Living people in Cairo’s city of the dead

Living people in Cairo’s city of the dead

January 31, 2010, Sunday/ 10:35:00
Certainly, the word death sparks fear in everyone, but in the Egyptian capital of Cairo people are living with the dead.

In the area of Cairo known as al-Arafa there is a city of the dead. But the necropolis also is inhabited by living people. Life and death are as close to you as tears and joy, love and sorrow. It is a place that affects you deeply. Due to the high rents and housing problems in Cairo, poor families were forced to relocate to al-Arafa, where they turned the cemetery’s tombs and mausoleums into homes. They show no signs of fear as living in a cemetery has become commonplace. The majority of the people are Muslim, and a very small number are Christian.

A tradition inherited from ancient Egypt, cemeteries built in the form of house-like tombs make the area look like a city from afar. In the city of the dead, there is a cemetery guard and a neighborhood headman. The residents of Cairo build cemeteries to be able to live together in the hereafter. The cemeteries stand upon a great deal of land that is closed off by walls on all four sides. The deceased person is interred in the basement. There are two separate rooms for men and women in the tombs. When a person dies he is brought to the tomb if, before he died, he said he wanted to be interred there. There is an opening in the ground that is covered by a stone slab. When there is a funeral, the stone is removed and the body is placed on a shelf, which concludes the interment process. Among the family plots, which look like homes from the outside, there are many historic tombs as well.

Cairo’s population used to be no more than 1 million, but due to rapid migration, its population has increased to 17 million in the last century. Housing problems and high rents have resulted in poor people moving into the tombs of the cemetery, which is located outside Cairo. The uncertainties of Egypt’s housing policies following the wars with Israel accelerated migration to the cemetery-laden area. The number of residents increased even further after the big 1992 earthquake. During the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, people from rural areas were given permission to settle in the city of the dead. There are close to 500,000 people now living in the city. After Abdel Nasser’s presidency, infrastructural services such as water and sewerage systems were brought to the area.

In the city, which has designated neighborhoods, there is a cemetery guard for the dead and a headman for the living. The Cairo Governor’s Office has plans to relocate the people living in the city of the dead, the population of which is constantly increasing, but new housing is expensive. Poor families are being relocated to houses built in various parts of the city, but this is a process that will take a long time to complete. With the no other place to go, the poor continue to live in the city of the dead despite everything. It’s quite difficult for anyone travelling to Cairo to visit the city easily. The locals don’t like tourists taking photographs or videos of them and therefore aren’t very welcoming to strangers.

Growing up in a cemetery home

Upon entering the city, I first came across the cemetery guard, Muhammad Adil Wahab. Noting that he was born in a cemetery home, Wahab said he continues to live in one of these homes with his family. He is responsible for facilitating funeral services and showing families prospective burial spots. He is in charge of the area. Perhaps because of his occupation, death is not something Wahab fears. He knows that one day he is also going to be interred inside one of the tombs. In fact, he says he’s happy because he will get to be close to his deceased relatives.

Poor families are forced to live in a one-room or two-room homes. One of these people is Dalia Hasan, who migrated to the city from her village with her husband. Dalia lives in a single-room house with her six children. Noting that they have no other place to go, Dalia said they have to put up with the challenges despite everything. She explained that living in a cemetery has had a major effect on her children and said, “It’s very difficult to explain the challenges and lack of possibilities to them.” While adults say they aren’t afraid of living in tombs, the same does not go for children. Twelve-year-old Salih Abdullah plays with his friends, not in a playground, but in between tombs. Saying that he lives with his parents and four siblings, Salih, who is not yet aware of the concept of death, says he gets scared when there is a funeral in their neighborhood.

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