ed kashi : cairo
*
* *
Text by Julie Winokur

          "In Egypt we have a saying," 
explained Mohamed al Biali, 
a journalist with the Middle East News Agency. 
          "El aish abqa min el mayet.
           The living are more immortal than the dead."

Actually,  Egyptians never call the sprawling cemetery 
at the eastern edge of Cairo "City of the Dead." 
Only Westerners do. Cairenes prefer to call it
simply the arafa, the cemetery, 
and it is as much a part of the topography here 
as glass and steel skyscrapers are in Hong Kong. 
But what better name than City of the Dead to describe 
the four-mile-long walled necropolis that now houses 
thousands of families and countless small businesses? 
Video stores, car repair shops and tile factories 
line the main arteries of the cemetery, 
and cramped buses deliver hoards of commuters 
at the end of each work day. Furniture makers ply their craft 
inside tombs and streams of uniformed children parade 
to and from school, stopping for a quick soccer
game between the cenotaphs.

The arafa is a necropolis turned metropolis, 
where the needs of the living have far outpaced 
the sanctity of the dead. 
Here, survival takes precedence over superstition, 
and the impact of overpopulation and overcrowding 
wears
a human face.

                    The cemetery is filled with refugees 
from Cairo's housing shortage who
became homesteaders in a landscape of tombs and mausoleums. 
Today, some 50,000 people live in tombs 
while between 500,000 and a million more are
cramped into tenement houses where tombs once stood. 
These people staked their claim in the cemetery when 
no place else could absorb them, and
subsequently they came to prefer the silent company 
of the dead to the harsh conditions of urban living. 
Many claim they wouldn't leave even if
they had the chance.

Today, tombs that were designed to house a single family 
teem with
     bare-bottomed children, 
     chickens and goats. 
     Soccer balls fly where the relatives of the deceased 
used to pay their respects every week, and
tattered laundry floats between the cenotaphs, 
obscuring the names and prayers 
engraved on weather beaten surfaces. 
Where horse-drawn carriages used to deliver weekly visitors, 
sooty buses honk 
            their way down paved roads, 
and on a once contemplative lane between the tombs, 
a Friday junk market overflows with the refuse 
of modern society 
looking to be reborn.

City of the Dead is the great unmentionable, 
the social problem that all Cairenes are aware of 
but most prefer not to talk about. 
     "It sickens me to think 
that there are people pissing by my father's grave," 
said a woman at a swank dinner party, 
     "but where else are all these people supposed to go?"

*
*
imagemap