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Abeja Dispatch

December 1, 1999
The Children of the Dead

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Spiritual slums?
Caption
We crossed the highway into what I thought was just another old, decrepit low-income housing area. Scrawny cats picked through the trash on the side of the road, cars came bumping and beeping by, and buildings were crumbling around me. The entrances to the low houses held reminders of a more glorious past, with ornate carvings, rusted gates, and fancy Arabic calligraphy over the doorways. I peered through a gate, into someone's yard, and noticed a large carved stone slab.

That looks like...No...wait! It is! I turned to my friend Kate, who was looking at the map. "Are we already in the City of the Dead?!"

"Oh yeah," she replied casually, as if going to a place called "the City of the Dead" was an everyday occurrence. "I'm just trying to figure out how to get to Sultan Qaitbey's Mausoleum. I think it's this way." Kate is an American who is living in Cairo teaching English and studying Arabic, so she'd been there before.

I followed behind her down the potholed streets, peering into all the "houses" I could. Sure enough, many of these homes had large mastabas, or tombstones, in the front room or courtyard. Most appeared well preserved and respected, like little islands of clean and calm amidst the chaos and rubbish of an overcrowded squatter settlement. Built over and around them, filling almost every bit of land, were mud-brick houses and apartment complexes, bright laundry hung out to dry, and chickens, children and goats quietly living their lives. Corner stores selling laundry detergent and soda, car repairmen, and shops making every conceivable craft added more life and color to the drab beige streets.

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Half a million to a million people live here
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I knew that Cairo's "City of the Dead" had become a huge squatter settlement because of the rapid rise in population and a severe housing shortage, but this was NOT what I had expected! Come to think of it, I don't really know what I expected, since it is estimated that somewhere between a half a million and a million people live in this four-mile stretch of cemetery. I mean, it's not like they're going to be camped out on the lawn between tombstones!

Vocabulary Box

decrepit - worn out, crumbling with age
resonate - ring out with a loud sound or noise
calligraphy - beautiful, artistic handwriting
squatter - someone who lives in a rundown building without paying rent

For me it seems a little eerie to be living among the dead. But Egyptians have a different perception of death and how the living relate to the dead, possibly passed down from Pharonic times. For one thing, everyone who can afford it is buried under a huge, carved "mastaba," which is as big as your dining room table and made of solid stone! Really rich people are buried in mausoleums, which are more like houses than tombs. A bigger, fancier mausoleum is a sure sign of wealth-just like a bigger fancier pyramid indicated a powerful pharaoh!

The family mausoleum may contain many rooms, including sleeping areas. These aren't for when the dead come back to life, but for when the living come to visit the dead. Families often go to the cemetery on weekends and holidays, to pay respect to their departed loved ones, have a picnic, and sometimes spend the night. They celebrate Moulids, the holy days of the saints buried in the cemetery.

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for larger view
Can you see the tomb?
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So, when people couldn't find anywhere to live in Cairo because there just wasn't enough housing for the growing population, these houses for the dead were taken over, or "squatted," by the living. You can't blame them, really. Where else were they supposed to go?

We climbed up and up and up the tall minaret of the Mausoleum of Sultan Qaitbey, one of the Mamluk rulers from the 13th century. From that bird's-eye view, we could spy on courtyards, streets, and cemeteries in every direction. Rooftops had pens of turkeys or goats, and there were many crumbled buildings - maybe because of the recent earthquake. Above the chaos, minarets of other mausoleums poked up all over the place. "Who really lives here?" I wondered. "Let's go find out!"

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Hard at work
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Less than a block from the mosque, three boys sat outside the door of a shop, covered from head to toe in a strange silvery-black film. They smiled and waved us into the doorway, which resonated with the clanking sound of strange machines. "Come on! Come on in!" they said with hand motions and smiles. Kate and I looked at each other and shrugged, "why not?!" and followed the boys into the eerie factory. A strange blue light surrounded about a dozen men and boys, all covered in the silver-black dust. Disks of aluminum became pots and lids before my eyes, in a casual but orderly assembly-line process. It seemed to be break-time for a group of young boys who chatted with Kate by yelling in Arabic over the noise. I just snapped a bunch of pictures and smiled. All the guys seemed to like having their picture taken.

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Ramadan during his 5 hour shift
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Kate introduced me to 10-year-old Ramadan, who works in this aluminum shop every day for five hours. On his aluminum-covered face, Ramadan's eyes sparkled mischievously, and a bright smile revealed a missing front tooth. "He says that he doesn't go to school," she translated, "but that he wants to someday." Ramadan is the name of the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, which is a month of fasting. Ramadan was born during that month, and that's how he got his name!

After a while, the noise and the aluminum dust were really starting to bother me, so we said "Salaam," which means "good-bye" or "peace," and ducked back out into the comparatively fresh air and sunlight. I wonder what the long-term effect of the constant loud noise and aluminum has on the kids like Ramadan who grow up working there?

School was just letting out, and groups of elementary and junior high school-age kids were walking home in their blue and white uniforms. Other kids had already changed and were out playing in the streets. Kate and I stopped three boys in the street who were running around trying to tie each other up with a string! Karim, Ramadan (a second one...same birth month?) and Gamal, are 8, 10 and 10. They all go to school and are in the 5th grade. Soon, six or seven boys were surrounding Kate, wanting to talk. I wish I could speak Arabic, so I could understand the conversation!

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Glimpse into daily life
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A woman in black with a rainbow colored headscarf smiled and motioned for us to come into her house. Kate and I looked at each other and shrugged, "Why not? It was great the first time!" Four steps led down into her main room. It's not that the house was built below ground level, but more likely, the street level has been rising through the centuries! The television was on, and a man sat watching it. Another young woman sat on the ground cutting up onions for dinner.

The old woman led us through the first room, through a bedroom, and into her back courtyard. She wanted to show us HER little graveyard, too. It was well kept and the graves had plants on them. Still, it's not the kind of thing you usually see in someone's backyard! The kids followed us through the house, and the youngest started to play on the metal guardrail around the graves...until the woman made him stop!

Interesting Links

Information on Ramadan
Great photographs of the City of the Dead

After we bid our farewells, the boys followed us all the way back to the main road and over the pedestrian overpass, back into Old Cairo. There, the city bustled on as always, seemingly unaware that the dead rested not too far away. The kids didn't seem to mind either!

Abeja

p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...worldtrekker@internettreks.org

 

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