THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Life Lessons From The City of The Dead

Stretching for miles along the base of the hillsides just beyond the city of Cairo is a group of ancient cemeteries that occupies approximately 15,000 acres, spreading in all directions. What is most remarkable about the site is that it is home to half a million homeless people who live next to the tombstones and call the mausoleums home, sweet home.

A Necropolis Metropolis

I visited the site with two friends. One, whose name is Mahmood, is an archeologist and a tour guide in the cemetery, which is called the City of the Dead.

It really is a city, complete with honking buses spewing black clouds of diesel pollution, music playing in the streets, a weekend flea market, and the occasional food kiosk or video rental shop.

Some City of the Dead residents work menial jobs by commuting into downtown Cairo. Many have stay-at-home businesses such as tea stands, furniture making or carpentry shops, and car repair businesses that are set up right there in the cemetery. Vendors even come into the graveyard slum from neighborhoods of Cairo that are beyond the cemetery, so that they can hawk cheap wares to residents and visitors.

I watched tourists barter for found objects sold as antiques or for miscellaneous trinkets and souvenirs. I caught the odor wafting through the dusty streets from a nearby animal market where I was told that it was possible to buy birds and fish to take home as pets.

Domestic pets are one thing. But I had to ask Mahmood how City of the Dead residents felt about having tombstones in their homes. He said that they view the dead beneath the tombstones as guardians and protectors.

"The dead were here first," he said. "So people believe that these mausoleums they currently occupy are really the homes of the dead and that they -- the living -- are merely temporary residents and fortunate caretakers."

Feeling at Home with Tombstones

"Mama's in the factory, she ain't got no shoes. Daddy's in the alley,
he's looking for food. I'm in the kitchen with the tombstone blues." - Bob Dylan

I observed how a mausoleum might be converted into a studio apartment. Stone markers identifying the remains of the dead might work really well as bookshelves or kitchen counters. With a little imagination and ingenuity a family could transform a macabre setting into a proud home.

One family welcomed me into their home, inviting me to sit on a torn and ragged mat on the dirt floor. Ants were crawling all over the place as my hostess, Nadia, prepared tea. She lived there with her husband Said, their son Abdul, and their son-in-law Kanal.

Their tiny, cramped two-room dwelling had three beds, and outside they kept a goat and several rabbits. Said -- who was seventy-five years old -- told me that the mausoleum we were sitting in was the only home he had ever known. He had lived there his whole lifetime, and it was once the home of his parents who are now deceased. I didn't ask where they were buried, but I imagined that they were not far from where we sat and sipped our tea.

A Paradise Too Beautiful to Imagine

"We connect to everybody here," he said, and I knew that he referred to
not just the living and breathing but also to the dearly departed.

"If you could have just one wish come true, what would it be?" I asked one elderly City of the Dead resident. His eyes sparkled with desire and he gave me an answer that I would not have guessed in a million years, judging from his needy surroundings.

"I would like to visit Mecca."

When I asked him what the afterlife held for him, he said "Paradise is too beautiful for us to imagine."

I wondered whether he would rather live in modern times, or back in the glorious time of the Egyptian Pharaohs. "Now," he said, matter-of-factly.

"We love Cairo," he said, sitting in his graveyard home, "because we connect to everybody here. If we lived in a nicer place with more luxuries, we would have to give up the love of the people here." The secret to life, he told me, is to "take care of your health and be honest with people and make heart connections."

A Vision of Grandeur by 2050

In the summer of 2009 I read an announcement in the news.
The Cairo government plans to transform the City of the Dead
into a gorgeous and rather upscale public park.

As Mahmood had explained to me, the government has largely ignored the City of the Dead community. But in recent years was forced to add some semblance of an infrastructure in order to support the hundreds of thousands of people who live there in what the government perceives as squalor.

I saw signs of upgrades when I walked through the expansive slum. There were a few public water taps and pay phones, and I was told there is at least one tiny post office to serve the city. But sewage lines are rare and many residents use crude latrines. City transport buses come and go on the main arteries that traverse the cemetery, and some of the busier streets have even been paved and have police patrols to try to make them safer.

But the city planners have a grand vision for the City of the Dead. Graves will be moved to new cemeteries, they say, that the city proposes to create just outside of Cairo. Officials have announced that the change will add "17,000 acres of graveyard capacity."

The people living in the City of the Dead, the government promises, will be moved into new public housing projects. The Ministry of Housing touts the plan - which is scheduled for completion in 2050 - by saying that it will revitalize Cairo, a city that was once called "Paris on the Nile".

I'm skeptical of such government intervention. But I try to remain hopeful, remembering Mahmood who said that when we think negative thoughts "death knocks on the door" -- serving its eviction notice.