Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cairo Poverty Out-takes

Ok, latest book I'm reading is "Planet of Slums" by Mike Davis.  While he's not so good at suggesting solutions, merely delineating the problem in broad outlines easily fills a 200+ page book.  The scope of global poverty, exploitation of the poor, patterns of similar abuse of the poor around the globe, the growth of slums, the destruction of even earlier-existent public services within the slums, etc, etc. are laid out in amazing starkness.  People living on and in piles of excrement, slavery, destruction of slums (which them re-emerge elsewhere with an even harder life for the residents who survive), International Financial Insitutions (IFI's) further impoverishing them, I mean the list is just never-ending and the death toll to say nothing of the abject misery that occurs under our noses every day is simply staggering.  To that end, below I've copied a few bits from the book specifically referring to some of these problems in Cairo, a city I love but which breaks my heart and always has in so many ways.  Keep in mind, that Cairo, for any of the problems I lay out below and as horrendous as they are, isn't even at the bottom of the global rung (and to be fair, as bad as his Cairo out-takes are, they're not as bad sounding as some of the realities of city life there are for the poor - just the challenge of writing a global survey on such a big topic I suppose).  Places like Dhaka or Uttar Pradesh in India or Kinshasa or...well, let's just say that most of the poor of Cairo are greatly abused in a way you and I can scarcely imagine, but even their abuse as a whole pales in comparison to others around the globe.

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p. 190: Cairo's slums have also been mined in recent years for human body parts. "Most clients in these procedures," explains Jeffrey Nedoroscik, "are wealthy Persian Gulf Arabs. Whereas there are other countries in the Middle East that have transplant centers, few of them have the enormous numbers of poor who are willing to sell their organs. In the past, laboratories would send recruiters into Cairo's slums and poor areas such as the City of the Dead to enlist potential donors."

p. 33-34: The most unusual example of an inherited housing supply is undoubtedly Cairo's City of the Dead, where one million poor people use Mameluke tombs as prefabricated housing components. The huge graveyard, the burial site of generations of sultans and emirs, is a walled urban island surrounded by congested motorways. The original residents, in the eighteenth century, were tombkeepers for rich Cairene families, followed by quarry workers, and then, in the modern era, by refugees uprooted from Sinai and Suez during the 1967 war. "The invaders," observes Jeffrey Nedoroscik, a researcher at the American University in Cairo, "have adapted the tombs in creative ways to meet the needs of the living. Cenotaphs and grave markers are used as desks, headboards, tables, and shelves. String is hung between gravestones to set laundry to dry." Elsewhere in Cairo (formerly a city with 29 synagogues), smaller groups of squatters have taken over abandoned Jewish cemeteries. "On a visit in the 1980s," writes journalist Max Rodenbeck, "I found a young couple with four children cozily installed in a particularly splendid neopharaonic vault. The tomb dwellers had unsealed the columbarium inside, finding it made a convenient built-in shelving for clothes, cooking pots, and a color TV set."

pp. 186-187: In Cairo and other Egyptian cities, children under twelve are perhaps 7 percent of the workforce; this includes the thousands of street children who gather and resell cigarette butts (a pack a day otherwise costs half of a poor man's monthly salary).

pp. 110-111: In Egypt, the decade of the 1970s was also an era of fierce state repression directed against "subversive" urban neighborhoods. A famous example was the aftermath of the January 1977 IMF riots in Cairo. The failed neoliberal policies of Sadat's Infitah had produced a huge deficit that both Jimmy Carter and the IMF pressed the Egyptian president to correct. "To close this gap," writes journalist Geneive Abdo, "Sadat was forced either to end the subsidies or bleed the well-to-do by imposing high taxes on personal income. The bourgeoisie, a key constituency, was too important to Sadat, so the state opted to cut in half subsidies [for staple foods of the poor]." Furious Cairenes, in turn, attacked such in-their-face symbols of the Infitah's luxury lifestyles as five-star hotels, casinos, nightclubs, and department stores, as well as police stations. Eighty people were killed during the uprising and almost 1000 injured.

After filling the jails with Leftists (a repression that had the side effect of benefiting the rise of Egypt's radical Islamists), Sadat focused his rage on the Ishash al-Turguman slum in the Bulaq district, close to Cairo's center, as the fount of what he denounced as a "Communist-led uprising of thieves." He told foreign journalists that the area was a literal nest of subversion, where Communists hid "where it was impossible to reach them, since narrow streets prevented the use of police cars." Anthropologist Farha Ghannam says that Sadat, like Napoleon III in his day, wanted "the city center to be replanned to allow more effective control and policing." The stigmatized inhabitants of Ishash al-Turguman were divided into two groups and expelled to different parts of the periphery, while their old neighborhood became a parking lot. Ghannam argues that the purge of Bulaq was the first step in a hugely ambitious visions - which Sadat had neither time nor resources to actually implement - of rebuilding Cairo "using Los Angeles and Houston as models."

p. 86: Even as metro Cairo has doubled its area in five years and new suburbs sprawl westward into the desert, the housing crisis remains acute: new housing is too expensive for the poor, and much of it is unoccupied because the owner is away working in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. "Upwards of a million apartments," writes Jeffrey Nedoroscik, "stand empty ... there is no housing shortage per se. In fact, Cairo is filled with buildings that are half-empty."

pp. 35-36: Some impoverished inner-city-dwellers live in the air. One out of ten inhabitants of Phnom Penh sleeps on a roof, as do an incredible 1.5 million Cairenes and 200,000 Alexandrians. It is cooler in Cairo's so-called "second city" than inside the tenements, but roof-dwellers are more exposed to air pollution from traffic and cement plants, as well as dust from the desert.

p. 165: In Egypt, despite five years of economic growth, 1999 World Bank data showed no decrease in household poverty (defined as an income of $610 or less per year) but did register a fall in per capita consumption.

pp. 132-133: Nor does the snail's pace of traffic in most poor cities reduce it's lethality. Although cars and buses crawl through Cairo at average speeds of less than 10 kiometers per hour, the Egyptian capital still manages an accident rate of 8 deaths and 60 injuries per 1000 automobiles per year.

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