Thursday, June 25, 2009

Razing the City of the Dead to breathe new life into Cairo

The National (Matt Bradley)

The Egyptian government is studying plans to move the historic Cairo cemetery of Arafa – a neighbourhood in which residents include both the living and the dead – to a location outside the Egyptian capital.

The proposed plan would turn 6,000 hectares of cemetery known as the City of the Dead, which is used as informal housing by tens of thousands of people, into a large public park.

While officials from Egypt’s ministry of housing say the plan would answer the capital’s gaping need for green space, critics of the project, particularly the living residents of Arafa who have made their homes on and among centuries-old graves, contend that the city’s plan will deprive them of hundreds of thousands of their living spaces among the dead.

But in a country where monuments to the long deceased loom as large in the public consciousness as they do on the urban skyline, it is the welfare and final wishes of the dead that elicits as much concern as their living neighbours.

“We’ve heard a lot but where are they taking the people? Lots of tombs are still being built and lots of permits are still being given. It would be impossible for them to demolish this area and build a park,” said one elderly woman, who lives with her husband and one of her daughters in a one-room apartment here that adjoins a private mausoleum. Like many of those interviewed, she refused to identify herself for fear of retribution from government officials.

“Of course I would say no. We’ve been living here for years. It’s a quiet and nice area. Why would they want to move us?”

The answer, said Mostafa Kamal Madbouly, the chairman of the general organisation for physical planning in the ministry of housing, utilities and urban development, should be obvious to anyone who has visited Egypt’s capital.

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