Cairo Demolition: A City's Heartless Pursuit Of Progress

Families, neighborhoods and even the remains of loved ones are bulldozed over in order to build new highways and other works without the input of the people.

A woman at the family's tomb in Cairo's City of the Dead
A woman at the family's tomb in Cairo's City of the Dead
Sharif Abdel Kouddous


CAIRO — One Saturday last month, I stood surveying the rubble of my family's burial plot in the historic area of Cairo known as the City of the Dead. The wall separating our plot from the street had been demolished by a bulldozer that morning. The government was clearing a path for an overpass, 17.5-km-long, that will cut through this ancient necropolis, linking the October 6 Bridge to the Mushir Tantawy highway — and our family's burial ground, like many others, was inconveniently in the way.

Underneath the broken brick and stone is the tomb where the remains of my paternal grandmother, my grandfather, and my great grandfather had lain for decades. In the small white-walled room beneath the ground I could easily make out the hollows in the sand where their bodies had been — three darkened patches, thin and long. I lingered there for a minute, not knowing what to feel, only that the emotion was boiling somewhere deep in my stomach.

A few days earlier, my father had called me in the middle of the afternoon. When I answered, his first words were, "I'm at the cemetery." He spoke in quick, short sentences. He was moving the bodies to another underground room in the same plot, but in an area that would be spared demolition. He'd been warned that this would have to happen a few days earlier, but it was the first I was hearing of it. Listening to my father's pained voice over the phone, I knew exactly what I felt. Anger.

He sent me pictures and video of the move. I saw the skeletal remains of my grandfather, the writer Ihsan Abdel Kouddous. His skull, his rib cage, his leg bones. They lay centimeters away from his own father's remains, the actor and artist Mohamed Abdel Kouddous. There was much less left of him. About a meter to the right lay my grandmother, Lawahez al-Mehelmy, the pillar of strength in the family. Her body was still covered in a shroud.

The three bodies are now interred a few meters away, where we hope they will be left undisturbed by the forces that have trampled over this city for so long, crushing it without pause or consideration.

I asked my father what he had felt as he watched the remains of his mother, father, and grandfather being moved. He waved the question away with his hand. I didn't press him.

In the state's eyes, the public is only in the way.

Out on the street, the bulldozer was casually driving up to each cemetery wall and knocking it over. A pair of armored police trucks stood nearby, making their presence known. Families stood in the rubble wearing blank expressions. Not a single graveyard on the street was spared. The area is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. This is what the people managing our city call progress.

And it's just the beginning. Eventually a massive highway will be erected, a hulking gash of concrete cutting through this place of stone, ferrying speeding cars over our collective histories toward new speculative cities in the desert.

I know that we have it better than most. I know that other people and places are getting it worse. I know that Adel*, who works as a driver, was given just 24 hours notice to move the bodies out of his family burial plot to a wholly new cemetery in a different part of the city before they came to demolish it. I know about the flyover being built through a Giza suburb that is so absurdly close to the adjacent apartment buildings that residents can reach out from their balconies and touch it. I know what is happening in Heliopolis, where a series of massive speedways have completely disfigured what was once a picturesque residential neighborhood. I know that these thick new arteries slicing their way through our city are meant to carry its lifeblood away from the bristling, messy center to a nightmarish cookie-cutter future on the outskirts. I know.

But I am still having trouble believing. How can all this be happening around us without our consent? Without even a modicum of regard for the people that live here? How can our city be torn out from underneath us so brazenly?

Central Cairo — Photo: Jorge Lascar

The architectural historian Mohamed Elshahed recently asked on Twitter: "Can a state deploy the concept of the "public good"/Eminent domain to carry out its projects if the "public" has no due process to participate in decision making, at least in municipal affairs?"

In the state's eyes, the public is only in the way. We are nothing more than a nuisance hindering the flow of capital and blind development that needs to be forcibly quashed.

They don't even play by their own rules. In 2018, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development published a decree in the Official Gazette that contains an inventory of cemeteries it recommends should be preserved because they "represent a historical era" and a "distinct architectural style." Listed there, in the "Al-Ghafeer cemetery area" along with dozens of others, is my family's burial plot. Registration number 216. "The families of Radwan and Abdel Kouddous. The writer Ihsan Abdel Kouddous."

The writer Ihsan Abdel Kouddous. I remember when he died. It was January 11, 1990. I was 11 years old. It was my first real experience with death. I remember waking up late and walking into my mother's room to ask why she hadn't woken me up for school. I remember that I immediately burst into tears when she told me my grandfather had died. I remember being overwhelmed by that feeling of Never. Never would I see him again. Never would I talk to him again. Every time I tried to absorb the fact that he was gone, the suffocating idea of Never drowned me in waves.

I remember parts of the burial. It was packed with people. I remember someone screaming when his shrouded body was carried out of the coffin and down into the tomb below to be placed next to his father. I remember that everyone was wearing sunglasses, and that I wanted a pair so I could look grown-up.

Our bodies are never safe from the people who rule this place.

My grandmother died four years later, on January 7, 1994. This time I was 15, and I helped carry the coffin. This time, I followed my father down the steps into the tomb. My grandmother had insisted that she be buried alongside my grandfather in the same room. We laid her down next to him and lined a row of small stones in between them. That was the last time I entered that room, until last Saturday, when I saw it again 26 years later. This time it was empty.

Our bodies are never safe from the people who rule this place. Not in life, not even in death. What about our memories? Will they too be slowly erased along with the city?

On June 22, the adviser to the president for urban planning issued an order to build what it called "the Fardous axis." Stage One passes right through Ibn Qonsowa Street, where our plot is. So it has begun. The order mandates the Housing Ministry and the Governorate of Cairo to make substitute arrangements for any residences, commercial outlets, or graveyards that block its path. I guess we should count ourselves as lucky that we didn't lose it all.

A few years ago, my father took me to the graveyard to show me where he had added a series of underground rooms. "They're for us," he said with a mischievous smile. I laughed. Those are gone now. Ever the engineer, my father is now figuring out where to rebuild those extra rooms. I am afraid to tell him my worst fears. That eventually I may have to leave, by choice or by force. Will I be buried here?

I lived abroad for many years but I have lived in this city longer than any other. It is maddening to watch a place you love be demolished, erased, scarred over and over again, instead of being tended to and improved. It is happening now faster than ever.

They even named the flyover Fardous. It means paradise.

* pseudonym

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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