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Cairo: life among the dead

The author Tahir Shah finds an unconventional sight in the Egyptian capital that is no less compelling than the pyramids.

Mustapha sits in the shade of a sprawling fig tree, listening to the birdsong and whisking away the flies with the end of his scarf. Every day he sits there, in a chair he made himself from old scraps of wood, just as he's done since his childhood seven decades ago. From time to time one of his grandchildren hurtles out of their imposing stone home, whooping and hollering into the light. The scene is so usual that it could be anywhere in Egypt, or in any corner of the Arab world. But it's made unique by the fact that Mustapha and his family live not in a residential street, but in Cairo's vast cemetery, Al Qarafa, the City of the Dead.

No one is quite sure how many people live there among the graves in the sprawling burial grounds. The number bandied around is anything between 500,000 and five million. But to the people who make it their home, the numbers don't really matter. For Mustapha and the other families, it's a place where they can live quietly without the outside world intruding on their lives. Drawing a wrinkled hand over his face, Mustapha sighs.

"I have seen a universe of life," he says, "right here in the cemetery. Birth, life, and of course I have seen death. Plenty of it. They are all parts of the same thing, a cycle that never ends." Asked how it feels to live among the dead, the old man shrugs. "The dead have been truer friends to me than many of the living I've known," he says, breaking into a smile, "and in any case, they don't have tongues wagging nonsense and lies."

Spend a little time in the cemetery and you realise that the title "City of the Dead" is something of a misnomer. In Cairo, there's not just one main burial ground but five - the Northern and Southern cemeteries, the Bab el Wazir and the Bab Nasr, and the Cemetery of the Great. Viewed from a distance, and from the comfort of the city's highways, the most impressive is the Northern Cemetery. It stretches out in a honeycomb of sand-coloured shacks. Every so often there's a fabulous dome sticking out, hinting at a grand mausoleum hiding in the jumble of more ordinary tombs. Visitors to Cairo could be excused for thinking the expanse of buildings is just another quarter of the old city. And in a way they'd be right.

Cairo's great cemeteries were developed at least a thousand years ago in the Fatimid era, if not before, at the time of the Arab Conquest. Egypt is of course well known for its burial traditions. After all, the pyramids up the road in Giza are arguably the most celebrated tombs ever created by man. Some believe that certain beliefs dating back to Pharaonic Egypt may have survived, most notably the way Egyptians perceive death. For many, death is not regarded as the end but the beginning, and cemeteries are not places to be avoided or dreaded, but visited and respected.

The tradition of travelling to a family grave on certain days during the calendar, and on Fridays, is a part of Egyptian culture, and in part it's a reason that so many people live in the burial grounds. The tombs of the rich or powerful have always had guardians who attend to their families when they visit the deceased, and during the 40 days of mourning after a death. Many others look after the pilgrims who flock to the city's Sufi shrines, and to the graves of members of the Prophet's family.

Centuries ago when the cemeteries were first established, they were far from the medina of medieval Cairo. But as the city's urban sprawl has raged forwards like wildfire, the City of the Dead finds itself remarkably central. Free from the press of tenement blocks, and choking traffic, the vast burial grounds are not such a bad place to live. It's true that the plumbing is almost non-existent, and the lack of sewerage leads to the insufferable stench during the summer heat, but there is often electricity, and a few mod cons as well.

Mustapha's little home has a battered old television and, his pride and joy, a Chinese-made refrigerator. Keen to show them off, he pours from a two-litre bottle of Coca Cola. As elsewhere in the Arab world, hospitality to a guest is taken very seriously indeed. "I can keep drinks cool for days," he says with a grin. "Where do you buy the drinks?" The old man waves a hand towards the end of his lane.

"Down there? haven't you seen all the shops?" Far from being a place of just desolation and death, parts of the cemetery are alive with the most vibrant life. There are cafes and small restaurants where skewers of lamb are being grilled for lunch, food stalls, barbers and shops, and of course there are thousands and thousands of homes. Some people come from outside the cemetery to buy fruit and vegetables, declaring that the prices are lower because there are none of the overheads that there are elsewhere.

Around the corner from where Mustapha lives, at the end of a narrow alley, thick with dust, Fatima is hanging out the laundry in the blazing spring sunshine. She seems oblivious to the fact that there are three elaborate marble headstones a few feet away, or that the skeletons of an entire family lie beneath her feet. "I've lived here all my life," she says, reaching for another clothes peg, "and there's nothing usual about the cemetery. If you ask me, it's the safest place in Cairo to live. The people are good here. There's plenty of space, and a sense of right and wrong."

Fatima motions a hand towards her little son, Yussef, who's trundling about on his tricycle. "If we lived anywhere else we would not have a yard like this, a place where the children can play safely. I thank God that for providing us with this." The laundry dripping in the sun, Fatima leads the way into her home, a squat cinder-block shack on the west side of the yard. Her father is lying in bed in the small sitting-room, squinting at a soap opera on the TV.

Fatima brews up a pot of tea, pours it out, steam billowing from the spout. "My husband has a cart from which he sells sweet yams," she says. "He makes enough for us to live. And besides, we get a little money for guarding this ancestral tomb. The relatives live far from here and so they rely on us to make sure the place is kept in order and clean." While there are now many times more people living in the cemetery than ever before, the tradition is one that goes back centuries. Some of the mausolea found in the City of the Dead are imposing structures, built during the Mameluke and Ottoman times. A great number of them contain precious details of ornamental art. Wary of robbers, the rich have always employed guardians to watch over their family graves. It's a system that suits everyone. The families can rest assured that the graves are kept free from desecration, and the guardians can be sure that their own families have somewhere safe, central and affordable to live.

According to Islamic tradition, bodies are wrapped in muslin and lain out on their sides, facing toward the holy city of Mecca. The entrance and the staircase into the vault are concealed by a series of stone slabs. Above ground, the site is marked by a tombstone, set within a courtyard or covered by a mausoleum.

Large Egyptian tombs often have one or more outhouses for use by visiting relatives or caretakers. Some of them have sets of chairs kept in storage, to be laid out on days when the entire family are there. A short distance from where Fatima lives is a dusty lane which ends in the grand 19th-century mausoleum of a pasha. Halfway down the lane is a less opulent building, a rough brick dwelling in which a young woman is sitting on an upturned packing crate. Her name is Hasna, and she has lived in the cemetery for three years, since her husband died in a car crash.

"After my husband's death," she says, "my in-laws threw me out of the house. They said I brought shame on the family, because I was unable to have children. I had a friend who lives here and she told me to come. She said it was safe, that it was a place where others do not judge you, where they leave you alone. And she was right. The people who live here are mostly good, the kind of people who work hard and are pious. They respect the fact that I am alone, and they have become my family."

From time to time Hasna gets some work sewing clothes, and sometimes cleans apartments on the other side of the city. She says she dreams of a time when she'll be reunited with her husband. When asked if she will ever marry again, she wipes a tear from her eye. "I don't ever want to be married again," she says solemnly. "Anyway, who would marry a widow?" I ask Hasna for her greatest fear. Her faces freezes and she glances down at her lap.

"Every day people come here and ask if there's any space. They come from the countryside, and know that the cemetery is a cheap place to live. My great worry is that the man who rents this little room to me will throw me out onto the street, or put up the rent. If that happened, I don't know where I would go." Hasna touches a hand to her headscarf and sighs. "Thank God, most people forget that we are here," she says.

Hasna might be surprised if she knew the irony of her remark. In recent years, foreigners visiting the Egyptian capital have become increasingly fascinated with the City of the Dead, itself a uniquely Egyptian phenomenon. Although still limited in number, a few tour operators offer visits to groups of two or three tourists at a time through the cemetery maze, so that they can see it for themselves.

Not far from Hasna's home, a young Australian couple, Jack and Marty, are taking one such tour. Both towering and blond, they look a little incongruous, as if they made a wrong turn on the way to the pyramids. But they're savouring the experience. "When we saw the City of the Dead from a distance," says Jack, "we just assumed it was low-income housing. And when we realised it was the cemetery, we never imagined there'd be so much life here. I've even seen cybercafes. Imagine that - surfing the internet in a cemetery! It's as if we're seeing a side of Cairo that's very traditional - very Egyptian - but one that's been hidden and inaccessible until now. I'd recommend this to anyone who wants a new take on one of the oldest cities on earth."

Back in his courtyard, Mustapha is hammering a nail into his homemade chair. He hits his thumb by mistake and curses. I ask if he's seen the tour groups in his neighbourhood. He shakes his head, glances at his injured thumb. "That is absurd," he says. "What kind of a fool would want to take a tour of a cemetery?" Then he smiles again. "But I suppose it isn't quite so foolish? after all, I bet you they charge more to see the pyramids."

Updated: August 14, 2010 04:00 AM