For decades, an affordable housing shortage in Cairo, one of the largest cities in the world, has resulted in hundreds of families moving into the cemeteries. Photojournalist Tamara Abdul Hadi went into one such community to document what life is like among the dead.
“I had been shooting a series of projects about cemeteries in the Arab world, one being on the world’s largest cemetery, Wadi Al Salam in Iraq, my homeland,” Abdul Hadi told Hyperallergic. “On my first trip to Cairo in 2009, an acquaintance told me about City of the Dead, and I was naturally curious to know more. On my first visit, I met the Abdel Lateef family, and decided to document the community.”
One member of that family — Mohammed Abdel Lateef — told her: “This is a cemetery of the living.” Along with nine family members, Abdel Lateef lives in a section of the cemetery where their relatives are interred. The exact living population of the sprawling cemetery is unclear, but Abdul Hadi’s photographs in her City of the Dead series, shared last week on Beautiful/Decay, show tombs transformed into homes, some even with electricity (which is brought in from adjacent buildings).
According to the BBC, about two million people in Cairo have been driven to leave their homes due to rising costs in recent years, and while a cemetery isn’t exactly an ideal home, the squatting allows people to stay close to their jobs in the city center. In Manila North Cemetery in the Philippines, a similar situation has unfolded with population and poverty pushing people into the city edges, even if that’s a place of burial.
Abdul Hadi’s projects, such as Picture an Arab man and Self portraits from inside Palestine, which she discussed earlier this month with Middle East Revised, are concentrated on showing the sides of communities not covered by the mainstream press. And while this necropolis-turned-city might seem macabre from the outside, her photographs examine the real life of the centuries-old place of death.
“When you first walk in, you’re surrounded by graves and mausoleums, so indeed it feels like a cemetery,” she explained. “But as soon as you meet the people who have made their home there for decades, it starts to feel more like a neighborhood, a little city in its own right.”
View more of Tamara Abdul Hadi’s photographs from the City of the Dead series on her site.