(eTN) – Sunlight falls through a hole in the crown of the beehive-shaped tomb that Saad Mahmoud and his family call home, illuminating an oblong gravestone that serves as a kitchen table.
Mr Mahmoud’s daughter, taking a break from washing clothes that will be strung up between other tombs to dry, stands at the gravestone and pours tea into chipped glass cups.
Nearby, one of the Mahmoud family’s neighbours known as Umm Antar — meaning Mother of Antar — tends to the graves of wealthier families.
Thirty years ago, Umm Antar’s husband ran off with another woman, leaving her with no money and four daughters to feed. She was forced to go and live among Cairo’s dead — and become something of a tourist attraction.
These are the people who have been pushed to the margins of Egyptian society by Cairo’s housing squeeze and wealth gap — victims of misfortune and neglect who the Egyptian Government now wants to make invisible.
The Cities of the Dead, the sprawling cemeteries in central Cairo where an estimated 600,000 people live, often in small tombs without electricity or water, are having a “damaging impact on Egypt’s civilised image”, according to a letter sent out to Egyptian tourism operators.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry is threatening to strip travel agents of their licences if they arrange tours to the cemeteries or allow tourists to photograph the necropolis and its residents. It has also closed key tourist attractions within the cemeteries including the Qaitbey mosque — which features on Egypt’s one pound note — in a bid to keep foreigners away.
The letter, sent by the tourism peak body to travel agents at the behest of the ministry, says “photos taken and conversations held by tourists with residents” are damaging Egypt’s image and states the Tourism and Antiquities Police have “permanently banned” tours and photography.
Despite Egypt’s being the darling of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for its pro-business reforms and its strong economic growth, many Egyptians have been left worse off by the country’s real estate boom, which has enriched investors while pushing housing further out of reach of the poor, experts say.
“We have nowhere else to go,” Mr Mahmoud said. “Houses are expensive. Everything is becoming expensive. Only man is becoming cheap.”
While Mr Mahmoud and Umm Antar make meagre livings tending graves, some entrepreneurial tomb-dwellers have carved out a modest slice of Egypt’s most prized industry by acting as guides or selling crafts to intrepid tourists.
Residents such as Reda Zaki, 50, whose parents tended graves but who himself guides tourists, are likely to be hit hard by the ban.
Abouzed Rageh, former chairman of Egypt’s National Research Centre for Housing and Building, said years of bad urban planning meant overcrowding had reached breaking point, with half of Greater Cairo’s 17 million inhabitants living in “informal” housing.
“This city is like a sponge,” Mr Rageh said. “It absorbs people from rural areas and squeezes them in wherever they will fit. But it’s reaching saturation.
“We now have two societies. The gap is widening alarmingly. When you talk about economic growth, you have to ask, which society are you talking about?”
The Government has provided some services such as schools and a hospital in the cemeteries, but many people still live without electricity or water.
“The Government does not give anybody anything,” Mr Mahmoud said.
Mohamed Ali, 60, who has lived in the necropolis for 30 years, said the decision to bar tourists was “stupid”. “They do not do us any harm,” he said. “They come here and take photos and that is it.”
Other residents applauded the ban, agreeing the necropolis gave Egypt a bad image.
An official who spoke on condition of anonymity said: “The cemeteries are full of disorganised housing and this is not good for Egypt’s image abroad.”