Friday, October 06, 2006

Back to the City of the Dead, and Dark Angels

I took two visitors to the City of the Dead last week.

I love this area. In Egypt, unlike in other Islamic countries, there is actually a tradition of tending graves and even visiting them. In most Islamic society a body is in the ground within twenty four hours. This is so here. In Saudi Arabia it is simply put in the ground wrapped in a white cloth. Here it is still buried within twenty four hours, but a coffin is used, and in many cases there is an elaborate family vault. In a country where the average citizen in Cairo has a few allocated metres of space in housing they get a great deal more when dead.

In other countries in this region the funeral rites really take part after the burial. Families sit in silence with the immediate family of the deceased. Guests come and go through this period and it can go on for up to a week. Women wear black and no makeup and jewellery. Men and women sit in separate areas (and I have, very irreverently, wondered if this is due to the 'no makeup and jewellery' ruling).

Caretakers marry and have children so the small families grow and add other ramshackle rooms. Those children grow and marry and create more housing in spaces between family graveyards. Slowly humanity takes over the City of the Dead. As the Lonely Planet Guide says, "ideal location, with very quiet neighbours".

All down the long alleys between blocks the spinners of silk thread work. They come out int he mornings, like spiders, setting up their long webs of fibres and walking their three legged spinning wheels. Forward, as the thread spins and tightens with the twist. Then back as they slacken it off. Grooves cut into the the dirt surfaces of the roads in the places where the wheels are walked. Down to the three marker stones, slacken, then back. Repeat - again and again.

The worker with his wheel


And at the far end of the very long block


The wheels are made of the simplest of materials, the men are old or very young, as the healthier mature men are able to seek more lucrative employment. In my early days of visiting this place I took many many photographs and was always asked for backsheesh. There is a gentle and significant rubbing of forefinger and thumb which is almost universal. Now I find that the spinners I regularly visit do not ask for money, and many are offended if it is offered. Yet these are men who earn about two dollars after a day of hard toil on a wheel. I am honoured that they consider me friends, but wish they would take the small amounts I offer to reduce their hardship, when I live so well.


'He's not heavy, he's my brother'


Mother on the doorstep. It is really common here for galabiehs or nighties to be worn at all times in the house - street clothes are put on to leave the house only, and removed when the wearer returns. There is not real embarrassment about receiving friends in a nightie.


The City of the Dead is a huge area that wraps around Cairo and encompasses about half of it. It is large flat areas which are walled expanses of family vaults. Sometimes tombs are visible, sometimes it just looks like areas of paving. In each case one paved area will easily lift out, leading to stairs under the space which has the actual graves inside. Sometimes this is actually nowhere near the small above ground tomb.

Each space has an allocated caretaker who looks after it and lives within the enclosure in a small hut or room. His job is to keep an occasional plant watered and to arrange chairs and the space if the family notifies him that they will visit.

To move from the dead to Angels is a fairly obvious step.

In the areas all around the Khan al Khalili are angels, - dark angels or bad angels as they are often called here.

These are well presented men, with good English who are in a way the personification of the Nigerian scam.

Their modus operandi is simple. Fall into step beside an obviously foreign visitor, chat for a few minutes to "Practise my English" and they are well spoken, friendly and courteous. Once you relax a little they offer to show you something a bit unusual - how the backgammon boxes are made, or a place that dyes silks, or a school where children are taught to weave - and the angels are very good at picking something which will interest you. They then weave you through many alleys - and often you are actually walking loops to make sure you actually need them to get back. Any suggestion that you might pay is greeted with horror and affront and "I am showing you as I like to use my English" or "No, it is because I thought you would be interested, I do not want your money"!

At this point you are shown a shop "of my uncle", or some family member. You are offered drinks, or given a small box, or something that will make you feel indebted. Then they will show you bigger and much more expensive things as they show you how slow and difficult and intricate they are to make. It is made obvious that you are expected to buy as you are being treated specially.

The worst of all this is that some of this sequence is common here - from very nice and honourable men who just want to help and who will not apply any pressure to buy at all. The difference is that the 'angels' are emotional manipulators of great expertise. An unwillingness to buy will subject you to initially subtle pressure of the "I brought you here for nothing from the goodness of my heart, but these men are very poor and Ramadan is a time of cetera".

Or you are taken back to the point you came from and the requests for money go on as you walk to leave you feeling unkind and ungrateful. Sometimes they will actually shout in deep offence and anger at you - so poor manipulated people will hand them fistfuls just to make them go away as crowds gather. Sometimes a tourist policeman in on the scam will approach and suggest a payment which might be appropriate - and they will split it as you leave.

You know you have been done by an angel when you feel guilty and distressed afterwards! Somehow you are always left feeling thoroughly bad - hence the 'dark angel' or 'bad angel' title.

Underneath it all I constantly remind myself that this is a very poor country and that I am in comparision, very rich.


Blogger dijanne cevaal said...

Ahh yes I remember such a perfume seller my first visit to Egypt in 1990. And we did buy some perfume but took some solace in the fact that others much more famous had trod the path including several Australian government ministers LOL!They had even signed a book so we felt it our duty to also sign the book.And on another occasion when a well spoken young university student came up to us- to practice his english we thought- he told us there had been an earthquake in Australia- we looked at him and said "no perfume today "but found out a few days later that there had indeed been an earthquake in Newcastle.

7:28 am  
Blogger smarcoux said...

Hi Jenny

Ahh yes would have been nice to meet up with you and seen some of the textile sites.

We were in luxor then to aswan .. I thought it would be a bit far for you to travel. I do plan on going back to egypt .. cairo in specific and would love to get you to show me the textile sites, if you would be so kind.


11:47 pm  
Blogger Helen from Canberra said...

Hi Jenny,

I got "up close and personal" to the Across Australia quilts (I think that is what the exhibition is called)the other night they were in transit to the Braidwood airing of the quilts. I thought that they were just wonderful.

The weather in ACT is getting hotter 31o today and still no rain.

Cheers Helen

4:45 pm  

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