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Selma Cook 


Coming from a materialistic society where life is somewhat organized and seems civilized, when I found myself in this hauntingly mysterious place, I felt like I'd entered the twilight zone. Could this really be real? I wondered how the people living here filled in government forms,- where do you live? Address: City of the dead! Doesn't sound too good for a job application.

When I was very new the Egypt, I had to go to a certain place by bus.  I didn't know my way around and could only understand a few words of Arabic.  I asked people which bus I should go on and finally found myself on a large crowded bus which, later I learnt was heading in the opposite direction to where I had to go.

The bus turned off the main road into a narrow dirt street with strange looking houses on either side.  It was one hour before sunset , when someone on the bus told me that this was the wrong bus for me and I should take the one from another place.  I got off that bus about one kilometer from the main road and had to walk back. I was in the middle of the City of the dead, which has become another suburb of Cairo.

There are many, many poor people in Egypt, who can't find a real place to live and so they take residence in the tombs.  This point requires some explanation. Even though Egypt is a Muslim country, there's a lot of ignorance about Islam.  We're not supposed to build anything over graves including tombs, monuments or mosques.  Unfortunately, though it is commonly practiced.  However, we are supposed to provide the basic needs of people and if everyone paid their Zakat (money to be paid to the poor by people with a certain amount of wealth), places like the city of the dead would simply disappear.

The graves are contained in a cellar like room which is entered by a trap-door, with steps going down into the tomb.  Then outside of the trap-door, the people usually build high brick walls with a gate and heavy lock.  Perhaps this is  a remnant of their Pharoanic history which is instilled into them at schools.  Usually the graves have no roof, but some do.  Poor people take up residence within these brick dwellings that probably serve as more protection against the weather than wooden shacks or shanties made of cartons, heshion and pieces of corrugated iron.

I walked down that street, very much aware of the sun rapidly sinking in the sky and of the many eyes that must be watching me.  I saw lamp bulbs swinging in the breeze over doorways, blankets laid out to air, ropes holding clothes outside to dry and even a half made rocking chair as well as pairs of shoes on a mat at the threshold of a grave, meaning the inhabitants were inside.

An eerie mixture of life and death mingled in the air.  People, whose poverty and destitution let them exist in a state of living death, with neighbors who lay still and quiet beneath the ground.

Many small, narrow but unexpectedly clean streets veered off the one I was on and I took great care not to lose my way.  A school building had been 'erected' and shanty shops and even a barber's shop could be seen snuggled between graves.  All the signs of life were present, but no people.

This gave me a creepy feeling and I hurried my steps towards the main road that lay ahead.  As I walked I thought about the people who lived in such a place. People who were born there, raised there, married there and finally died there.  I wondered what they thought of the dead person who shared their residence.  I wondered how they slept at night.  Later I came to know that some doctors and lawyers had their beginnings in this part of Cairo and I wondered how they filled in government forms,- where do you live?  Address: City of the dead!  Doesn't sound too good for a job application.  Nevertheless, it happens.  People survive, struggle and make changes.

At one point I stopped still and looked up at something that seemed so out of place, so shocking and intrusive.  Chained and held by huge bolts on top of a grave was a familiar, large red sign that glared down on passersby.  Even though most people here can't read, I guess they would recognize the trademark.  I felt sick as I read 'Coke, is it!'  What exactly do they mean by 'it'?  Do they mean the peak of life, success, satisfaction and happiness is contained in a can of cola?  What a rip-off!

These people struggled to feed their children simple food to survive, and many die from diseases related to malnourishment.  Now, even these, the poorest of the poor, are exposed to uncaring, blank, opportunistic advertising.

People here would probably think that having shoes for their children was 'it', good food once a week was 'it' or a six year old able to go to school instead of carrying bricks all day was 'it'!

 Migrating to a Muslim land

 Basics of Islam