Love in “The City of the Dead”

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David Lynch is an Irish journalist working in Cairo. His reports are regularly published in the Sunday Business Post. This was taken from this blog Arab Spring in My Step.

Valentine’s Day is not so big in Cairo- at least compared to home.

You can buy flowers, cards and even stuffed red camels with hearts for humps in some local stores- but walking down Talaat Harb in Downtown Cairo this morning, there were not all that many people wandering around with roses in their hands.

I did not witness many overt displays of romance on Tahrir Square either, only the remaining revolutionaries, camping out with grim determination under their flags denouncing the military leadership.

But last night, I did experience a perfectly formed example of…well…love… and it came from Cairo’s infamous ‘City of the Dead’.

I attended a screening of the new documentary film “The City of the Dead” (You Tube trailer at the bottom) in the Italian Institute last night. It’s a charming look at the lives of ordinary people in the “largest necropolis” in the world. Well over 100,000 people (the exact number is debated- some say 1 million) are said to live their daily lives in the Northern and Southern cemeteries in Cairo. They live in the tombs of the dead, sometimes renting them from the family of the deceased. They live, shop, marry, educate and die among the hundreds of thousands of graves.

The location is infamous in this city. When I told an open minded young Cairene that I was planning to visit the “City of the Dead” before Christmas, she baulked.

“Why do foreigners always go and visit there? When I am near I just run past,” she said.

The fact that tens of thousands of people live essentially in a cemetery, gives a glimpse into the vast social and economic inequality in this city, the years of neglect under the Mubarak and previous regimes- and most sobering of all – the gargantuan task that confronts any progressive post revolutionary government here to meet the desire for “social justice” that was part of the recent revolution.

However, the Sérgio Tréfaut directed documentary does not deal with the socio-economic reasons behind the existence of “The City of the Dead”. Rather, he takes its existence as a given, and explores instead the more meta-physical impact living among the dead has on the city’s inhabitants.

I think it works.

Obviously most of us have faced, and will certainly face in the future, death of loved ones, but in reality, in the developed world, death is not an ever present fact facing us down at ever turn.

For the inhabitants of the ‘City of the Dead’- death is everywhere, all the time.

As a local woman says in the documentary, “Living so close to death is bound to bring wisdom.”

But back to love.

The star of the film for me is an elderly man (maybe in his 70s?) who has lived in the “City” all his life. He talks with pride of the place, arguing people should not be ashamed to live among the dead.

“With time we all turn to dust dear, didn’t God make us from dust” he says.

“We turn back to dust.”

But this man has already built the tomb he is to be buried in. He could not build it beside his dead wife’s grave, and his children objected to him moving his wife’s remains. So he built it as close as he could to her final resting place, in a corner where he could still “see” his wife.

He proudly shows the camera his tomb.

“Do you miss your wife?” the director asks.

The man goes silent for moments.

“We were together for decades not years. Decades,” he says sighing.

“What was she like?” the director continues probing.

With this the elderly man stares into the camera.

I was expecting him to say something like “she was a great mother to my children”, or “she was a dutiful wife” or she “was loyal”- all reasonable statements, but conservative in their own way. Expressions that you might expect to hear from a man of his age, and from the culture he is in.

But his eyes flare up.

“When I met her first she was a revolutionary!”

He then recalls her role in Egypt’s revolutionary past many decades ago.

His face is bright with respect.

The vision of his wife that he imagines first- is not as an unequal partner in a marriage, nor as just the mother of his children- it is as an independent lady, a revolutionary that he respected and loved.  It’s this separate person that he fell for- who still passionately burns in his memory.

It’s this vision of independence that he holds of her- across the many decades that have passed in between.

Egypt is a pretty patriarchal place, yet the role of the women’s movement in the revolutionary wave over the past year has been vital. It’s hard to say what will happen- but I think we can say broadly that the revolution will be good for “women’s liberation” in Egypt in the medium to long term. Certainly many of the most tenacious of the revolutionaries in Tahrir have been women and I think this reflects an understanding that the advancement of their sex, is linked to advancement of the revolution. Certainly any counter revolution- would be crushing to what exists of the “women’s movement” here.

Also there have been the pleasant phenomena of weddings taking place in Tahrir Square over the past year!

There are obviously numerous arguments in favour of the fight for equality- from the fundamentals of feminism, to first principles of Human Rights to (the one I’m most sympathetic and it’s linked to the previous two) ethics based on socialist solidarity. There are others of course.

However on this day dedicated to Love (ok… ok, I know it’s a corporate inspired event blah, blah, blah !)- I like to think the fight for sexual equality can be justified on those grounds as well.

Because like the old man in the “City of the Dead” with his heroic visions of his revolutionary wife from decades ago , true love surely cannot exist in a situation of inequality- and can only thrive in an atmosphere of egalitarian respect.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Photo caption: My local flower store in Dokki…you have to go elsewhere if you want to pick up a bright red Camel, with hearts for humps ;)

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One Response

  1. Des Derwin

    February 15, 2012 11:56 pm

    An article with true heart.

    Another reason why Valentine’s Day may not be so big in Cairo is that up to 90% of Egyptian women are thought to have been genitally mutilated. That’s if tonight’s heartbreaking report from BBC2’s ‘Tonight’ programme is to be believed, and it seemed a believable report.

    There was a strand to it which inclined to claim that the Revolution will strengthen FGM against the reforming efforts of the old regime. This article goes some way to countering claims like that.