knowing that my window of opportunity may be short, I hurried to the balcony, and scanned the area below. Happily, this time the whistling didn’t magically stop and after a few seconds I spotted the phantom whistler.

At that time there were still many large rectangular holes in the ground of the construction zone, and from our perch on the 8th story of our building we could see that these went down through the underground construction of the subway station below for at least 4 floors. The work was obviously continuing there in the depths, as evidenced by the drawing up of dirt and the lowering of construction supplies through these openings, which was accomplished by the use of several mobile cranes that were constantly on duty, the tops of their masts frequently sweeping past our windows.

Of course the operators of these cranes could not see down into the deep holes to know exactly where they delved or what might be in the way, and this would be a particular problem when lowering tools down into the gap. This is, of course, where the whistling came in.

My first glimpse of a whistling-wielding, crane-directing worker, revealed him leaning over the side of one of those large rectangular holes as a crane was lowering a bundle of rebar down. He waved to the operator while issuing a steady, staccato volley of whistling. There didn’t seem to be a particular meaning to the whistling itself, other than to keep attention that the operation was in progress, since he kept the same pace to the whistling no matter what different gestures he made. I’m sure the shrill noise acted as a warning to those below as well, to be aware that materials were being lowered down. Sort of like trucks with an automatic beeper that sounds when they are backing up. Perhaps they’ll affix such devices to these cranes in the future too, and whistles will go the way of buggy whips on such construction sites.

This sighting ended the elusiveness of the event. We caught many more crane-lowering-and-whistling sessions after that. Occasionally there were amusing moments watching the whistlers. Sometimes one of them would leave the whistle in his mouth even after the job was done and as he stood there he would lazily whistle with each exhale of breath. Once a whistler kept the whistle in place as he hopped down the scaffolding from his high perch, issuing a sharp ‘tweet’ with every little jump.

So this was another case of a rather mundane occurrence being lent an air of mystery, by virtue of a lack of information. All we had was random shrill noises and no way to account for them, the conundrum heightened by the initial fruitlessness of our search. Of such simple things is life: it’s all in the reveal.

Months later, the construction has made a lot of progress and almost all of the holes have been sealed and built over, making for much less activity for the cranes. But just the other day I noticed the whistling once again and went to investigate. It wasn’t the usual activity of before; a crane seemed to be assisting in adjusting some rebar that was being laid out and put into place in a concrete form, and again there was a worker nearby whistling and signaling.

It made me wonder. When the construction is over, the Metro finished, and the road in front of our building open again, what new noises will we hear, and will we prefer the old ones? How cacophonous will the flow of traffic and the honking of horns be? Will it be better or worse than the various sounds of construction?

And might we, after it has all changed back from construction zone to busy street again, suddenly find our ears treated to the sound of a traffic cop, blowing a whistle?

The Whistler



  1. May I someday use your description to give a writing assignment? I loved the way you bring the reader to the same place you were and are, seeking the solution and wondering, always wondering about the whistle, the whistler and, for lack of a name, the whistlees (those who received the sound). What an enthralling description of the mundane.

  2. Thanks, Linda! That would be fine! Use it at will! I’m really glad you enjoyed it. Yep, it was a pretty mundane thing, but it kept us guessing for weeks! I’m glad I was able to share a bit of that effectively with you! As I said, “It’s all in the reveal”!

  3. That is NOT mundane! Life is rarely mundane, unless of course, you make it that way. And these who whistle while they work, we must wonder, do they take their little whistles home and continue the practice there? Will the jobless whistlers join a wistful whistler club where they whimsically wonder why? Nope, not mundane at all. :o)

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