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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Considering the few options in Egypt left to women without a husband, it made sense there were more women than men.
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.
We piled back in the car and headed for Sonny's house. Fortunately, the dark rooms were replaced by familiar sights.
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.
In the middle of dinner, the power cut out, which happens frequently here. But that didn't dampen the mood.
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