Living among the dead

22-10-2014 02:28 PM

Mariam Adly -Sheri Abdel-Massih -Photos by Eid Saad

We didn’t go to visit the dead; we went to visit the living among the dead. It may come as a surprise to some that people do live in Cairo’s huge necropolis, better known as the City of the Dead, an agglomeration of cemeteries built through the centuries in the area under Muqattam Hill. Yet the fact remains that some four million Egyptians do live in necropolises across Egypt.
Cairo’s City of the Dead includes the cemeteries of Bab al-Wazeer, Bab al-Wadae, and al-Kazzan in the district of Sayeda Aisha, as well as the cemeteries of al-Imam al-Leithi, al-Imam al-Shafei and al-Bassateen. Many who have made their homes in the tombs are caretakers who are paid modest allowances by the tomb owners. Even though living there brings about a social stigma, the cemeteries are home to some two million Cairenes. Watani toured the Imam al-Shafei cemetery and roamed the almost deserted streets, securely locked graveyards, narrow alleys and twisted pathways.


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Eking out a living
Hajja Shafiqa sat near the entrance of a graveyard, selling flowers to whoever came by. The Hajja has two sons to support, one blind and the other in prison, and she tries to make ends meet by selling flowers in the morning and sweets in the evening. “I don’t have a ration card,” she complains. “Now that all commodities, even bread, are rationed I have no clue how we are going to survive. My family doesn’t receive a pension, not even for my blind son, although his wife is also blind.” Yet despite her problems, Hajja Shafiqa doesn’t think of moving; she prefers living among the dead to residing with the living.
Undertaker Umm Said feels the same way. She says that even if the residents of the City of the Dead were given the choice to trade their current ‘homes’ for a palace away from the area, they would never accept. “They are used to living here. Passers-by often sympathise with them and give them money or food,” she adds.
Some others, however, dream of a better future. Eight-year-old Muhammad lives with his father, a taxi driver, and his sisters over a family tomb in a small room originally built for the visiting relatives. Since their mother died last year his sister Fatma, 15, has taken care of the household. Their room has no water or electricity and the family shares a common bathroom with the residents of adjacent tombs. Fatma wishes to become a nurse and hopes that one day they will move out of the cemeteries and live in a decent apartment where she can invite school friends.

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City of the Sultans
With the first graveyards in the area built at about the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt (641 AD), Cairo’s City of the Dead has a rich heritage. For Sherif Ramzi, head of development of historical Cairo at the Ministry of Antiquities, Cairo’s necropolis is equal in value to the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. “The area used to be neglected until the urban development project around the Mamluk necropolis was considered during the last decade,” he says. “The ministry is coordinating with the governorate to relocate the people living there to new housing units. Services will be provided for residents of the surrounding area, and will include a community hall, literacy classes and youth centres. The district will become a tourist attraction. We call it the City of the Sultans.”
Ra’fat al-Nabarawi, Professor of Islamic Antiquities and former dean of antiquities at Cairo University, says it is unfortunate that 80 per cent of Islamic monuments come under the supervision of the Ministry of Endowments. Most residents of old mausoleums don’t realise their value, and their daily life has taken its toll on the invaluable heritage. Dr Nabarawi believes it is imperative to find a solution to the problem of cemetery dwelling. “Residents must be moved from the graveyards to protect this heritage from further damage,” he insists. “Cairo’s old neighbourhoods hold royal mausoleums of rulers and princes; the Shafei graveyards include many historical monuments in addition to tombs of the Sufis and the Sahaba who accompanied Amr Ibn al-Aas during the Arab conquest of Egypt.”

No policing
Undertaker assistant Muhammad Sallam is critical of the lack of security in the cemetery. A common crime is the theft of steel doors. “The robbers don’t hesitate to shoot anyone who dares stand in their way,” he says. “We have repeatedly asked the police to reopen the checkpoint that used to be here but they didn’t.”
“I have been living in Sidqi Pasha’s graveyard since 1957,” says Hajj Muhammad. “Back then the area was literally lifeless. We had no services whatsoever; today we have electricity and running water.” He lives in Bab al-Wazir, literally the Minister’s Door, so-called because State ministers and public figures are buried there. Hajj Muhammad’s wife says the government promised to relocate them to apartments, but blames an official lack of integrity for this not being happening.
The Cairo governorate plans to build 42,000 housing units for the relocation of informal housing residents. Governor Galal Mustafa Said says the plan is to put an end to slums, especially those within the cemeteries. “The problems related to slums and cemetery dwelling are two of Cairo’s ‘eternal’ problems and the government is currently trying to eradicate them,” he says.
However Mona Omar, a former deputy to the Foreign Minster and current coordinator of the civil movement Meen Beyheb Masr (Who Loves Egypt), distrusts the governor’s campaign. “We have repeatedly knocked at doors of officials, but to no avail,” she says. “All the data is available and numerous projects have been suggested. The bottom line is that there is no political will to solve the problem.”

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Hotbed for crime
“The City of the Dead is a time bomb because of the criminal gangs,” warns al-Hussein Hassaan, founder of the Meen Beyheb Masr campaign group. “It is not legal to live there, and I disapprove of the State issuing ID cards to residents with the cemeteries cited as their official addresses.” He says the Interior Ministry should eliminate all forms of criminal activity there, especially drug dealing. “The government must stand by marginalised groups,” he says. “Slums are spreading like a cancer in our land. They have turned into dens for all manner of crime and delinquency. Although several cabinets established programmes for slum development, they were ineffective. The real problem is not just to provide these people with housing, but rather to build an integrated community.”
“The number of residents in Cairo’s City of the Dead alone far exceeds 1.5 million, of whom 200,000 are civil servants,” says Hamdi Arafa, who has responsibility for slums in the Meen Beyheb Masr campaign. “There are four million who live in cemeteries throughout Egypt. Cemetery residents have a tendency to be more dangerous than those in other slums, perhaps because they have lost all fear of death.”

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Inhuman situation
Ms Omar believes that rehabilitating the cemetery dwellers should involve health and psychological care, and is a feat that can only be achieved through the joint efforts of the government and the civil society. “It is important to rehabilitate them, not just move them to another place,” she says. “So far, there have only been mobile medical units sent by the National Council for Women, and these have been sporadic.”
Dwelling among the dead is not without consequences for the living, and psychologist Ahmed Abdallah is concerned about negative psychological effects. “It is a very inhuman situation where the people have to live among the dead. The cemetery dwellers have adapted to these conditions and this results in a kind of internal denial,” Dr Abdallah explains. “Egyptians usually have a very realistic perception of death and consider it an integral part of reality. Because they believe that ‘the living are more important than the dead’, they take advantage of the empty spaces in the cemeteries and use them for habitation.”
For her part, professor of sociology and consultant at the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research Azza Karim says that rampant poverty has rendered the graveyards popular places to live in. “Cemetery residents come from different social classes,” Dr Karim says. “Some of them are even university graduates. The custodian of my own family tomb is a well-known lawyer who has a private practice.”

Trading in human corpses
“There are many differences between life in the slums and in the cemeteries,” Dr Karim explains. “One of the main problems of living in the cemeteries is that children lose the awe of death and wander fearlessly from one tomb to another. Oddly, a burial is considered a source of living. The deceased’s family gives them money and treats that are usually distributed in the name of rahma (mercy) for the deceased.
“These places are also dens for illegal trade in drugs, guns and antiquities. The most lucrative trade of all is that in human corpses: the custodians of the tombs frequently sell bodies, especially freshly buried ones, to medical students. None of the deceased’s family ever knows about it because nobody goes after the burial to check if the corpse is intact. Due to the lack of security in the area this trade is carried out quite safely. The streets are narrow and dimly lit, which makes them difficult to patrol.”
Dr Karim says many of the residents refuse to relocate, and so children grow up and learn all the secrets of living in the graveyards. As adults, they simply refuse to leave. The government must do something and provide replacement housing to reduce crime rates.

Refusing new homes
Speaking to Watani on condition of anonymity, a social worker active with those living among the tombs in Egypt says the cemeteries are rife with crime. This explains why, even when the government provides new alternative housing—as they did in September 2008 when there was a landslide at Duweiqa on the Muqattam Hill—they refuse to leave. In that case they even waged violent demonstrations, burning tyres and blocking the Ring Road around Cairo. They are definitely safer and better concealed from the eyes of the police in the slums. “The only answer to this problem is strict enforcement of the law,” she said.
A recent field study carried out by Mamdouh Abul-Hamd, professor of field training at the faculty of social service at al-Azhar University, showed that most residents of this community lived under the poverty line on a daily income of no more than EGP10 per person. Most families have only one provider, and many sole providers are in prison. There is family disintegration, a high divorce rate and runaway children, coupled with severe lack of health and educational services, and most people have no ID cards. “This is not a fit way for anyone to live,” he says.


Watani International
22 October 2014

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