Living in the City of the Dead
Entrance to El-Ghafir cemetery - Mustafa Said for THE CAIRO POST
By RANY MUSTAFA and SAMAR SAMIR

CAIRO: Cairo’s City of the Dead reflects the literal meaning of its name; among hundreds of tombs, hundreds of thousands of people struggle to survive on 5.5 square miles.

“We live here because we cannot afford to buy a house or apartment, which requires 45,000 EGP (US $ 6,465) down payment, besides monthly installments of 500 EGP (US $ 71.84),” said Asmaa, who lives with her 8-member family in a graveyard in the El-Ghafir Northern Cemetery. “We lost hope of getting an apartment,” Asmaa told The Cairo Post Tuesday.

In El-Ghafir, the biggest cemetery in Egypt, graveyard dwellers sleep beside the dead, while dreaming to have their own houses away from organized crime, theft and poor sanitary conditions.

The City of the Dead is in Old Cairo, and comprises approximately 5.5 square miles with five major tomb compounds: El-Ghafir Northern Cemetery, Bab el-Nasr Cemetery, Bab el-Wazir Cemetery, the Southern Cemetery, and Al-Imam Cemetery.

 

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The earliest evidence of its existence dates from the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 A.D., when Muslim commander Amr Ibn el-As founded Egypt’s capital of Al Fustat, now known as Old Cairo, said Mohamed Fadel, former deputy Minister of Antiquities.

There is archeological evidence that the graveyards have been occupied since their founding; several damaged and less decorated tombs were found within the Roman Babylon tower within the capital city, Fadel added.

Asmaa and her family’s home occupies approximately 60 square meters of a 600-square meter graveyard which belongs to the family of late King Farouk’s shoemaker, Hassan Hosni. This graveyard has two burial tombs: one for the owners and the other for the shoemaker’s servants; there is also a villa adjacent to the tombs built by the owner and his family, Asmaa added.

The owners’ tomb has alabaster walls decorated in Islamic architectural design. In contrast, Asmaa’s family lives in two rooms, with one corner for cooking, and a small bathroom.

“Many of the residents submitted applications for houses or apartments in Cairo’s El-Salam district and Suzanne Mubarak housing units in the Diwika neighborhood, however, nothing happened,” Safaa, Asmaa’s mother, told The Cairo Post.

Due to organized crime, many people near the area leave and close their shops “My husband is an auto body mechanic and works in Banha [North of Cairo.] He closed his workshop due to clashes with thugs,” said Asmaa, 25, who has two children. Her family has a dog to guard them and the tombs from thieves, she added.

The owners of the tomb allow Asmaa and her family to stay in the graveyard for free in exchange for guarding the tombs, cleaning them, and tending to and watering plants.  Graveyard residents say, however, that following the revolution many try to rent living space in the graveyards due to the rising costs of living.

The African Arab Organization for Developing Slums is forming a plan to relocate residents of the graveyards to houses and apartments, Egyptian actor Tamer Hagrass, a goodwill ambassador for the organization told The Cairo Post.

“We met with Cairo and Giza governors about this issue, and urged them to allocate an area for building housing unities, he added.

Hagrass said he also requested the government help find employment for the residents, many of whom have only worked as grave diggers. He added that he is in contact with a governmental body in Kuwait to raise funds for these projects.

Estimates for the number of graveyard dwellers vary widely. According the last comprehensive national census, carried out by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2006, 2,763 families (10,465 individuals) lived in graveyards all over Egypt. The center, however, published a study Tuesday saying that 1.5 million people live in the graveyards.

1,150 family rent space in the graveyards, while 3,088 families live without any capacity to cook, and 1,233 others have no bathrooms in their homes, reported the study, which attributed the cause of the high rate of occupancy to overpopulation.

“There was work during Mubarak’s regime; he was a thief, but there was money in the country,” said Nabil, 39, who lives with his mother, his younger sister, and his two children, in a graveyard in Moqattam. He said living anywhere else would be prohibitively expensive.

“I’m trying to work in many things to take care of my family. I worked for a month as a delivery man for a pharmacy” he said. Nabil now works with a four-member team burying dead bodies; his team is responsible for 40 graveyards.

His other sister Rasha, who is married and lives in a rented apartment in Moqattam, but grew up in a graveyard, said that she had been renting an apartment for 600 EGP/month ($86) but relocated to another house for 500 EGP.

“This problem will not be solved because the population is increasing and many people who could not afford paying for rent to house are heading to rent space in graveyards for very little money, around 130 EGP,” said Rasha.

She told The Cairo Post that many people in the Ministry of Housing promised to provide them proper homes. “I have listened to such promises since I was young; now I’m 30 years old and got married and have two children, nothing happened.”

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