Life in the City of the Dead
The City of the Dead lies below the Moqattam Hills, in the Arafa necropolis, on the southeastern edge of Cairo. The cemetery stretches for more than six kilometers. As many as half a million people live within its tombs and mausoleums. It is considered a slum.
Some of the residents have chosen to live here so they can be near their ancestors. But most of the people who call the City of the Dead home moved here when the cost of living in central Cairo became too expensive. Others migrated from rural areas, in search of a job and the cheapest place to stay in Cairo.
This story is about the hardships faced by two families living in the City of the Dead.
Fathi, 31, is a gravedigger and tomb keeper. He has worked in the City of the Dead for 15 years. He lives alongside two tombs in a room with his wife and two-year-old daughter.
Sherifa, 36, suffers from breast cancer. She lives in the City of Dead for financial reasons. It’s where she can afford to pay rent. She lives with her husband and her two children in a single room.
This story was produced for the World Press Photo ‘Reporting Change’ training program. Fathi buys food for breakfast in a market in the City of the Dead. Before getting married, he lived with his father. He met his wife when she was working with his cousin in a factory. Now she takes care of the home and their child. Fathi is responsible for the upkeep of 400 tombs. Many of his clients approach him directly, while some are referred to him by his father, a carpenter. He’s also in charge of preparing tombs for families, ensuring they have a plot and digging the area to a family’s requirements. Fathi, his wife Om Onsy and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Raham among the tombs of the City of the Dead. Fathi works as a gravedigger and a tomb keeper. He prepares tombs for burials and takes care of the tombs after a body has been interred. The courtyard outside Fathi’s home.
For Muslims, when someone dies the soul is gone but the body remains. “Sometimes I can hear them, but I’m not scared,” says Fathi. “I try to make them feel comfortable, because one day it will be me in their position and I also want to feel comfortable.” The City of the Dead. Sherifa shops for food at lunchtime at the market just next to City of the Dead.
Sherifa, 36, has been living in the City of the Dead ever since she married Tarek. They have two children, Said, 12, and Aya, nine. She used to live with her family in Old Cairo. Her husband sells newspapers near the Ralifa Police Station, while she takes care of the house and the children. Sherifa, Tarek and their son Said in front of their house. They are thinking about moving to another place, but worry that it will be too expensive. They are waiting to hear about their application for a government subsidy that would help them pay for new accommodation. They pay around LE40 to LE50 (US$5.75 to $7.20) every month for rent and to cover bills. Tarek can earn up to LE50 a day, but his income varies from month to month. Sherifa sits in a waiting room at the Ahmed Maher Teaching Hospital, a 15-minute journey by bus from the City of the Dead. Sherifa was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago. She underwent a mastectomy and has received chemotherapy. The Ministry of Health helps pay for her medical treatment. Sherifa’s medicine on the table in her kitchen. Every year she has to resubmit paperwork to the government in order to receive subsidized medical services. The cost of each of her visits to the hospital is LE10, an amount that she can sometimes not afford. Without the government subsidy, Sherifa’s annual health-care costs would reach LE800, a sum well beyond her means. Fathi’s daughter Sayham sleeps inside the home while her parents watch television outside, where it is cooler. The inhabitants of these ancient cemeteries, dating from the Arab conquest of Egypt, feel that the only change in post-revolutionary Egypt is the worsened security situation, with increased drug and gun trafficking taking place in the cemetery. Using a camp stove, Fathi prepares breakfast for his wife and daughter. The simple stove is the only way the family can cook food and boil water in their house. Their table is a tomb. Like many of the men who work in the cemetery, Fathi pays no rent as long as he takes care of the tombs. The family eating their breakfast outside, among the tombs. In the summertime, the heat inside their house becomes unbearable. Fathi is accompanied by local children as he works on a tomb. Sherifa makes a gallabeya for a friend. She will spend three days completing the garment, and sell it for about LE200. Fathi gets ready to go to a Sufi celebration near the City of the Dead. At a Sufi celebration in Al-Husainya, just 10 minutes by bus from the City of the Dead, a fun outing for Fathi and his young daughter. Fathi wears a party hat, bought for his daughter, at the Sufi celebration. A courtyard in the City of the Dead at sunset. Fathi watches television in the courtyard outside his home. One of the tombs that Fathi is responsible for. Relatives of the deceased have not visited the tomb for many years. Sherifa at Friday prayers in the Nafissa Mosque in the City of the Dead. Sherifa and her daughter take the bus to Saida Aicha Square, en route to the Ahmed Maher Teaching Hospital. Every month she returns to the hospital to check up on the progress of her cancer treatment.
Tarek, Sherifa’s husband, sleeps after finishing a night shift, while his children draw. Sherifa hopes that their children will study hard, become educated and have a good life.