Living on What Others Throw Away

Cairo-based journalist Sarah Topol covers events in the Middle East.

Cairo-based journalist Sarah Topol covers events in the Middle East. For the September issue of ONE, she reports on Egypt’s Zabbaleen, or “garbage people” in Arabic. Here, she offers her personal impressions of a class of people struggling to live on what others discard.

The fetid smell of garbage hits you immediately. It is sickly sweet and hangs in the air, suspended in the desert heat. Honking trucks piled with bags of trash and bleating donkeys carting more of the same cram the narrow, unpaved road that cuts through the Christian quarter of Manshiyet Nasr, a neighborhood on the rocky cliffs outside of Cairo. This is the home of the “Zabbaleen,” the city’s trash collectors.

While men collect and drive the trucks, women sit outside in the narrow alleys sorting through the waste. Sometimes they hammer apart items, like cassette tapes: sturdy case plastic goes into one pile, and the black ribbon in another. Other times, their hands are dripping with remnants of refuse — the leftover yogurt from a container or bits of orange peel. Their children run barefoot through the congealed remains. Goats chew on the rubbish, while stray cats stare at visitors before returning to their scavenging or naps. Flies are everywhere.

This is one of the most squalid areas in Egypt. It is also home to one of the most efficient systems of disposal in the world — 80 percent of the garbage brought here is recycled. Life here was never easy, but for a long time it was at least predictable. Then in 2009, the Egyptian government decided to kill all of the country’s pigs as a foolhardy attempt to prevent swine flu. Now times are tougher; the goats don’t eat nearly as much trash as pigs did, and in post-revolutionary Egypt, many, especially those in the country’s Christian minority, are afraid of the near-constant political and economic instability.

Um Abanoub is a mother of six. She is 40 years old, but her harshly lined face makes her look older. When I approach, she’s hunched down sorting waste with her teenage daughter. “Now we have to pay money for disposing organic waste,” she tells me, referring to the fees people pay for using trash dumps. “Before, we fed it to the pigs.

“Things have gotten worse since the revolution,” she tells me plaintively, explaining that she owes money to many of her neighbors because she married one of her daughters and the two others are engaged. Weddings are expensive affairs in Egypt. “This is how we find ourselves in life. Only God knows how things will go,” she tells me.

When I ask her if she receives any charity, she says: “No, we don’t see anything from those organizations, or from the church — we thank God for whatever little he provides us.” The community is deeply devout, but most people I speak to agree they see little assistance from the church.

I take these concerns to Father Abraham, one of the five priests responsible for the Zabbaleen at St. Simon, an imposing church cut into the cliff face. “As much as it can, it helps its children,” the black-robed priest explains while fielding calls from congregation members with personal problems during our interview. “The church can’t satisfy everyone.”

As for the relationship between local Muslims and Christians, Father Abraham reports there are no problems and others in the community agree — relationships based on trade have continued despite the political instability.

“I deal with almost everyone, including the Muslim Brotherhood,” plastics trader Francis Sawiris tells me of the conservative Islamist group that now controls nearly half the seats in Egypt’s post-revolutionary parliament. “It’s all about the attitude, not the religion: he needs me and I need him. That’s the benefit of a working relationship,” he explains while cheerfully sorting through plastic on the ground floor of his home.

But on a wider scale people tell me they are afraid. Egypt’s revolution has also unleashed more radical Islamists into politics, including the ultra-traditionalist Salafis who control a quarter of seats in the new parliament. Sectarian incidents are on the rise.

My tour guide, Mousa Nazmy from the Spirit of Youth Foundation — an N.G.O. run by and for the Zabbaleen — told me he was looking for a way out. Nazmy’s brother was killed during sectarian clashes that struck the neighborhood when a protest on 9 March spiraled out of control. He was 26 years old and left behind two children and a wife.

“After that we were all afraid,” Nazmy tells me. “We thought the revolution would lift people up, but the opposite happened.”

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