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22 June 2013 / dkardo

Exploring Cairo’s City of the Dead

Cairo from Below readers and enthusiasts, we are excited to begin bringing you something a little different that we hope offers a nuanced view of urban planning in Cairo. We will begin to post in-depth interviews with urban planning experts, academics, and activists. This will be something we will do along with our existing format of informational posts, opinion pieces, analysis and relevant event announcements.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Marwa H. Ghazali, a Ph.D. Student in Medical Anthropology and Graduate Instructor in Humanities & Western Civilizations at the University of Kansas. We discussed her research on the City of the Dead. Located below the Mokattam Hills in southeastern Cairo, this 4-mile (north-south) dense grid of tombs and mausoleum structures (also called the Cairo Necropolis), is a cemetery where some Cairenes live and work.

Below is a transcript of CfB’s Dana Kardoush’s interview with Graduate Instructor Marwa Ghazali about her anthropological research in the City of the Dead. We hope that these different perspectives, coming from an anthropological stance, will complement the existing research and work on the CfB website.

Picture 1

What was it that drew you to explore the City of the Dead?

On a drive to catch a flight to Egypt for an internship with the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2007, my father, an Egyptian native, began to talk about an interesting phenomenon which he had noted: attachment to place as a defining feature of what it means to be an “Egyptian.” He explained to me how he has noticed a general tendency among Egyptians to hang on to their apartments and other places of habitation, even when they go uninhabited.

He went on to reveal the conundrum of the people who live in cemeteries, a situation which I had previously been unfamiliar with. How do these people understand their “Egyptian-ness” in the absence of this important attachment? What has caused the habitation and conversion of sacred spaces (such as cemeteries) into social spaces where people get married, have sex, bear children, have weddings, and socialize? In a predominantly Muslim society, how have the edicts regarding the sanctity of cemeteries become so transformed?

These questions led me into an exploration into the City of the Dead. However, in a conversation with my supervisor from the WHO, I was told that I should not concern myself with this population as “most of them now have access to running water and electricity.” I found this attitude alarming to say the least. I decided that I had to understand, and to shed light, on the process by which people fall into such devastating states of poverty that they come to inhabit spaces of death. I returned the following year and began my fieldwork in the City of the Dead.

When did individuals and communities begin inhabiting this area?

It is difficult to date because there is such a diversity of timelines and an ongoing influx of people. Several families migrated during the war in 1967. My father’s family was among those who migrated from  Sinai to Cairo, but were lucky enough to find an apartment. Those who came later or those who could not afford formal housing, began squatting in the cemeteries informally. There are others who, for generations, have lived in the cemeteries as professional caretakers or turaby.

Another major reason for the habitation of cemeteries is the overwhelming influx of rural-urban migrants who are unable to support their families with the heavy crop quotas instituted by Mubarak or who are unable to produce crop yields that are profitable. As more people migrate to these areas due to poverty and the inability to find affordable housing, the job security of the turaby is challenged. Families who own the graves are now able to enter into negotiations with squatters, in which they allow the family to live in the tomb, and pay them only a fraction of what they pay a professional turaby to care for the tomb and  deceased, as well as to oversee burial procedures of newly deceased relatives.

There are families today who are moving into the cemeteries due to the inability to pay rent, medical bills, or because of family feuds, etc. The diversity reveals the ongoing problems that Egypt faces even in the 21st century.

Have you spoken with residents in the City of the Dead?

I spent the summer engaging in what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has called “deep hanging out” where I conversed with people living in this community, met children and families and vendors who sell leftover/damaged produce at lower rates, and spent the day engaging in participant-observation of every day life. I collected several “narratives of suffering” from various individuals as to the reasons that brought them to their current living arrangement. Below are two examples. *

Picture 2 Salwa's Story

Photo Credit: Marwa Ghazali

Manal’s Story:

In 2008, Manal, her husband, and their two children had been living in the cemeteries for seven years. Prior to that, they lived in a government subsidized housing unit. However, Manal soon fell ill and was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. She and her family sold their apartment and all of their belongings in order to pay for treatment. They moved in with her in-laws temporarily. However, this living arrangement, about 10 people living in a two-bedroom apartment, grew to be unbearable. Manal discussed the verbal and emotional abuse she suffered as a result. Leaving this arrangement in an effort to salvage what was left of their kinship relations, her family soon found themselves on the street. They made their way to the cemetery intending to spend one night and, as she explained, this is where they have lived ever since. The tomb she inhabits now however was not the first she had lived in. Her family squatted in a different tomb until the owning family discovered that the sanctity of their family tomb was “violated”, as Manal put it, and kicked them out. Manal and her family then moved to the tomb they now live in and entered into an agreement with the family which allowed them to stay in exchange for tending to the cleanliness and upkeep of the area, and making constant prayers for the deceased relatives. Since her move to the cemeteries, Manal has never returned for another round of treatment. The treatment itself is too expensive, and the cost of transportation further complicates her ability to access treatment.

Heba’s Story:

Photo Credit: Marwa Ghazali

Photo Credit: Marwa Ghazali

Heba, another woman I met in the graveyards, demonstrates how cultural norms and gender inequalities can lead to a diminished quality of life. She came from an affluent family, the daughter of a military man. This family background allowed her to complete her education through high school and offered her many prospects. However, after her father passed, her brothers became her legal guardians in accordance with the Islamic practice known as walii. Heba soon fell in love with a man from a lower socioeconomic class than her own, who happened to be illiterate, or, basmagy. Her brothers, opposed to the cross-class marriage, and to their sister’s “modern” attempt at finding love outside of her brother’s guidance, threatened to kick her out and deny her inheritance if she married this man. Heba stood by her decision and was kicked out without any material belongings. She said, “my husband and I were homeless and we didn’t know where we would go. Suddenly, I put my hand in my pocket and I found the key to my family’s tomb. It was a mercy from God and a sign that I made the right choice. We came here and we have been living here since then.”

Does the government provide services to this area?

The government has attempted to provide services, though minimally, to popular areas like these as more attention was given to the situation of informal settlements. However, rather than relying on government aid, the inhabitants of these areas often unite and find creative ways to overcome the hurdles they face. For example, in several of the tombs, the residents were able to “steal” electricity from nearby stores and share that electricity between them.

Other modes of aid come from independent Islamic organizations, which recently installed a water fountain in one of these areas, for example. When I was there in 2008, the residents were extremely hesitant to criticize the efforts, or lack thereof, of Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak. I believe that when I return, this will not be the case.

What is the perception of most Cairenes of the City of the Dead?

In 2008, Cairenes generally were aware that there was habitation of the cemeteries, however, they were extremely detached from the practice. Despite their general lack of awareness, they often blamed these inhabitants for their “lazy” and “irresponsible” lifestyles. Though this tendency to blame the poor and to emphasize work ethic and individual responsibility is not uncommon in the dynamics between the urban rich and poor, during the revolution the narrative about the inhabitants of the City of the Dead began to change.

During the revolution, the City of the Dead, and those who live there, became a national symbol of the dire level to which Mubarak’s regime had sunk. It provided Cairenes with the legitimacy to argue that Mubarak was a tyrant that needed to be taken out of commission. “He allows people to live in graveyards, that’s how bad he is” was the general attitude during this time. I wonder now if the narrative will has changed or remained the same.

You suggest that anthropology can be one solution to misunderstandings and misconceptions surrounding the City of the Dead. Could you please explain your thoughts?

I believe that anthropology, and its insistence on ethnography, will help add the specificity, particularity, and context needed to better uncover the layers upon layers of structures, meanings, practices, and beliefs which have aided in the current situation in the City of the Dead, as well as providing us with phenomenological understandings of the experiences that come to be inscribed on the body-selves of these individuals and groups.

Currently, anthropologists are beginning to leave behind the idea that we can be neutral outside observers. Instead, we recognize that our very presence influences and changes the environment, so why not change it for the better? Cultural relativism must have limits that are defined by the contexts in which anthropologists find themselves.

That being said, overcoming blind relativism allows us to better see that living in graveyards is not a cultural, mystical, or spiritual practice. It is a product of structurally violent policies that have woven themselves into the social fabric of life in Egypt. Though these structures are difficult to discern, their identification is necessary in rebuilding a better Egypt after the revolution.

*Note:  the names of the individuals mentioned have been changed to protect their privacy.

You can reach Ghazali at: if you would like to gain access to her recent Ph.D thesis presentation or information on her MA thesis which examined the rhetoric of overpopulation in Egypt that led to attempts to control fertility and reproduction and how this served as justification for the state’s failure to deal with the problem of dislocation of millions of people..

Dana Kardoush is Cairo from Below’s Communications Coordinator. Kardoush is an alumnus of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).  While at SIPA, along with fellow classmates and colleagues in Cairo, she contributed to forming Cairo from Below. Kardoush’s interest lies in civil society mobilization and community-led development in the Middle East, and as a Palestinian-American, she hopes to return to live and work in Palestine in the future.

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