Cairo Not far from central Cairo is a walled cemetery centuries old and filled with mausoleums, often speaking of the riches of the dead in the same way that the pyramids spoke of rulers hundreds of years before them. The area encompasses hundreds of acres and Costanza La Mantia, who was walking us through the area and had studied the architecture for years while getting her Phd, pointed out that this was a greener environment as well with the trees and plants in the patios.
The City of the Dead though is full of very alive people in what she called a “luxury slum.” The tradition in the past had families visiting to mourn a dyingrelation for 40 days. A full range of services developed to support them for these long periods. Additionally someone would be employed to live in the mausoleum as a combination caretaker and security guard. They would live with their family and in the traditional way the caretaker’s son would inherit his job and be allowed to also build a place to live and so on and so on. Over the years the population of the living vastly exceeded those that had passed away. Now the dead are no longer coming into the cemetery, and the urban planners and developers are swarming around the area because the land is so valuable given the hugeness of Cairo and the area’s closeness to the central districts.
Walking along the streets and paths, visiting the mosques, looking through the wrought iron into the patios where people lived, it was easy to see what people would become very comfortable living among the dead. In many cases we were looking at multistory buildings that had risen high into the air where the bottom floor in some cases or the basement would still be a funerary chamber. Costanza pointed out where a local non-profit had developed a store for glassblowing. In another area there were occasional theatrical productions, but mainly there was no pretending that we were not in a slum, since that was crystal clear. There are more than a half dozen distinct districts or “neighborhoods” according to Costanza and the detailed maps she showed us creating a diversity of villages much like we find in Korogocho in Nairboi where we organize.
The most startling and calming thing about the City of the Dead in the 24 hour din and bustle of Cairo was the quiet everywhere. We had found the one place where horns were not blaring and traffic was non-existent.
As jaded as I have become looking at slums, where one steels oneself to the sights of suffering and despair, there was no question that this was the first time I had seen a slum that seemed a sanctuary.
That alone convinces me that this is an area worth fight to preserve not only for the people who live there and have died there, but for all of us to understand what is possible and find a peace that confronts our perspective.