The world understands the value of the pyramids, the sphynx. Cairo today is a bustling world city at the receiving end of the so called Arab Spring - a collective cry from the people of Egypt for a better future. But where are the voices of the people living on the fringes of Egytian society, people like the half a million "citizens" of The City of the Dead -- a massive cemetary in the heart of Cairo.
At a time when journalists were banned from el Arafa, this video crew slipped into the cemetary and managed to get a snapshot of lives being lived among the dead of Cairo.
For understandable reasons no one in this piece can be identified. I promised to respect their wishes. Clients are welcome to use nom-de plumes wherever they wish.
BACKGROUND TO THE PIECE
(NOTE: CLIENT SHOULD SUPPLY LATEST TAHRIR SQUARE CIVIL UNREST FOOTAGE) At a time of ongoing political unrest and turmoil, when thousands Egyptians fill Tahrir Square in search of political stability and economic freedom, there is a dark side to Cairo’s social order. It’s a side of Cairo life seldom exposed to the outside world. Few people in Cairo speak of it. It’s a subject never brought up in polite conversation, or over dinner tables. It’s part of Cairo’s national buried conscience, a collective embarrassment, if you will.
It’ s the City of the Dead, el Arafa, also called Qarafa by the Cairenes – the people of Cairo. This four mile (6.4k,) long necropolis (cemetery)with its dense tomb and mausoleum structures, below the Mokattam hills in south eastern Cairo is home to over 500 000 people who live and work among the dead. Some are refugees from other parts of Egypt, from the earth quake of 1992, or from city demolitions and urban renewal programs. Some want to be near their loved ones, recent or ancient relatives. The poorest live in the City of the Dead slum, locally known as Manshiyat naser, also known as Garbage City. During the time of Mubarrak, foreign journalists were expelled if they reported on el Arafa. They were warned to pay no attention to the City of the Dead if they ever wanted to return to Egypt.
But today, many of those marching for a better future on Tahrir Square come from Qarafa. Here, among the tombs and the sarcophagi and mausoleums, children are born, people cry, laugh, and live their extraordinary invisible lives. High rent and rampant unemployment in Cairo have forced people into the cemetery. The majority of these citizens of el Arafa are Muslims, but there are a few scattered Christian families as well.
Many of the tombs are house-like: a tradition that stems from ancient Egypt. What cuts these people off from the rest of Cairo – and also adds to the mystique of the place - are massive walls that surrounds the “city” on all four sides. Some tombs are very old but people are still buried there ever day. There are two separate rooms for men and women in most of the tombs; before the funeral , people are interred in an opening in the ground in the basement of the tomb and covered by a stone slab. During the funeral the stone slab is removed and the body is placed on a shelf...which concludes the internment process.
Access to the City of the Dead is not easy. The “citizens” generally don’t like tourists or cameras and are as a rule not very welcoming to strangers. This crew managed to get special permission from the locals to film in the City of the Dead only for four hours one night. We also had to hide from Mubarrak’s police, since it was officially forbidden for foreign journalist to report from the City of the Dead.
Now for the first time, with Mabarrak gone, these images can be shown.