QARAFA, EGYPTIAN CEMETERY -THE HOME OF LIVING PEOPLE
“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living”
The death is a matter of physical fact, natural end, the full circle. The life is a matter of choice, the gift of nature, the circle. The line between those two is almost invisible but hits us strong when we face up with the end of one and the beginning of another.The time of happiness and the time of sadness. Some of us will never understand that the worst death is dying from within long before your body finally gives up, the sign that we haven’t really lived but we died as anyone else anywhere else. Even in far away Cairo, the city with the thousand colors,empowered with pharaoh’s ancient spirit and glorious monuments.
I am walking towards the Al-Azhar Mosque, the amazing building of Fatimid’s era and the beautiful sign of Cairo’s survival through the centuries. It is not just the mosque, it is also one of the oldest and most prominent universities in the Muslim world, built up in AD 988 and located in the Islamic Cairo District, in the Al-Azhar Street.While I am listening the call for prayer, my thoughts are simply lost. Yes, I am here in the legendary city of mummies and I am still not aware of the beauty around me as well as I am still not enough irritated by noise, the scent of shishas and kebabs, the egyptian dialect of beloved Arabic language and the passion for life or for death. However you look at it, Allah(dz.s.) knows the best what is your maktoob. Mine is to search for Cairo’s Necropolis. El-Arafa which still has a pulse of life.
Behind me is the tourist shield about the importance of visiting the Old Cairo, also known as Coptic Cairo.I would love to see the Church of St.Sergius and Bacchus, because according to the local legend, it was the place where Virgin Mary, baby Jesus and family sheltered during the period of King Herod’s massacre of male children.This is not just a religious tourist pilgrimage, it is a journey of life or for life. Someone told me that I will find amazing jewelry at Khan el-Khalili, especially at Al-Muski Street but I don’t have time. My mission is beyond the material things.I must keep going.
The Egyptian city of Cairo is a home of 20 million people. The streets are busy and the business quarts are narrating the story about the new age for egyptian capital. But, there are still so many cars, those who make accidents and those who are lost in this big habitat in the middle of desert. Surrounded by pyramids, marked by historical scarfs, Cairo has its own destiny.It is loved and hated at the same time but it is an eternal city so the people who live there.
When the Western world has heard about the Egyptian the City of the Dead, named as Cairo’s Necropolis, the tourist’s madness hasn’t been stopped for years. The passion for mysterious, the Hollywood spice of enigmatic cover for the hidden Cairo’s beauty and the collective agony of seeing what is unseen and read what has never been written turned the city of dead into the story alive.At the end of the day, the cemetery where are buried dead are home for those who live there their lives. The paradox of two sides, two worlds which are touching each others and merging into something which makes us so excited while we are capturing the life echoes with our camera and all of our senses.
The mentioned Necropolis has been around for more than 700 years.It was known as cemetery but in last years, because the city is overcrowded and economically drained, the tens of thousands live among the tombs.National Geographic comes with the solid descriptions:”‘I’ve lived here for 80 years,’ said Abdul Aziz Sahel, ‘and my family has lived here for 350. King Farouk is buried near my house.’No one is sure of the exact number of people living among the million or so tombs, each of which is a walled compound, some with buildings and fountains inside, others empty. All have two covered stairways, one for men and one for women, that lead to crypts holding the remains of extended families. Some tombs are crumbling; others are pristine and full of marble. There are regular houses of two and three stories next to tombs; others have squatters inside or are locked tight.” What amazes is the fact that the cemetery really looks like a small town because the tombs have been built like small houses. Most of the people who live there consider themselves as tombs keepers and they appreciate the heritage they have and the way of passing the life in Necropolis from one to the next generation. Many wouldn’t leave this place even if they would have been granted the government’s house object:”Joseph Schechla, coordinator of the Habitat International Coalition’s Housing and Land Rights Network (HIC-HLRN), knows about the slum situation: ‘And in all of this, the cemetery dwellers are not necessarily the worst off’, he explains. In fact, those who live in the cemetery have water and electricity, as well as septic tanks to manage the lack of infrastructure. There are schools nearby and public transportation.”
The lack of housing policy and corrupted public administration have brought the set of problems to Cairo and one of them is definitely the problem of cemetery dwellers. Those people are not the problem, they are the result of the wrong policy settled in Egypt, for years. The politicians abuse natural resources, make fake urban migrations but the growing issue of homeless is not being sorted out.
The graveyard is not the silent as we expect because there are families and many of them have small children who are playing around and bringing the joy into the silent hill of Cairo. Some of the residents of Necropolis are being normally employed but very happy to escape from city noise breath into the paradise of silence. They believe that dead can not hurt and that only living are really dangerous. They earn money by taking care of tombs or selling interesting souvenirs to the lost tourists, fascinated by The City of the Dead. If you hope to see zombies around Necropolis and mummies which will run after you, I must tell you that you are on the wrong place. You will be surprised by the level of cemetery’s life among the people and the way they think and behave. Many tabloids on the West kept reporting about vanished travelers among the walls of Necropolis like that the pharaoh’s anger came out and eat them all up. I don’t deny the possibility that some tourists are disappeared in crowded Cairo but the dangerous suburbs are in every city, all over the world. There are always the places you must not be or you shouldn’t be. I do not believe that graveyard’s people are getting any of them but they can be the victims of the city’s hunger for money or public scream of fanaticism.
The Egyptian administration has a serious problems with the homeless population:”The Information and Decision Support Centre, an entity attached to Egypt’s Cabinet of Ministers, estimates that there are nearly 1,034 slums in the country. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reports that the National Planning Institute confirms the existence of over 1,109 in 20 different districts, sheltering some 70.17 million people. The same source revealed that 14 million of those Egyptians live among tombs and in huts and mosques within the cemeteries at Basateen, Imam Shafie, Bab El-Wazeer, El-Ghafeer, El-Megawereen, Imam Lethee, Ain Shams, and Nasr City.” The number is going up if we talk about the rise of poverty and lack of jobs opportunities. Those who do not have financial means to pay the rents will go out the city, some will go to the Necropolis, hoping to find a free tomb for themselves, asking Allah (dz.s.) to give them wisdom and courage to overcome all challenges of this world, waiting to go to the next one.
In Islamic world, this life is nothing in comparison to the life after death so the choice of living among the dead sounds like preparation for each of them. They are smiled and blessed so the ground they live on. Cairo has many mysterious and many people who are in pain or who are suffering in the shadows of some tomb. If we are really ready to hear each of them? At least, we can be voice for some of them while the sunset brings new peace on the graveyard and the magnificent al-Chahirat is embracing the fresh North African night.