Welcome to Scribd. Sign in or start your free trial to enjoy unlimited e-books, audiobooks & documents.Find out more
Standard view
Full view
of .
Look up keyword
Like this
0 of .
Results for:
No results containing your search query
P. 1
Wisdom Birds & Flying Carpets: Cairo's City of the Dead

Wisdom Birds & Flying Carpets: Cairo's City of the Dead

|Views: 53|Likes:
Published by Pete Willows
This essay, has appeared in shorter versions in The British Journal in Cairo, and the Egyptian Gazette. It can run every few years because the neighbourhood is almost timeless.
This essay, has appeared in shorter versions in The British Journal in Cairo, and the Egyptian Gazette. It can run every few years because the neighbourhood is almost timeless.

More info:

Published by: Pete Willows on Oct 10, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


Read on Scribd mobile: iPhone, iPad and Android.
download as DOCX, PDF, TXT or read online from Scribd
See more
See less





Wisdom Birds and Flying Carpets: the City of the Dead
It is winter 2004 in Cairo. The gutters are running red with the blood of slaughteredsheep, goats and oxen ± animals sacrificed for the µEid ul-Adha (the Islamic ³Feast oImmolation,´ celebrating Abraham¶s willingness to sacrifice his son to God). Peasants strolldown the narrow dusty streets with slabs of freshly slaughtered meat over their shoulders ± their galabiyyas stained with blood. A butcher is slaughtering a cow on the sidewalk outside his shop ± his assistants cutting, skinning and sawing away at the beasts, while taxis and microbuses whiz by.I¶m walking through the City of the Dead ± a sprawling district of crumbling andcollapsing cenotaphs and mausoleums built out of brick and limestone, near the Citadel. Thisdecrepit cemetery dates back to the Mamluk rule of Egypt: 13
to 16
Century. Taxis, herds of goats, stray cats, and wild dogs, make their way down slender meandering streets, which housesome of Cairo¶s poorest people ± a place where no tour busses could fit. The City of the Dead isone of the forgotten, or less talked about neighbourhoods in this megalopolis, where perhaps ahundred thousand of Cairo¶s poor squat in the tombs of their ancestors. I¶ve been toldimpoverished Cairenes sometimes simply show-up to these tombs and construct make-shiftshanties to live in, this, in order to escape the extortionate price of proper housing. I wanted tosee for myself the living conditions of Cairo¶s more impecunious citizens.Cairo is smack-dab in the middle of a population explosion. One could only reallyestimate the population of a city this enormous and bustling ± so-told, there are some 20 million people living here. Others assure me the number is substantially higher. A census would be aHerculean task: Cairo covers more than 175 square miles, and it is difficult to separate the cityfrom its immediate suburbs. Tall slender dark-skinned Sudani refugees have been steadily
 pouring into Cairo to escape their savage civil war, which has been haemorrhaging in the Sudanfor over two decades now.I did not arrive easily to this disreputable part of town: my friend and dragoman (anArabic loan word, incidentally) assured me that he had arranged for a knowledgeable driver totake us, though, when we passed through the mysterious City of the Dead, the driver abruptlyturned onto the traffic-crammed Autostrada, then sped out to the remote desert community of Qattamiyya. A new cemetery is under construction there, and he wanted to show me.When I politely informed my dragoman-friend that I couldn¶t care less about seeing anew cemetery, that rather, I wanted to see the crumbling and intriguing City of the Dead, he toldme the driver refused to go: ³there are no police there. There is no law there. There are thieves,and pimps and drug-dealers. People who are low and dangerous. And you would do well to stayaway, Mister Pip.´I didn¶t bother trying to explain that I have always felt a sincere affinity for those of low birth, the down-and-outs, ³God¶s forgotten children ± poor bastards,´ as my father would say. Iappreciate their humility, their understandingness, their simplicity, and too, the way they look medirectly in the eye when they talk. You always know where you stand with somebody who liveson the fringes of society. Some of my favourite prose and poetry has effused from writers whoassociated with the down-and-outs: CK Williams, Elmore Leonard, and the Beat writers,immediately come to mind. And I also like that I have to maintain my edge and wits at all times,when lurking in the darker neighbourhoods of the world.When we arrived at the new cemetery in Qattamiyya, I realised the driver wanted to showme his family monument. We walked down rows of cenotaphs and mausoleums, built with red brick and poured concrete ± hardened mortar between the bricks puffed out in fat little rolls.
With iron gates and open roofs, the new cenotaphs looked like a row of demonstration patios thatone would see at a home construction store.We arrived at the driver¶s mausoleum. He opened the padlock securing green wroughtiron doors. Buried inside, were his father, mother, and brother ± who had recently passed-away.There was no roof on the red brick structure, this, some mysticists say, allows the spirit to floatup to heaven.Inside, two small hoopoe birds ± with pinkish-brown bodies, black and white wings, longslender beaks, and equally long slender crests extending back from their heads ± were pecking inthe dirt for food: the hoopoe bears striking resemblance to the cartoon character, WoodyWoodpecker. The birds flew away as the doors clanged opened.³The Wisdom Bird,´ my friend told me, while pointing at the ostentatious hoopoe birdsin flight. ³In the Qur¶an he told riddles to Solomon, and carried his messages to the Queen of Sheba. There is much poetry devoted to The Wisdom Bird.´An attractive young peasant girl arrived, wearing a blue velour galabiyya and green higab ± and all the while, balancing a large plastic bucket of water on her head. She removed the bucket, placed it on the sandy ground, and we climbed the short flight of stairs ± perhaps four feet up. The peasant girl picked-up random dead tree branches, and dried palm leaves, from theelevated limestone floor. She swept. She fetched the water. She sprinkled water over the tombsand steps. Outwith, she watered a rather anaemic-looking lotus tree ± its branches hanging, withtiny sharp spikes. When I asked my dragoman why the girl had sprinkled water over the tombs,he said, ³so that the people buried here can drink.´I thanked the driver for allowing me a visit to his family¶s tomb. My dragoman and Iwalked farther down the sandy path, to an open cenotaph that was still under construction. We

You're Reading a Free Preview

/*********** DO NOT ALTER ANYTHING BELOW THIS LINE ! ************/ var s_code=s.t();if(s_code)document.write(s_code)//-->