A Cairo Crime Family Took Us Inside One Of Egypt's Most Desperate Slums [PHOTOS]

Dar A Salaam Cairo Egypt April 2013 38Inside Dar al-Salam.

I recently visited one of Cairo’s most desperate slums.

Before I got to Egypt, I had never heard of the place, which is called Dar al-Salam. And I was only able to venture into it because I was accompanied by a member of an organised crime family.

I learned about Dar al-Salam from a man named Sonny, who I met one night in Cairo’s violent Tahrir Square.

Sonny had done what few Egyptians could manage: He had escaped Egypt. After growing up poor, he had become a mechanic, run a successful business, met a Japanese woman, and emigrated to Japan. He had only now braved a return trip to Egypt to visit family and friends. 

Sonny invited me for dinner at his family home in Dar al-Salam. It was Easter.

At dinner, Sonny talked about growing up in Dar al-Salam and living next door to one of the most powerful organised crime families in the area. Some of these family members would end up being our guides through the neighbourhood. Without their approval, I was told, my excursion and photography would not have been possible. 

Dar Al-Salam is a Cairo suburb most non-Egyptians have never heard of.

I would have missed it too but for this man, Sonny, who grew up there and happened to be taking refuge in my hotel during a Friday night riot in Tahrir Square. He invited me for dinner in Dar al-Salam that Sunday.

We arrived in Dar al-Salam before dinner. We heard this was a former factory.

Cairo is filled with jobless young men who can't find work, and this is very apparent in Dar al-Salam.

Dumpsters here were sold for scrap long ago. With intermittent trash pick-up, garbage lines the streets.

There's so much garbage that it has become part of the neighbourhood.

A friend of Sonny's, a well-connected neighbour, guided me into Dar al-Salam's bleakest depths.

This pile of rubble was left behind when one of the country's frequent earthquakes knocked the homes that were here to the ground.

Sonny had explained that the slum construction was so flimsy that an earthquake could tear Dar al-Salam down. Standing where families died in the last quake brought that point home.

The houses collapsed when the earthquake triggered a landslide. The debris fell with so much force it took out the corner of a nearby building.

We entered a nearby building...

The halls were completely dark except for the camera flash and the beam of a small flashlight.

The dark did not dampen the excitement of local kids who lived there--who rarely saw visitors.

The kids laughed and kept up with us as we passed crumbling ceilings ...

The apartment contained an unlikely television room.

The hallways were draped with cobwebs.

Some of the younger kids fell away as our guide took us deeper underground. At this point we had no idea where we were headed.

The destination was bedrooms hidden in the dark at the end of the stairwell.

Rounding each corner brought a new face.

Residents here didn't fall into any particular group.

Though perhaps there were more women than men.

Considering the few options in Egypt left to women without a husband, it made sense there were more women than men.

Some rooms seemed filled with furniture from a former life.

Other rooms, like the kitchen, were kept clean.

This dank corner with running water was a luxury here.

Luxury to kids here is a plastic bag with no holes that can be inflated and played with as a toy.

This one room had a family of seven sleeping on a single bed.

When we arrived, the family's eldest son was cooking dinner within reach of the mattress.

His father invited us to share the meal.

At the top of the stairs was a hallway with bare bulbs that apparently worked when the power was on and the wires connected just right.

But the glow failed to reach this small toilet, which was shared by 35 people.

We headed back outside...

More kids and their smiles met us on the street.

We piled back in the car and headed for Sonny's house. Fortunately, the dark rooms were replaced by familiar sights.

And people doing familiar things.

Unusual sights now seemed oddly common.

This break from the reality of Dar al-Salam, however, was short lived. After parking near Sonny's, I was nearly robbed by these three men.

But Sonny and his friends intervened, and I walked away unscathed.

The near mugging proved extra incentive to find Sonny's dad, who'd been getting dinner ready.

The meal was not only generous, but personalised with French fries and ketchup.

In the middle of dinner, the power cut out, which happens frequently here. But that didn't dampen the mood.

The apartment was sweltering, and after dinner, the heat pushed us outside.

The power remained out until I reached the edge of town.

Not that lights would have brightened the dark memory of life in Dar al-Salam.

Dar al-Salam may be the worst neighbourhood in Cairo ...

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