x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Razing the City of the Dead to breathe new life into Cairo

Plans to relocate a cemetery in the Arafa neighbourhood, and those actually living in it, have been met with a mixed response.

CAIRO // The Egyptian government is studying plans to move the historic Cairo cemetery of Arafa - a neighbourhood in which residents include both the living and the dead - to a location outside the Egyptian capital. The proposed plan would turn 6,000 hectares of cemetery known as the City of the Dead, which is used as informal housing by tens of thousands of people, into a large public park. While officials from Egypt's ministry of housing say the plan would answer the capital's gaping need for green space, critics of the project, particularly the living residents of Arafa who have made their homes on and among centuries-old graves, contend that the city's plan will deprive them of hundreds of thousands of their living spaces among the dead. But in a country where monuments to the long deceased loom as large in the public consciousness as they do on the urban skyline, it is the welfare and final wishes of the dead that elicits as much concern as their living neighbours. "We've heard a lot but where are they taking the people? Lots of tombs are still being built and lots of permits are still being given. It would be impossible for them to demolish this area and build a park," said one elderly woman, who lives with her husband and one of her daughters in a one-room apartment here that adjoins a private mausoleum. Like many of those interviewed, she refused to identify herself for fear of retribution from government officials. "Of course I would say no. We've been living here for years. It's a quiet and nice area. Why would they want to move us?" The answer, said Mostafa Kamal Madbouly, the chairman of the general organisation for physical planning in the ministry of housing, utilities and urban development, should be obvious to anyone who has visited Egypt's capital. International urban planning standards dictate that ideal cities should contain about 12 square metres to 18 square metres of green space for each resident. Most decent cities, said Mr Madbouly, have no fewer than 12 square metres and exemplary cities, such as Vienna, can hold as many as 120 square metres of park space per resident. Cairo's park space index comes in at 0.3 square metres. To reverse the green deficit, Mr Madbouly and researchers from Ain Shams University in Cairo have spent the past three years identifying underused or abandoned spaces within the city that are eligible for conversion into parks. Arafa, along with several abandoned factories and underused public infrastructure, emerged as possible candidates. And now may be the best time to act. Cairo is in the midst of launching a sweeping urban comeback under an initiative called Cairo 2050. By that eponymous date, the ministry of housing, which is leading the project, hopes to have revitalised a city that was once called "Paris on the Nile". The team of urban planners intends to offer facelifts for the city's thousands of historic buildings, lending a new shine to everything from medieval-era Islamic mosques to stately colonial homes. Perhaps most importantly, the ministry is hatching plans to reduce smog, traffic and noise by opening road access to densely packed slums and creating incentives for Cairenes to settle in "satellite cities" that have already sprouted in desert land far from the Nile River. And if the ministry gets its way, Arafa's legion of corpses will follow them. Those residents who lack a pulse, said Mr Madbouly, will be moved to two new cemeteries to the east and west of Greater Cairo - spaces that, once completed, will add 17,000 acres of new graveyard to the largest city in the Middle East and Africa. The living residents, who Mr Madbouly estimates number between 100,000 and 120,000, will be given new housing in areas that the ministry has not yet determined. Despite the lack of specifics, it is a plan that might appeal to many Arafa residents who have been trying to leave for years. Mahmoud Abdel Rhadi, 39, said he has already applied to the ministry of housing for a new home for himself and his family. The ministry classified him as a "severe case" and promised to find him a new dwelling. That was nine years ago and Mr Rhadi has not heard anything since. "We found ourselves living not a very good life, without good housing. If we found something better, of course we would leave," he said. "Our income is very low. If everything were provided for, we would move. You can see how things are here." Indeed, the residents of Arafa live in poor conditions. Their access to essential utilities is limited within the cemetery and most rely on mosques and public water sources on the edges of the community near the raised highways that contain Arafa. They live in tiny flats that were built as shelters for holidays and burial ceremonies, when the families of the deceased convene for prayers and meals with their lost loved ones. The residents also suffer from the kind of social stigma one earns from living in a cemetery. "It is really a unique problem. If you go through the United Nations reports, you will find that this is the only place in the world where you can find living people living in the same place as the dead," said Ayman Ashour, a professor of architecture and urban planning at Ain Shams University who is assisting the ministry of housing in evaluating the Arafa park project. "They suffer from a lack of infrastructure, a lack of services and of course, there is no quality of life. We as Egyptians refuse to continue this." Yet for all Arafa lacks as a living space, its benefits are just as obvious. It offers ample open space, privacy and quiet - qualities that would recommend any piece of real estate but which are particularly rare in the congested Egyptian capital. And its homes come free of charge: almost no one pays to live among the dead. "This neighbourhood is really pretty. We're happy with what God gave us," said the anonymous elderly woman, who said she has lived her entire life in Arafa. "The people who live here and the people who control the graves are good people. Nothing bad ever happens here." But even as they vow to remain in their homes until the day they are buried there, most residents said they have no illusions that the government will halt its plans on their behalf. In Egypt, many here said, only the voices of the wealthy are heard - even if those wealthy people happen to be deceased. "A lot of people are objecting. The rich people, they have their families buried here. They're objecting to this," said one elderly resident of Arafa who asked to remain anonymous. "This 2050 thing is in their imagination. This cemetery was founded hundreds of years ago. How can you rase hundreds of years of history in a very short time?" Others have been asking the same question. Arafa's billowy sands have hosted Egypt's leading lights for centuries, including the celebrated diva Om Kolthum. The burial ground also claims several historic mosques and monuments that date to the early part of the last millennium. Such heritage sites will be preserved, upgraded and incorporated into the proposed park, Mr Madbouly said. But it is the families of the more recently deceased who present the most immediate obstacles to the housing ministry's proposal. Cairo officials continue, even now, to issue new permits for new graves, pushing the cemetery against the limestone Moqattam cliffs that loom in the background. "Personally, I completely refuse this solution because all of my family's dead are in the graveyards of this area, and just like millions of Egyptians, I am used to visiting them on holidays," wrote Samir Gharib, chairman of Egypt's National Organisation for Urban Harmony, in an opinion article published in Al Akhbar newspaper on June 3. "I even visit my late wife's grave not just on holidays, but whenever I feel nostalgic about her. Has there been any social and cultural study conducted on the owners of these graves to explore their opinions and to try to convince them of this solution? Or will this plan be implemented regardless of people's opinions?" Mr Madbouly and Mr Ashour said the project is in its nascent stages and that the housing ministry and Ain Shams University are, indeed, conducting surveys of Arafa residents and families of the deceased to gauge their support. Mr Madbouly said while he has heard very little resistance to the project, even if support were universal it will be a long time before Arafa becomes a park. The recently deceased must be interned for at least 10 years before they can be excavated. If all goes according to plan, the housing ministry will stop permitting new burials within the next two to three years. In other words, it could take anywhere from 12 to 13 years before guests can enjoy a green Arafa. For those who live here, such a span amounts to nearly a lifetime. For those who are buried here, it is the blink of an eye. And for the Egyptian government, it is perhaps somewhere in between. "If we get better housing, of course no one would say no. But you know how their day is a year," said the anonymous woman, referring to the authorities who have, in the past, threatened to move Arafa's residents but never followed through. "Whatever we have now - money and houses - we're not going to take that with us when we come back here again." mbradley@thenational.ae