Stretching across several miles on Cairo’s southeastern border, Cairo’s City of the Dead is not just an Islamic necropolis that dates back to 642 AD. It’s a suburb with its own power lines, post office, and multi-story buildings. No one knows for sure how many people live there, but depending on the estimates, the Necropolis could teem with anywhere from 50,000 to a million (quite living) Egyptians.
The work of Iraqi-Canadian photographer Tamara Abdul Hadi explores the family lives of the Cairenes who choose to live amongst the dead. But her work isn’t ghoulish: instead, it finds vibrancy, color, joy, and love in a setting that is meant for necrosis and despair.
Focused on exploring social issues and deconstructing stereotypes in the Middle East, Hadi first became interested in the City of the Dead in 2009. Exploring the neighborhood, she met the Abdel Lateefs, a family of cemetery dwellers who have been living there since 1966. The family’s patriarch and his wife Atiyat have raised five children there, who went to schools nearby, got jobs in the area, and now have children of their own.
While the number of people living in the City of the Dead has swelled since the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution, which increased poverty and unemployment rates starting in 2011, the original residents of the Cairo Necropolis were exclusively caretakers and their families. In a country where over 40% of all Egyptians live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank, the City of the Dead provided both employment and housing: some caretakers can earn around $125 a month digging graves and guarding mausoleums, which also give them a place to sleep.
“People mainly live in the City of the Dead due to economic factors,” Hadi tells me. Even so, the Necropolis is still in some ways a more affluent than other areas in Cairo, such as the Egyptian capitol’s notorious Garbage City quarter. “The people who live in the Necropolis are definitely living below the poverty line, but I wouldn’t say they are necessarily poorer than most Egyptians,” Hadi says.
What ultimately binds together those who live in the Necropolis, especially for those who have lived there over the course of multiple generations, is pride, Hadi says. One woman who Hadi met named Karima moved to the husband after she married a gravedigger. He, in turn, is the son of a Necropolis caretaker; Karima’s mother-in-law has lived in the City of the Dead for over 60 years.
“Karima’s home, in the center of the cemetery is surrounded by graves belonging to her father in law, her parents and her brother, who were all buried by her husband,” Hadi tells me. “But even so, she isn’t ashamed. ‘I tell people where I live with pride,’ she told me. “This is my life.”
Same with the Abdel Lateefs, and the other families Hadi has met: through her photographs, you can see how normal these families all are. Though they live in a City of the Dead, they watch TV, play games, wear T-shirts, fall in love, and otherwise have normal lives, just like the rest of us.
There is one exception, though. Hadi says that most of the people she spoke to seemed comfortable with the idea of death.
“Some of the families I spent time with found some comfort in having their deceased family members buried close by. They felt, in that, there was a sense of peace. Others spoke of death as an inevitability, a part of life.”
Living your life in a cemetery, it seems, can help you come to terms with your own mortality.