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It is winter 2004 in Cairo. The gutters are running red with the blood of slaughtered sheep, goats and oxen ± animals sacrificed for the µEid ul-Adha (the Islamic ³Feast of Immolation,´ celebrating Abraham¶s willingness to sacrifice his son to God). Peasants stroll down 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 and collapsing cenotaphs and mausoleums built out of brick and limestone, near the Citadel. This decrepit cemetery dates back to the Mamluk rule of Egypt: 13th to 16th Century. Taxis, herds of goats, stray cats, and wild dogs, make their way down slender meandering streets, which house some of Cairo¶s poorest people ± a place where no tour busses could fit. The City of the Dead is one of the forgotten, or less talked about neighbourhoods in this megalopolis, where perhaps a hundred thousand of Cairo¶s poor squat in the tombs of their ancestors. I¶ve been told impoverished Cairenes sometimes simply show-up to these tombs and construct make-shift shanties to live in, this, in order to escape the extortionate price of proper housing. I wanted to see 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 really estimate 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 a Herculean task: Cairo covers more than 175 square miles, and it is difficult to separate the city from 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 Sudan for over two decades now. I did not arrive easily to this disreputable part of town: my friend and dragoman (an Arabic loan word, incidentally) assured me that he had arranged for a knowledgeable driver to take us, though, when we passed through the mysterious City of the Dead, the driver abruptly turned 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 a new cemetery, that rather, I wanted to see the crumbling and intriguing City of the Dead, he told me 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 stay away, 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. I appreciate their humility, their understandingness, their simplicity, and too, the way they look me directly in the eye when they talk. You always know where you stand with somebody who lives on the fringes of society. Some of my favourite prose and poetry has effused from writers who associated 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 show me 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 that one would see at a home construction store. We arrived at the driver¶s mausoleum. He opened the padlock securing green wrought iron 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 float up to heaven. Inside, two small hoopoe birds ± with pinkish-brown bodies, black and white wings, long slender beaks, and equally long slender crests extending back from their heads ± were pecking in the dirt for food: the hoopoe bears striking resemblance to the cartoon character, Woody Woodpecker. The birds flew away as the doors clanged opened. ³The Wisdom Bird,´ my friend told me, while pointing at the ostentatious hoopoe birds in 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 the elevated limestone floor. She swept. She fetched the water. She sprinkled water over the tombs and steps. Outwith, she watered a rather anaemic-looking lotus tree ± its branches hanging, with tiny 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 I walked farther down the sandy path, to an open cenotaph that was still under construction. We
climbed the short flight of steps up to the threshold, and then down, perhaps eight-to-ten feet, into the burial chambers beneath. Two empty rooms were tiled, and had arched roofs; the chambers were square ± ten by ten feet. It was explained to me that the men of the family are buried in the left-hand chamber, the women the right. Bodies are not clothed. When another member of the family dies, the limestone floor is re-opened and the body lain to rest ± up to twenty-five of each gender will fill a tomb this size. The driver agreed to take me to into the mysterious the City of the Dead. On our way out of Qattamiyya, we stopped and bought a kilo of red carrots from an µarbagiyya (donkey cart driver). While we drove, I chomped on red carrots, which I reckoned to be nothing more than elongated flavourless radishes. I thought back to a recipe I had seen for red carrot jam in the local weekly, Al-Ahram, and wondered why somebody would want to make jam out of this rather bland vegetable. We arrived. At the City of the Dead, the driver and dragoman tried to show me around various mosques. But I told them I wanted to see the people who lived in the tombs. They looked at each other, and began chattering away in colloquial Arabic. I may be less than proficient in that tongue, though, I unequivocally caught one phrase, ³huwa magnun.´ [he (is) crazy]. ³Ay, yay, yay, yay!´ I barked at them. We walked down one of the dusty alleys: there were piles of rotting garbage ± from which skittish wild dogs ate; countless stray cats lurked and sneaked about ± walking on the tops of concrete fences, sitting on the tops of stripped taxis, trotting in and out of deteriorating cenotaphs. Several small rodent-like creatures leapt along ± seemingly swimming in the air as they scudded by ± then rapidly disappearing into small holes in broken water pipes. I asked my
dragoman what those deft little animals were. He only knew the colloquial name, ¶arsa, which I later found to mean, ³weasel.´ ³They are very mean,´ he said. ³Cats and dogs are afraid of them. You should be too. They are vicious. And fear nothing. They have very sharp teeth and will fight anything.´ We came to a large stone mausoleum ± considerably larger than the family cenotaph the driver had shown me. This building was immense. Heavy wood doors with peeling green paint stood ten foot tall ± and ajar. I looked inside: a woman wearing a clean white galabiyya was standing near the door with her ten year-old daughter. The woman sensed my curiosity, and came to the doorway. I let the dragoman take over: she immediately invited us into her home ± the tomb of her husband¶s great-great-great-grandfather. In the back of the vestibule, a spacious room with sixteen foot high ceilings, there was a large catafalque with a sarcophagus on top. This was behind a large dark wood latticework ± this screening, mashrabiyya, is seen everywhere in Cairo. Above the entrance was a grey marble plaque: and carved into the plaque was the sinewy Arabic script, interrupted by dots ± telling who the deceased were. The woman¶s husband emerged, a tall smiling handsome man ± perhaps in his thirties ± and warmly greeted me. He immediately instructed his wife to bring us tea. We politely declined their offer. I wanted to see the other rooms ± where they lived, slept, and ate. I was taken farther back into the mausoleum: humble rooms had been sectioned-off. There was a modest refrigerator. A small sink and kitchen area was neatly arranged and dutifully kept clean. I enquired anent their toilet facilities, and was taken back to the vestibule. A small wooden shed had been constructed with care and craftsmanship: inside were a tiny porcelain sink, an aluminium shower head projected from the wall that simply ran into a drain in the middle of the
tiled floor, and the type of toilet one would see in a mosque ± a sort of recessed basin built into the floor to squat over ± with a water hose next to it, with which to clean one¶s self when finished. I was curious as to how the water and electricity services came to this mausoleum-home, well over one hundred years old, as domesticity in such places was not consented by permit. Electricity came in through wires strung from street lamps, outside the nearby mosque. And the husband, I soon learnt, was a plumber by trade ± which explained the toilet. This man holds a respectable job: he works six days a week, and likely well over ten hours a day, in order to provide for his loving family. His daughter, named, Ismay (lit.: µnames¶), attends school ± the fifth grade, which is the same grade I teach, though, my students are the privileged children of the nouveau riche. I asked the man, who has lived in this mausoleum his entire life, if he would ever consider residing elsewhere ± or if he preferred his life here. He explained that although he would prefer to buy a house or let an apartment for his family, that the cost was simply prohibitive. But one day he hoped to do so. The family seemed almost as intrigued by me, as I was them. I thanked the family for their hospitality and we left. # We walked past a large dust-covered concrete mosque, with equally dusty towering minarets. From loudspeakers affixed to the minarets, the muezzin began calling the faithful to mid-day prayers, in a blaring trebly howl: laaaaaaaaaa ilaha ilaaaaala-l-Lah (no god what-soever but Allah) wa Muhaaaaaamad rasul Aaaaallah (and Muhammad is his messenger). A few men, wearing the white knit cap of submission to the faith of Arabia, were standing at the cavernous entrance to this decrepit mosque and removing their sandals, as they prepared to enter
and pray. A long-bearded man in white galabiyya, with very short hair and a prayer callous at the top centre of his forehead (the result of spending hours a day prostrated in prayer), was selling perfume essences and cassette recordings of recitations of the Qur¶an. The long-bearded man rose from his sitting position, in front of the mosque, removed his sandals, and walked inside ± leaving his merchandise unattended. The driver slowly drove behind us as we walked. We decided to dismiss the driver, spend the rest of the day walking through the City of the Dead, and then hail another taxi back to my hotel. I paid the driver and again thanked him for taking me to his family¶s cenotaph. Nearby, a man who ran a tiny kiosk ± nothing but potato chips, soft drinks, and cigarettes ± removed his shoes and began to answer the mid-day call to prayers: he kneeled on a worn cotton prayer mat, prostrating himself to Allah, his forehead pressed to the ground. In the more posh neighbourhoods, it is not uncommon to see conscripted police praying at their posts, in front of the polished pink granite façades of palatial villas ± the police, in black wool uniforms, boots removed, and with aging Kalashnikov rifles held to their hips by hand, as they kneel and press their heads to the ground. But I never saw any police in the City of the Dead. On the other side of the mosque, we came across another enormous limestone wall, with gargantuan unpainted wooden doors wide open. Inside, was a large courtyard with a lush garden: orange trees, date palms, mango trees, and banana plants ± with their imperious banana leaves: some seven foot long, and two foot wide. I inspected the inside of this garden burial plot from the doorway. A young gal in a dark green galabiyya and higab was standing off to the side. ³Salem µalyeikum.´ I said
She waved us in, and then went to fetch her mother. The mother, a cheerful stout middleaged woman, invited us to walk throughout the expansive courtyard at our whim. In the back, were three enormous white marble sarcophagi. They appeared to have been styled after the baroque, with undulating curved edges that were almost aqueous. There was intricate calligraphic Arabic script carved into the white marble face, with complex geometric designs arranged around the writing ± mostly in repetitive and concentric rotating squares. The most important of these three men lay in the middle, the second one to his right, the third his left. Across from the dramatic sarcophagi, was another less elaborate burial plot, where the more recently deceased family members are interred ± and more so, in the style that the driver had earlier shown me. Family have been living in this expansive burial plot for over one hundred and twenty-five years, the woman told us. We went into their living quarters, which were considerably more upscale than the first home we visited. Rich oriental carpets laid on the floor, a large new television sat silent, a fish tank had many brightly-coloured little fishes darting around inside, large broken shards of cobalt blue glass rested in thin wood window frames. A bouquet of white roses stood in a vase on the corner table ± and I thought about something my father often said, ³qui fleurit sa maison fleurit son coeur.´ Sweet-smelling jasmine incense burned in a small brass tray in the corner. Shiny Mylar Christmas decorations were draped from the ceiling, and too, a small plastic wreath on the wall ± remains of the recent Coptic Christmas. The woman explained that though they were Muslim, they celebrate all holidays. The woman repeatedly offered us tea, though, we again declined ± while sitting on her comfortable divans. The young gal hovered, while looking at her mother as though maybe she should indeed bring us tea, regardless of our protestations. The woman¶s husband was at work ±
he was a car salesman, and she pointed to a calendar on the wall that displayed a new model Jeep Liberty. Then she pointed to one of the rich Persian carpets on the floor, and joked that while her husband sells cars, that the family preferred travelling by flying carpet. I asked the woman if she would rather live elsewhere, and she said, ³no, absolutely not.´ This had been their home for generations, and would continue to be such. I complimented the woman on her lush garden as we left. After seeking her mother¶s approval, the daughter climbed onto a wooden box, picked an orange, and gave it to me. My friend asked if I had brought a camera, and I told him, ³no.´ He seemed happy with that answer. I also never bring a notebook on these sorts of excursions ± mostly to avoid drawing suspect attention to myself. When I first came to Cairo, I used to make notes in the evenings while drinking at my local bar; six months later, when the other Egyptian patrons got to know me better, they told me they used to think I was some sort of agent or informer, because I fit the profile: Levi¶s, starched white shirt, closely-cropped hair, and always writing away in a note book at the end of the bar. Since that cultural epiphany, I¶ve tried to look less conspicuous, and now rely on what used to be a remarkable memory for the details in my compositions. At the next home we let upon, I again caught a peep of activity therein, and through yet another open door. I stood in the dusty road, peeking inside, as voluptuous beautiful peasant girls washed clothes in a large barrel of soapy churning water. The dragoman chuckled at my unabashed curiosity, and we were again invited-in by the matriarch. This home was considerably smaller than the others ± low ceilings, cramped quarters, though still very neat and tidy. The patriarch remained seated on the carpeted floor of a back room, in front of a small blaring television ± he merely acknowledged us with a glance.
Out back, was a modest courtyard, with stone funerary monuments shaped like benches. While we were in the courtyard, the attractive young peasant girls loomed in the doorway ± consuming me with their eyes. The mother stood with them, and in a somewhat meretricious manner, she said things to them I could not understand that made them laugh. I smiled and waved. My friend and dragoman, turned to me and muttered, ³I think Mister Pip has a thing for peasant women.´ ³Sure,´ I said. ³They always look so« sturdy, eh?´ My friend laughed. We stood in the back doorway and talked for a considerably longer time than we had at the other homes: we chatted extensively with the woman and her daughters ± or rather, my friend did and I just tried to listen, and through him, ask occasional questions: one daughter was still in school, the other recently finished. When they married, they would hopefully leave the City of the Dead. The mother was quite gregarious, and constantly laughing and slapping her hands together when making an emphatic point. I could not really follow the conversation, but all were laughing. Sometimes I could pick-out words, like, ³khawaga,´ the term for a Western foreigner ± an attenuated title of respect, peppered with contempt. Faux politesse: a friend would never say it. The woman asked me if I were happy ± inverting my question about her penury living conditions. Then she asked if I were married, and when I told her I was divorced, she burst into laughter ± and said that I was most certainly a happy man. The matriarch pointed to my blue eyes, and told my friend that when I have children, they too will have blue eyes ± she was thrilled about that. Then she stared very deeply into my eyes with a searching look: and when I
looked into hers, I glimpsed ephemeral traces of dancing mischief. She broke our gaze with roaring laughter. This carried on for another half-hour. A well-to-do young man pulled-up outside in a new model Peugeot, and sauntered inside the domesticated tomb. The mother and daughters clearly knew him well and were happy to see him. He looked us over, shook our hands, smiled, and then left ± who he was, and why he stopped by, was never elucidated. We left. The patriarch, who never acknowledged us beyond our initial entrance, had a cramped work room in the front of the modest cenotaph ± where he did cabinet-making: the room looked unused. The mother and daughters followed us to the door, all the while laughing and carrying on. She kept repeating the name of her street, which I don¶t recall, and pointing to nearby landmarks. My friend turned to me, winked, and asked me if I would be coming back to visit them again. I caught on, and said, ³yes.´ This pleased the woman. As we walked down the dusty street, past tiny make-shift kiosks, and more scampering cats, my friend looked over his shoulder, and in a hushed voice said, ³this woman, she is no good. She is always laughing and smiling, but her heart is black. She sells hashish. She told me that she can get you a woman ± anything you wish.´ ³Oh good, did she happen to give you a price list?´ I joked. My friend became most serious, and said, ³no. Not from this woman. She would try to get you in trouble, so that you would have to buy your way out with bribes. She would charge you too much for the hashish. She would bring you an unclean woman. This woman is very bad. She wanted to know how much money I was going to take from you. I told her that you were my friend, and that «´
I nodded my head as we kept walking ± and said, ³I could tell by the look in her eye that something was going on inside her.´ ³Maybe a jinn has taken her over, Mister Pip,´ he said, laughing. ³We call them µgenies¶ in English.´ ³Arabic word,´ he assured me. ³Where do these jinns come from?´ ³There are many stories about jinns. Here is some Islamic folklore for you, Mister Pip: Allah went to Eve in the Garden, and asked to see her children. Eve was not sure why Allah wanted to see them. So, she decided that she would only show him six of her twelve children. Allah said to her, µEve, your children are most beautiful ± now they shall be the children of light. But because you hid six from me, they shall now be the children of darkness.¶ The children of light are people, and the children of darkness are jinns.´ ³Not a bad story,´ I said. ³This woman¶s husband is no good. A good Egyptian man would always greet a guest, shake his hand, and offer him something ± a chair, a cigarette, or tea. This man, he just sits in front of the TV. He has no brain. He has no manners. He is a weak man.´ # We dipped into a few more of these makeshift households ± I simply wanted to see more of this unusual domesticity, especially, since this lifestyle appeared so normal to the cemetery¶s denizens. We were always greeted warmly. And strangely, we were always beckoned into their homes. This was most unusual to me. I asked my friend about this constant welcoming. ³Egyptian hospitality,´ he said. ³And they are genuine about it.´
Another home that was of particular note, was a vast outdoor complex, that held hundreds of bench-like tombstones. And too, several small concrete mausoleums, in serious disrepair, stood for the wealthier members of this huge family ± whom had long passed away. The area was walled in by stone. In the immediate courtyard, sat two effervescent young couples who were chatting away. Shirts and pants were strewn across broken bench-like tombstones ± the clothes had been washed and were now drying in the mid-day sun. The residents invited us to look wherever we liked. Scores of chickens and roosters went tearing past us, as did turkeys ± two large geese were seated next to a pan of water, and absently tugging at tethers that tied their legs to a wrought iron fence, so they would not fly away. This cemetery compound was perhaps half the size of a football pitch. Inside the immense mausoleum complex, we saw their living quarters, which was crumbling in serious disrepair. The damp dead smell of rotting masonry permeated the entrance. Farther down the narrow stone hallway, a thin man wearing a pale yellow wrinkled galabiyya, was hunched over of two propane tanks that had burners emitting hissing flames ± heating aluminium pans of bubbling food. One burner was frying potatoes, the other boiled fasolia ± a sort of salad (I¶d never seen it cooked before) made from green beans, onions, tomatoes, and spiced according to taste. The tart smell of cooking food made me intensely hungry. Behind the cooking man, an attractive young gal with strong calloused hands, saturnine expression, and wearing a black galabiyya, was shovelling fine yellow sand from a mountainous pile into large bags, and then hauling them off to the side. When we entered, she looked entirely unimpressed with our presence. This sand-shovelling business was going on in the middle of their make-shift kitchen, which had tiny adjoining rooms where the people slept.
At this point, I asked my friend the serious question that had been cycling around my craw for some time: ³everyone maintains that they are related to the people buried in these places. But is it possible they aren¶t? And that some of them randomly showed-up one day, and nobody questioned them?´ ³No. Absolutely not.´ He said categorically. I did not press the matter further: there is a thick well-paved line betwixt being inquisitive and being invasive; and I had none such the intention to cross. The reason I asked that question is because I¶ve been repeatedly told that the inhabitants here were the gutter-level poor ± living in a shanties constructed in cenotaphs that did not belong to them, with neither running water nor sanitation facilities. I did not circumambulate the entire cemetery, though, I never saw any of those sorts of abject-squalor living conditions. We left. The sand-shovelling gal was decidedly more polite on exit ± maybe she was happy to see us leave. A few young kids ran around us, possibly never having seen a khawaga this close ± certainly not one in their own home. Outside, we stood not far from the hilltop Al-Azhar University, arguably the oldest and largest madrasa (Islamic school) in the Near East ± they have some 90,000 students. I had spent most of the forenoon, and the balance of the aft, in the City of the Dead: it was time to go home. The pollution and dust, heavy in the air, had left a grittiness and itch on my neck, face and hands. I had the dull metallic taste of exhaust on the tip of my tongue and lips. I needed very badly to shower again. We hailed a cab. An impromptu mid-winter downpour hit as we drove back to my hotel, past the bustling and labyrinthine Khan Al Khalili bazaar; the cab did not have functional wipers; the driver tied a rag to a stick and hooked his arm out the window, wiping rainwater from the
windscreen; we careened through watery Cairo streets while he navigated incomprehensible traffic patterns. My friend and dragoman, asked me if I had seen what I had wanted to see, and if I were satisfied with the day¶s excursion. I certainly was, and much more than he probably would¶ve understood ± his being native Cairene. On the drive back, I thought about one of my favourite quotes by Ibn Khaldun, the Fourteenth Century Islamic historian and philosopher, who spent many years travelling throughout the Maghreb and Arabia, holding various judicial posts, and too, lecturing here at Al-Azhar. When describing his impression of Cairo, Khaldun said, ³what one sees in dreams surpasses reality. But all that one could dream of Cairo, falls short of the truth.´