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