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Living with the Dead: Contested Spaces and the Right to Cairo's Inner-City Cemeteries
Published: 31 October 2014 by MDPI in The 4th World Sustainability Forum session Sustainable Urban and Rural Development
Abstract: Cairo's spontaneous poor communities signify the growing socio-economic disparity since 1970s open door economic liberalisation policy and 1990s IMF's structural adjustment program. These poverty belts attract rural migrants and urban poor from Cairo's residential core areas as a result of high land prices, shortage of affordable housing and decay of existing housing stock . Typical example of these poverty belts are cemetery areas (Cities of the Dead ) within Cairo's eastern fringes. The aim of the article is to examine the contested spaces within the Cities of the Dead, initially through a reconsideration of the number of occupants and of the relative balance of tomb dwellings and more conventional shanty town buildings. The tombs and mausoleums of the city's ancient and extensive cemeteries have been occupied by squatters, some of whom live in the mausoleums themselves, others in self-built constructions between and around the tombs. The paper raises several questions such as : - Does lack of affordability to provide an alternative residence play a key role in the occupation by people of tombs (hawch) by people in these cemeteries? Is there any possibility of classifying tomb dwellers into social groupings with various job types, income levels, educational status as well as residence patterns? - Does living in tombs generate a new value system, cultural patterns and social behaviour? Can one consider cemeteries as an isolated marginal area within Cairo's society? The current study is organised into three main sections. The first of which focuses on the general background of the Cities of the Dead in central Cairo looking at the socio-demographic and economic conditions characterising various cemetery areas with an emphasis on reasons behind living in cemeteries. Then the uniqueness of these Cairo squatter settlements is challenged through a range of socio-economic data which demonstrate the way their supposedly marginalised occupants are in part integrated into the city's urban economy. A comparative study is made of various household characteristics based on secondary data from official reports and previous academic research. These results will further relate to both small area survey and population census data concerning age structure, marital status, educational levels, jobs, access to the CBD and the inner city, income level, residence, social relationships and formal and informal services . The second part of the study sets out to examine socio-economic problems in the area generally and more specifically relating to the tombs (hawch) cemetery people. The latter can be regarded as an example of squatter settlements together with those people living in the residential 'islands' or in-fillings (gozor) which resemble more conventional spontaneous or informal squatter areas elsewhere in Cairo. Inter- generational perception of future prospects and expectations will be investigated within focus group discussion with people's responses and coping strategies being examined. This provides the basis against which the third section of the study will explore the scenarios and alternatives with differentiation being made between people living in tombs (hawch) and those in residential islands (gozor) and surrounding spontaneous settlements such as Manshiet Nasser. In this section the empirical small area survey examines the northern cemeteries' tomb dwellers' right to the city and their resistance against official eviction plans . Such relocation policy is attributed to the fact that these cemeteries provide urban investment opportunities as a result of good road accessibility and geographical propinquity to Medieval Cairo's historical quarters and its ongoing tourist-orientated urban gentrification projects. Behind the declared official justification for eviction proposals of tomb dwellers, to Greater Cairo's suburban eastern desert, in terms of improving the environment and creating sustainable settlements, there lies a wider but hidden agenda. The local municipality aims to clear such strategically central areas from the presence of the poor, with legislation to protect the environment as a justification for securing access to land for urban gentrification projects. The paper emphasises the significance of poverty alleviation initiatives in strengthening urban poor's capacity to negotiate with local authorities for security of land tenure and legal recognition of their spontaneous settlements. The study proposes a stakeholder approach to the sustainable development of inner city poverty areas, whilst advocating radical policy action and collaborative planning for consolidating bottom up urban governance. Partnership between community based groups, grass root organisations, local authorities and planners would support urban poor's sustainable initiatives to improve their housing standards and basic services.
Keywords: Cairo; cemeteries; tomb dwellers; eviction; gentrification; spatial contestation