My time with the Zabaleen of Cairo
I first pitied the Zabaleen, but as I interacted with them and met more of them, I came to love them and admire them for their fierce determination and their dignity. They were barefoot, hungry, and dressed in bits and pieces; you would encounter their like in any slum that you visit, but they were also warm, welcoming, and generously invited me into their homes.
Zabaleen literally means ‘garbage people’ in Egyptian Arabic. The word is used to describe the garbage collectors of Cairo, who have been doing this mostly unpaid work since the 1940s. They were originally landless peasants who moved to Cairo in the 1930s and 1940s, descendants of subsistence farmers who could no longer farm as a way of life. They moved to Cairo looking for work opportunities and became poor manual labourers, living on the very fringes of society. In order to survive, many of the Zabaleen (both Muslim and Coptic Christian; 90 per cent of the Zabaleen are Coptic Christians) took up the work of collecting garbage in order to recycle it. They were encouraged by authorities to do this work that nobody else wanted to do; organic waste was given to their pigs to eat, and they would proceed to recycle up to 80 per cent of the waste that they collected.
The Zabaleen live and work in large enclaves scattered in the Greater Cairo Urban Region, the largest of which is called Mokattam Village. Nicknamed ‘Garbage City’, it is located at the foot of the Mokattam mountains. Each enclave is surrounded by squalor, and mounds of garbage because the Zabaleen collect garbage from households and city streets by foot or by donkey carts and bring it back to their enclaves to sort, either in the alleys or in their houses. They receive absolutely no support from the government or civic authorities; they are in constant danger of being evicted, and they are viewed with contempt and derision for performing a service which would bring Cairo to a standstill if they ever went on strike.
I first encountered the Zabaleen when I purchased a recycled pendant from one of them; made of twisted bits of various coloured metals, and glass, it was so pretty that I stopped to take a second look at the roadside stall (it was a cloth that had been spread out by the side of the road, on which various bits and pieces had been arranged). Curious about the young lady selling it, I asked her (with the help of my friend who was with me) to tell me how she had made the pendant. As she told me how the pendant had taken shape, my friend also told me about the history of the Zabaleen. She offered to show me her home, and I accepted, and that is how I found myself in Mokattam Village.
I first pitied the Zabaleen, but as I interacted with them and met more of them, I came to love them and admire them for their fierce determination and their dignity. They were barefoot, hungry, and dressed in bits and pieces; you would encounter their like in any slum that you visit, but they were also warm, welcoming, and generously invited me into their homes. I came to discover that they are uncaring and ignorant of infection or risk; they sort through the garbage they collect by hand, without any protective gear. Their recycling has been praised as some of the finest in the world. They are truly experts at it; they keep up to date, and they have developed an amazing resource recovery system. I still have that first pendant that I bought from them, as well as other objects. Some, they gave me as gifts, and I treasured them. Others, I bought.
I found myself returning to Mokattam as often as I could; I came to know more people and talked to so many of them. At first, it was because I wanted to write about them, but I also found myself drawn to them. I made friends among them and even tried my hand at helping them by sorting through the garbage with them. I failed dismally more often than I succeeded, a fact which amused them hugely. I spent weeks among them whenever I could; Cairo was my base for my travels at the time but whenever I found myself back there, I went to visit my friends. Each time I went back I heard new horror stories; rats and weasels biting babies in the night, infants dying in the cold, entire houses buried by mounds of garbage collapsing on them. In just one settlement there were many stories like this; death by garbage suffocation, or by fires that burned out of control, engulfing houses as well as garbage mounds, were all too common.
I gave them whatever money I could and bought them food. They ate a lot of meat, but their diets barely contained any fruits or vegetables. I even tried unsuccessfully to help them grow vegetables. We tried with both seeds and saplings. Our experiments sadly failed.
It is ironic that Mokattam is located so close to Zamalek, an extremely affluent suburb in Western Cairo. Cairo, in its entirety, forgets or ignores the Zabaleen. The civic authorities make them promises and always break them; the Zabaleen pay their way and get receipts for water or electricity or medical aid, but they get nothing in return. The community is characterised by both low health, and high rates of disease, and extremely high infant mortality rates, especially from tetanus.
I left Cairo with just enough to get me out, and years later, when my friend was visiting there, had him take money and gifts to my friends in Mokattam. He couldn’t find any of my friends. Some of them had committed suicide; others had perished from other illnesses, including lung cancer. Two of them had been killed along with their families by garbage suffocating them in their houses as they slept, and three of them had died when fires had engulfed their shacks, trapping them inside them. I wept for my friends and mourn them to this day. They deserved so much better.
I spent a fair amount of time in Cairo; I explored its roads and alleyways, ate at famous restaurants, visited the Giza Necropolis, cruised on the Nile, explored the markets of Old Cairo, visited the Baron Empain Palace, and listened to music at the Cairo Opera House. But my time spent with the Zabaleen was the most precious in Cairo and the time that I have the fondest memories of. It was my real Cairo.