The City of the Dead

April 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

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My piece on life in Cairo’s cemeteries is up at Egypt Independent.

With the Zabbaleen

March 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

My piece on Cairo’s rubbish collectors is now up at the London  Review of Books.

Here are some more photos from the area:

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Cemeteries and Faces

March 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

There are many faces in Cairo’s Christian cemeteries. After entering a small one in Mar Girgis (‘St. George’) the first I saw were those of three young men playing backgammon at the gate. They returned my greeting without looking up. Most of the tombs were large, free-standing structures with a family name. Here are the Nassifs.

They were ornamented with icons, real and fake flowers, statues with exposed hearts.

Names and dates on gravestones do little for my imagination. If I am to conjure some idea of who the deceased might have been I need at least a phrase about their life, or manner of death, to start me off, preferably something not entirely platitudinous. It is nice to know that they ‘were deeply loved’ or ‘granted mercy’ or ‘taken into angels’ care'; but it is far better to see their face. This has been an option amongst Egypt’s Copts for a very long time:

In that small cemetery, there were plenty of modern equivalents. Here is one of the Nassif’s:

There were also scholars and great beauties.


At the rear of the cemetery, there was a long mausoleum that took up most of its back wall.

Inside  were marble graves stacked from floor to ceiling, most of them originally from Europe. There were the Bernadis from Parma:

Here are the Kuhns, she originally from South Africa, he from Lindau, Bavaria.

There was also a candidate for one of the worst things it can say on your gravestone.


Though it is of course better to have a gravestone than not. A few of the graves lacked their fronts, most of which were empty.

However, there was one exception.

This gentleman was still wearing his socks and shoes.

Keizer’s Revolutionary Graffitti

February 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Here are some images by Keizer, one of the biggest stencil graffitti artists in Cairo, whose home turf is the walls of the Ultra Ahly Football Club HQ in Zamalek. There’s a lot of amazing work in the city, but the stuff by Keizer seems to have a clearer ideological focus (not to mention being most consistently signed). There’s an interview with him here.

Busking in Cairo

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

These gentlemen were working the backstreets of ‘Islamic Cairo’, and seemed to be doing pretty well. Many were amused enough to give them something. The man reminded me of Edinburgh’s favourite son, Jim Brown, aka Organic Jim (who might also benefit from this kind of amplification).

How to Become a Good Snake Charmer

February 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

In case you were wondering, look no further:

Go to another man who is a good snake charmer, and this man will pour some water into a plate, then he makes a snake drink this. After this he puts a piece of salt in the plate with a little more water, and then makes the snake vomit the water he has drunk  back into the plate. The would-be snake charmer must then drink this water. After he has done this he can handle any snake, none will hurt him.

This was the advice Winifred Blackman receved in 1924 from Sheikh Muhanni. I found this in Anthony Sattin’s excellent book,The Pharaoh’s Shadow which also contains a story of a Tree That Bleeds.

‘Tell me about the tree,’ I asked, as innocently as I could.

‘There is lots of baraka [blessing] in the tree. So much. It is the sheikha’s  tree.’

‘How do you know?’

‘Twenty years ago, someone wanted to cut it down. but the sheikha appeared to them and said, “Don’t do it. This is my tree. Any my name is Sheikha Khadra.” Another time magicians came and cut the tree. It started to bleed.’

‘Red blood?’

‘Red blood,’ she said  with untainted sincerity. ‘But the sheikha dealt with them. She cut off their hands.’

I waited to see if she would smile, but she didn’t.

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