The sand and the dust mix in the atmosphere making the air turn thick and the sight becomes kind of blur in the transparent yet dense curtain. The constant city roar with its aggressive traffic of old cars that drive chaotically bewildering carriages pulled by donkeys wraps me and makes me forget Europe completely. The Egyptian metropolis, so big that frightens you progresses slowly at an irregular pace. Not far away from the Sheraton hotel, located in a well-off area of the city, piles of rubbish accumulate carelessly and don’t mislead the look of any tourist. Cairo needs progress and it needs it urgently. All exoticism of the city of the pharaohs is imprisoned artificially and reduced to some touristic areas due to allure foreigners equipped with cameras and useful currencies. Sultan Hassan’s mosque, the Egyptian Museum, the Al-Azhar Park, Saladin’s Citadel, Khan el-Khalili’s market and the Pyramids are impressive and lofty places yet in the south-east of the city we can also find the Arafa enclosure also known as the City of the Dead, the spot no guide wants to show and the government struggles to hide. This huge cemetery was built in the XIX century to accommodate the tombs and mausoleums of old caliphs, emirs and Mameluke sultans and it contains sepulchres that are so big that the families of the deceased could stay there for the period of forty days in which they had a wake for them. As in many other religions, Muslims allow themselves some time off to accompany those that had passed away while they get over it.
In the past the cemetery was probably full of members of well-off families. However, from 1967 onwards and due to the war with Israel a lot of Egyptians escaped from the border areas and sought shelter in the big city but the government wasn’t capable of providing the incoming masses with decent housing. Therefore many families settled down in the cemeteries inside the mausoleums that offered some sort of safety. Many other citizens of Cairo also moved there when accommodation became too expensive for the poor. This kind of “squatting” is done with the consent of the relatives that own the tombs and in turn the squatters take care of the sepulchres. In fact some of the eldest inhabitants of Arafa are professional tomb keepers and they live peacefully together with those that are not. It is nearly impossible to know for sure how many people live in the graveyards but the information in internet show figures from half a million to a million of people in a territory of six kilometres. It is no wonder that nobody has a clue about the number of inhabitants of Arafa since there are a lot of people that have not been included in the census so the figures are approximate. Yet the obvious fact is that the City of the Dead is the place where those people that have to struggle with worse conditions than the majority of Egyptians live. And the majority have problems to make the ends meet anyway. Official sources of Arabic internet pages calculate that a family living in this part of the city has a monthly income of about 125 dollars.
I decide to explore the City of the Dead after I have already had a go at all the recommended touristic routes because it is always good to get to know the truth about the country one is travelling to rather than merely sticking to the rosy side of things. I go there by taxi because there is no good bus network and the underground only gets to very central places. That goes without saying. The city of the dead is of no interest to anyone so it can be abandoned.
The driver that takes me there asks me several times why I am interested in the City of the Dead. He doesn’t seem to believe that I intend to see more than the majority of tourists. However the way I talk and my inquisitive questions about life conditions of Egyptians convince him. Not only does he take me to Arafa but he also persuades a family to let me inside of their place for a moment so that I can film the room they live in.
Interestingly enough this area of Cairo is the only one where you can’t hear the roar of the cars: of course they simply don’t come here! I get inside and the two members of the family let me look over the enclosure fleetingly and timidly with my curious eyes.
They don’t disapprove of the fact that somebody finally tries to become aware of “the other Cairo”. I am surprised that the taxi driver claims that the inhabitants of the City of the Dead are glad to live in one of the few quiet places in the city. Human beings are capable of seeing the bright side of absolutely everything- I ponder in awe.
After going out of Arafa my mood sinks because something tells me that as a foreigner I can do next to nothing for the country. My minuscule contribution consists of consuming exclusively local products instead of the imported ones so that the money stays in Egypt. It seems ridiculous but if all tourists did the same the impact would be different of course!
Many years have passed since I travelled to the hottest Cairo of a July in the middle of the Ramadan but I still sense its echo. It helped me getting to know another culture, different and fearful life conditions and also myself as a person. I found out that I can’t be a deaf, dumb and blind tourist and go to bed and dream of the Pyramids and delicious dishes of medames ful and enjoy the sight of the Nile without going beyond all that. When I close my eyes and think of Cairo I can’t recall it separately from the majority of people that live in poverty and who don’t get anything at all from the tourism industry.
Egypt has a great magnificent past that we know about, that of the Pharaohs and Cleopatra and also an unknown past of independence movements led by Doria Shafik, about whom I’ll write sometime in the near future. Yet far from its position in the world of tourism it is making a big effort towards progress. It has nearly achieved universal children’s schooling even though a big part of the youth stops attending classes when they reach secondary school because the contents of the curriculums should be revised. It is fighting against female’s circumcision and trying to balance opportunities for both genders. Egypt is as magnificent and fascinating country with a welcoming population that is forced to emigrate to other Muslim countries to survive. May it in a non distant future reverberate with the spark of the glory of its past!