Book Review: "Girl from the City of the Dead"

Life on the Edge

The City of the Dead on the outskirts of Cairo is an inhabited necropolis, home to the poorest of the poor, the overspill from the congested slums of the Egyptian capital. Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg's book paints a vivid and compelling portrait of life on the edge of Egyptian society. By Volker Kaminski

The City of the Dead on the outskirts of Cairo is an inhabited necropolis, home to the poorest of the poor, the overspill from the congested slums of the Egyptian capital. Incorporating diary extracts and based on extensive research, Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg's book paints a vivid and compelling portrait of life on the edge of Egyptian society. By Volker Kaminski

​​Mona is proud of being a cemetery dweller. The walls and gravestones have been familiar sights to her since childhood. Her parents' apartment among the tombs has three small rooms, not much for a family of ten, but when she helps her mother prepare a meal and the family gathers around the table, nobody gives a thought to the dead in their burial chambers a few metres below their feet.

This, and the fact that the cemetery is still in regular use for burials, is just part of her everyday life. As far as Mona is concerned, it's just normal routine.

Childhood and youth in the City of the Dead

It was through a chance encounter, whilst engaged in some research in Cairo, that journalist and author Haase-Hindenberg got to know the 18-year-old Mona. Though reluctant initially, she later agreed to tell him her life story.

Mona, the eldest of eight brothers and sisters, keeps a diary, excerpts from which have been woven into Haase-Hindenberg's book, allowing the intimate subjective authenticity of Mona's own voice to complement the sober, objective tone of the biographer.

What emerges is a fascinating story and one that reveals not only the terrible poverty of the people of the City of the Dead, the population of which is estimated at around a quarter of a million, but also the voice of an intelligent young woman determined to escape the debilitating drudgery of her surroundings.

The strange new world of downtown Cairo

Before finishing school, Mona's world was limited to the dusty cemetery lanes, the small markets among the mausoleums, with craftsmen hammering gravestones in front of their houses. This was all to change the day she decided – without telling her strict parents – to take a trip into downtown Cairo. From that day on, her 18th birthday, things would never be the same again for Mona.

Girls in Cairo (photo: picture alliance)
Despite the fact that the government is spending more on education, the rate of illiteracy is still very high, especially among young women

​​Her first sight of the megacity that is Cairo overwhelmed her. On a boat excursion down the Nile she got to know some young students who were very different from the people she knew back home. Their modern outlook, easy-going attitude, casual clothes, and the carefree attitude that can only be found in the offspring of wealthy parents brought home to Mona just how great the differences in Egyptian society are.

Reflecting on the future

Everyday life in the City of the Dead is bound by tradition. So-called "Torabi" are responsible for the allocation of apartments in the cemetery to new arrivals, mainly from the rural areas of Upper Egypt. Mona's parents are simple, conservative-minded people who can neither read nor write.

Mona is her mother's right hand and, along with her schoolwork, is kept busy with household chores from morning till night. But on nights when she cannot sleep she will sometimes stand before the mirror and reflect pensively on what the future may hold for her.

Haase-Hindenberg uses Mona's biography to show us the lives of Egypt's poorest and, in so doing, to get across a great deal of information on Islamic religion, law and social reality.

He sticks to Mona like a second shadow and analyses her thoughts – only occasionally overdoing it a touch, becoming too didactic. Nevertheless, he does succeed in providing an absorbing insight into a world that may at times seem as strange and remote as a lost continent.

Cautious emancipation

Slum in Cairo (photo: picture alliance)
Rural exodus and high birth rates have caused the city's population to explode and made poverty more widespread: almost 40 per cent of Egyptians live below the poverty line

​​It is, above all, the dramatic contrast between rich and poor that strikes Mona most strongly in Cairo. Still, she does manage to find a job in the city, experiencing a taste of freedom away from home.

She twice breaks off an engagement that has already been arranged for her, learns to look critically at many things, and is eventually even able to write about the most traumatic experience of her childhood: the barbaric custom of clitoral circumcision, which is still practiced in some parts of Egypt and one to which Mona herself was subjected.

In addition to relating the moving story of one girl's life and providing an unusual view of Cairo, this book also contains brilliantly vivid colour images – a tantalising glimpse of life in the City of the Dead.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2009

Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg, Das Mädchen aus der Totenstadt. Monas Leben auf den Gräbern Kairos ("Girl from the City of the Dead - Mona's Life Among Cairo's Graves"), Heyne, 2008

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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