Revolution in Egypt has not reached its cemeteries. Few people expect any sort of spring to break out here ever – including those living here. The latest survey by the Public Statistics Agency says there are more than two million Egyptians living in cemeteries. A housing shortage and poverty drove most of them to Cairo’s graveyard slums. Some work cutting marble for tombs. Others earn a few cents from the families of the dead, to recite verses from the Koran where they lie.
Hatem Hosni and five of his family occupy a burial plot with a structure that serves as a bedroom and a small kitchen. This one was built around 150 years ago, so below ground there are dozens of corpses, and strong smells.He says his children have nightmares, and wonders if they will have a better future.
“The lack of jobs and high rents made us come to live here. To get a new apartment would cost me a lot, and I don’t have any work, so I can’t move. The government has forgotten us and does not care. They consider us dead, because we live in cemeteries.”
Al Haj Ahmed has lived In Cairo’s Aisha cemetery for 43 years. When people visit the place they may give him a small charity donation. The city centre is just a few kilometres away, but he does not go there.
“I am an illiterate man. I do not know what is going on in Egypt. I only get news from people who come here like you. They tell me there are clashes. But I really don’t care. I live here. I have no one to support, and I don’t get mixed up in politics.”
Egypt’s tomb enclaves have also come to shelter people running from the law. Some are thought to work in organised burglary, murder or drug trafficking. The police generally stay out. But since the tomb tradition remains strong, a family will reopen a crypt when a member dies, temporarily displacing living squatters who are down on their luck.
“My daughter asked the government for an apartment four years ago,” an older resident told us. “Her husband is disabled, and they live with her mother-in-law in a small room. The authorities told her there would be a two-year wait.”
Successive governments promise change, but none has delivered it.
Basic survival is the rule. For instance, we saw a man who lives on bread that others throw away. He washes it, wraps it in cloth, leaves it for few minutes and eats it.
Our correspondent Mohammed Shaikhibrahim summed up: “The people who live in cemeteries are branded ‘the dead who live above ground’. They’re ignorant of political conflicts and don’t think about what’s going on in their country. In these cemeteries’ narrow streets, the only conflict is how to stay alive.”