By the height of afternoon, the overhanging sun is so strong that even the few lonely patches of shade surrounding us seem to scream a certain protective and uninviting macabre dominance as we lazily stroll by, kicking clouds of dust in our wake. The roads are intentionally unpaved with sand and each rusting gate or crumbling stone façade seems to blend into the next as we glide past, trying to pass unnoticed by passersby just as happy to ignore or scowl at us.
Filippo, conscious of the visibly unaccustomed sweat now pouring and pooling down my back into my dark, retrospectively overtight jeans, nudges me out of a daze with his left elbow. I shake my head. I’d been in a sort of trance since ever since we’d gotten here, trying to gradually regulate the almost unbearable intake of muted death and mingled misery that everyone around me seems to be gleefully ignoring or just painfully accustomed to.
“Time to break?” he asks me, his voice still almost unrecognizable under the thick black beard he’s grown over the past year in an attempt to blend in with the human scenery of Egypt.
Visiting the Cairo Necropolis had been Fil’s idea, not mine. Frankly I’d never heard of the place as it generally took a socially accepted backseat to more tourist friendly scenes like the Pyramids or the Al Qahira Fatimia Mosques. It’s the kind of place that’s meant to be purposely ignored, especially by locals and especially by foreigners. When he proposed it as the perfect place for an afternoon lunch and stroll, it seemed somewhat unnecessarily dark, even for my taste. If zombie movies had taught me anything, it’s that a placed commonly known as “The City of the Dead” was where I would be lunch, rather than eat it.
The Cairo Necropolis is a massive Arabic pseudo-cemetery that lies just under Mokattam Hills in the Southeast corner of the Egyptian capital. Originally meant to be a somber place for Cairenes to bury their deceased relatives, the neighborhood has since become a refuge for the city’s poorest undesirables who’d rather walk proudly with the departed than beg amongst the living.
For the better part of the afternoon we’d crept along rows of Muslim mausoleums and tombs, some marked with cryptic calligraphy and others with nothing but a thin slab of upright sculpted stone to designate them from just another hole in the ground. As we walk, Fil tells me how wealthy Egyptian families will visit their respective family tombs once or twice a year, but otherwise leave the care of their deceased relatives to relative strangers too poor to afford anything but a makeshift grave of their own, nestled amongst the ruins and rusting fences that seem to fill the makeshift city. Residents live relatively rent-free amongst the rubble and decaying remains of a neighborhood frequented by the living but undoubtedly ruled by the dead.
As we pass, children behind us cry out and point fingers; despite the scenery and somber surroundings, we’re the oddity in this sideshow that seems normal to everyone but me. We walk past a crumbling stone wall to uncover three elderly women in black niqabs huddled around a pot where something seems to be cooking. I instinctively pull out my camera but Filippo puts his hand aside and silently tells me that I shouldn’t. We’ve been friends since we were kids so I trust his judgment. The women stare at us for a moment before bowing their heads in unison towards the pot. We might as well just be passing phantoms.
I can’t help but feel completely and utterly out of place, like I have no business being here, mainly because I don’t. I hate cemeteries to begin with, but this is something else, and a wild feeling of overwhelming hopelessness washes over me and I can’t help but feel a little sick. Some estimate the population of the slum at half a million, but no one’s really sure.
We leave the major portion of the City and Fil takes me into a crumbling mosque he says is famous. Inside, about fifty men lay scattered on the red carpet, trying desperately to escape the heat in whatever patches of shade the walls choose to provide at this hour. Neither of us is Muslim, but we sit for a while under a nearby ornamented arch that looks like it could crumble and kill us at any moment.
“Prayer time is soon, we should leave,” Fil whispers. As we exit, a young Egyptian kid approaches us, eager to show off the few words in English he knows. Fil introduces himself and points at me before gargling some words I don’t understand.
“What’s my name in Arabic?” I ask him, half laughing.
“Daud,” he answers, pronouncing it Da-ood and drawing out each sound with his cheeks.
“Daud,” I repeat slowly. The kid stares at me and nods with a huge grin. Apparently that’s his name too.
Nearby, we settle at a small brick-laced patio where a few bearded Egyptian men huddle around large hookah pipes. The owner gleefully produces two plastic chairs and a matching table. He serves us black tea and we share a shisha pipe, trying to beat the heat. The concept had shocked me a few days earlier, but in Egypt, when the temperature gets too unbearable, locals turn to hot rather than cold drinks to cool down. Sweating is socially acceptable when everyone is doing it and no one cares to begin with. Nearby, I spy a throng of unattended goats lazily ruffling through a massive pile of garbage. One of them dips its head into the underfilth and emerges with what looks like a large bone between its teeth. Part of me wonders whether it’s human, but deep down, I’m not sure if I really want to know.
As the call to prayer suddenly erupts nearby, the owner kindly asks us to pay our tab so that he may tend to his religious duties. He and all the others leave us alone on the terrace as they file one by one into the mosque we’d just left.
My time in Cairo had seemed like a giant walk from one medieval mosque to another and as the coals burn out on our pipe, Filippo tells me there’s just one more place he wants to see before we head back to his air-conditioned apartment in Zamalek. It’s almost completely silent as we pack up our things and walk towards another set of stone walls and high rise minarets a few sandstone blocks away, just by the Dead City limits. We make sure to take our time to not disrupt prayers but when we arrive, a group of men are sitting on the curved threshold and blocking our passage. Fil engages in what seems to be a verbal altercation with them, but with Egyptians, I can never tell the difference between playful banter and genuinely heated debate. By the end of the conversation Fil is shouting in red-faced rage, throwing his hands in the air as I stand idly by, smiling awkwardly like an idiot.
“They won’t let us in because we’re foreigners,” he finally turns and confesses to me. He yells something over to them in Arabic as I try to quietly get him away before we get into something we can’t get out of. “This is not Islam! This is not the way of peace!” he keeps turning and shouting as we walk away. The men speak hurriedly and laugh at us as we make our way down the massive stone steps. “This is such bullshit,” he whispers under his breath.
This may be the City of the Dead, but even as living men, it’s still somewhere we’re not welcome. This place is reserved for those destined to call it home, in life, death or both . We, on the other hand, are just passing through, and no amount of compassion or interest can change that. We don’t belong here. Not yet anyway.