The Families Forced to Live in Cairo's Cemeteries
All photos by Ali Maliki
Travel

The Families Forced to Live in Cairo's Cemeteries

As a result of the city's housing crisis, around 1 million people are living in grave sites – and some have been there for decades.
April 9, 2018, 11:45am

This article originally appeared on VICE Arabia

Countless families are living in the cemeteries of Cairo, cramped inside small rooms that were originally built to give grieving visitors some respite from the sun. For decades, cemetery owners have taken advantage of the city's lack of affordable housing by renting out these rooms to Cairo's poor. Today, an estimated 1 million of the city's 19 million have made their home in a gravesite.

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Nariman Al Samra, 66, has spent her entire life in the Salah Salem graveyard, popularly known as the City of the Dead. "This has been my view for about 60 years," she tells me, looking out at a sea of tombstones. Nariman can tell how uncomfortable I am here. "Don't be scared," she tries to reassure me, "the dead are dead."

Her room is sparse – a small bed, three chairs, a fan and a photograph of herself when she was younger. She's given up hope that the government will find her somewhere more humane to live.

"I was born here, I got married here, I had my children here and I plan on getting buried here, too," she tells me. "In 66 years I've never once been offered a proper apartment to live in, and now I'm on the brink of death myself."

Two elderly men sit outside their homes in the Salah Salem cemetery.

Her daughter, Fatma, lives in the room next door, with her husband and four children. She's not making much in the way of regular income – she sells ducks and chickens in a local market – but the family also doesn't receive any form of financial support from the government. Nariman has two sons who don't live at the cemetery, but she doesn't want to ask them for money. "They have their own families and their own problems," she says. "I can't ask them to give me what's meant for their own children."

Spending her entire life living in a cemetery hasn't made Nariman completely numb to the strange reality of constantly being surrounded by corpses. She tells me that she still gets scared, especially at night. "We're only human," she says. "The sleepless nights normally come after someone new has been buried here." In fact, she generally avoids walking around the cemetery during the week after a funeral.

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Fatma did live somewhere else with her family for a while, but was forced to return. "I was living in the Manshiyat Nasser slums in south Cairo when our rent suddenly went up, so we had no choice but to move back in with my mother." In February of 2016, Fatma applied to receive state benefits and hopefully a council flat from a government programme, but still hasn't received a response.

An estimated one million people in Cairo are currently living in cemeteries.

Fatma tells me that – unsurprisingly – her children are living in fear, especially when it gets dark: "They wake me up in the middle of the night to take them to the bathroom because they're scared of walking around the tombstones." But things do get a little bit easier during the day – the tombstones can be useful in games of hide-and-seek.

Though Salah Salem sits next to the largest police station in Cairo, Fatma claims the residents of the cemetery don't feel safe. "We are an easy target for thieves," she tells me. "And when we call the police, they ignore us."

Though nights in a cemetery can especially be pretty terrifying for children, things get a bit easier during the day.

It's a similar story in another cemetery not too far from Salem. Every day, Haj Hanafy sits in front of the dull metal gate there. The 80-year-old inherited his job as the gravesite's security guard from his father. He can barely hear or see me, but he still insists on inviting me back to his home in the cemetery.

Hanafy lives with his wife in a windowless room, while his daughter, Kawthar, and her 15 and 18-year-old sons live opposite in a smaller space. He tells me the cemetery's owners are threatening to kick him out and replace him with a younger guard, and that if this happens he has no idea where his family would live.

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"Most people assume that living in a cemetery becomes OK after a while because we get used to being around death all the time, but it doesn't get better," says Kawthar, who works as a cleaner. "Most nights, my children and I go to bed afraid."

Her biggest fear is what will happen to her family if her father loses his job. "We will only have the streets to live on," she worries.

Entire families live in sparse single rooms like this.

Even with the help of an NGO, Kawthar found the process of applying for income support and a government-subsidised flat to be overly complicated, time-consuming and expensive. "I can't spend day after day submitting documents just to get access to basic human needs," she says. "I have to go to work so I can make enough money to feed my family. Even with that, I can't afford the downpayment or rent for the cheapest kind of flats."

Around the corned is Hajja Abel Hakim, who's lived in the cemetery all her life, but is desperate for her daughter and grandchildren to build a better life in a proper place of their own. "In the previous election, President Sisi told us that if we voted for him he would rehouse all those living in cemeteries," she says. "So we did, but it turns out he fooled us. Nothing has happened."

Scroll down for more photos of the people living in Cairo's cemeteries.