x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'Living around the dead helps me see how we will end up. It makes me feel closer to God'

In Cairo's Arafa neighbourhood, seven members from among three generations of the Ibrahim family live in a stately stone dwelling.

CAIRO // Call it Egypt's answer to the duplex. In Cairo's Arafa neighbourhood, seven members from among three generations of the Ibrahim family live in a stately stone dwelling. In the courtyard next to their two-room home, they have planted a grapevine and several ficus trees that offer shade for about a dozen chickens.

By Cairo's congested standards, their living space is roomy, quiet and private. Better still, the Ibrahims never pay rent, nor do they quarrel with their closest neighbours: the 15 men and 10 women (the numbers are approximate because the Ibrahims have not been keeping track) buried beneath them. "We have been put in this position. We've tried to change it as much as possible. But everyone finds something that helps satisfy them with how they live," said Sunna Mohammed Ibrahim. "Living around the dead helps me to see how we will all end up. It makes me feel closer to God."

Faced daily with the evanescence of human life, it is perhaps easy to understand why the Ibrahims are not at all vexed by the ministry of housing's proposal to uproot - both literally and figuratively - the millions of living and dead in this community. For this family and thousands like them, one thing has always been clear: men and their plans come and go, but the dead of Arafa will always remain.

"We've heard about projects for building institutes and religious centres," said Sayyid Mohammed Ibrahim, 35, who said he was born in Arafa. "They come and they study it and they take measurements, but it never gets done." Instead, the ranks of the living in Arafa have expanded since the Ibrahim family first arrived about 30 years ago from Monofeya, a village in the Nile Delta north of Cairo. Before they moved to Cairo, Mohammed Ibrahim, Sunna and Sayyid's father, had commuted between his home village and his job as a nurse at Muqattam Hospital near the cemetery.

At first, Mr Ibrahim and his family rented a small one-room flat. But when his family expanded, he began to quarrel with his neighbours. The owner of the hospital in which Mr Ibrahim worked recognised the young nurse's disagreeable living conditions and offered his own elegant family plot as a solution. "So he came here where there's plenty of room and no neighbours," said Om Mohammed, 66, Mr Ibrahim's wife.

Like many of the graves in Arafa, the Ibrahims live within a high stone wall that encloses both their house and a burial pit marked by a large tombstone. The elaborate style was inspired by the graves of the Fatimid Dynasty, which ruled Egypt and much of northern Africa during the early part of the previous millennium. Centuries-old graves of people who claim to be direct descendents of the Prophet Mohammed can still be found throughout Arafa. Egyptians have been living in such graves for nearly as long - historians say the practice dates back to the 14th century.

What is now the Ibrahim family home was built originally as temporary accommodation to allow the family of the deceased to linger at the grave on religious holidays, such as Eid al Fitr. The transition from burial ground to permanent home was surprisingly fluid, said the Ibrahims. The original enclosure came complete with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a small kitchen, all of which are connected with electricity and running water. Aside from planting trees, the Ibrahims made no permanent structural changes. Yet, despite the continuous presence of a seven-member family, the host family continues to visit its dead. As recently as two years ago, said Om Mohammed, their hosts buried yet another relative in the plot. As the family buried their dead amid mournful tears and the requisite religious ceremony, the Ibrahims simply sat by and watched. Neither party felt awkward.

"They still remember that they have people here. That gets passed down from generation to generation," she said, referring to the family who owns the burial plot. "The family comes here sometimes. They come and sit here for five to 10 minutes and then read from the Quran." It is an anonymous intimacy unique to only the most densely populated places in the world. But while the Ibrahims seem well-adapted to their strange environment and its occasional intruders, they have had difficulty convincing others. Outside of this quiet cemetery, the idea of living among the dead is as foreign to the average Egyptian as it would be to almost any cultural sensibility.

"The people who live in those apartment buildings, they also look at us as substandard," said Sayyid, gesturing toward the nearby informal housing units whose residents, like those in the City of the Dead, expanded dramatically when Egypt urbanised during the 1980s and 1990s. "I feel like I'm better off here because I can move around as much as I want, but they only have maybe two rooms." Life in a graveyard may be just a different sort of squalor. But the shame of the Ibrahims is nevertheless more acute. Particularly for the women in the family, no-rent circumstances have come with a high social cost. Sunna still smarts from an episode during her university years when she reciprocated for a girlfriend who had invited her as a guest. When the young woman came to Sunna's graveyard dwelling, she was shocked.

"I prepared for her really well and it cost me a lot to have her over. But as soon as she came she was very frightened. She didn't stay for long," Sunna said. "I felt very embarrassed. I didn't do it again and I never mention anymore that I live in the graveyards." Both Sunna and her younger sister Fathia, 27, are now married and Sunna has two sons. All three of the adult Ibrahim children have also earned bachelor's degrees at prestigious universities in Cairo. But despite their accomplishments, the day-to-day humiliation remains difficult to endure.

"If someone wanted my hand or my sister's hand in marriage, he would hesitate a thousand times. So we have had to accept whatever is available to us. We have all had to cut through rock to get to where we are right now," Sunna said. "People living in the city think we're twisted or sick for living with the dead. But I have gotten used to it. It's my home." mbradley@thenational.ae