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Salvaging Dignity

A Coptic Christian family perseveres against all odds

Wadad Nagib’s neighbors often joke that she has enough children to form a soccer team. The 46-year-old mother takes their playful teasing in stride, usually responding with a good-natured smile. After all, her six boys and five girls, ages 3 to 28, are her life.

The Nagib family lives in Manshiyat Naser — also known as Garbage City — an impoverished Coptic Christian neighborhood nestled in the jutting desert cliffs that rise above Cairo’s bustling streets. Called Zabbaleen, or “garbage people” in Arabic, most hail from the rural province of Assiut, 250 miles to the south. For generations, the Zabbaleen have served as Cairo’s de facto garbage collectors, earning a meager living hauling away city dwellers’ trash and recycling anything salvageable.

To spend time with the Nagib family is to witness in microcosm the struggles of an entire class of people — and to realize that they are struggling not just to salvage what others discard, but also to salvage dignity and a way of life.

Mrs. Nagib’s husband collected trash for a living. Now too old to work, he has passed his route on to his children. And it seems, one by one, the Nagib children are carrying on the tradition.

Six days a week, Mrs. Nagib rises before dawn to see off three of her sons to their work as garbage collectors. At 5, the young men will have climbed into the family truck to head down the slopes to the city — a drive that takes two hours. There, they go from apartment to apartment along their route collecting garbage. By early afternoon, they head home, the truck loaded with trash.

While the young men rest, Mrs. Nagib and her daughters begin picking through the garbage bags with bare hands. They sort the debris into piles: aluminum cans, food waste, glass, etc. Later, the family will sell the recyclables.

Mrs. Nagib’s 3-year-old daughter plays barefoot in the trash heaps. Flies swarm around the mother and daughters. The sickly sweet stench of rotting waste fills the neighborhood’s narrow, unpaved streets.

“It’s not easy, but it’s what we have become accustomed to. All we want is security and God’s blessing,” Mrs. Nagib says. The slender woman wears a bright blue headscarf and small, simple earrings. As she gestures with her hands, she reveals a tiny tattoo of a cross on her right wrist, a common marking among Copts. “Maybe in the future things will get better.”

For the Zabbaleen, life has never been easy. But in the last decade, it has become even tougher.

“The community has suffered at the hands of the multinational corporations and at the hands of poor government policies,” says Dr. Laila Iskandar, head of CID Consulting, a group that has supported development projects in the Zabbaleen community for 15 years.

“However, they have managed to improve their housing stock, send their kids to school and expand their recycling markets in spite of the culling of the pigs, their exclusion from the current formal contracts and their harassment by police. It is a true testimony to their perseverance, resilience and grit.”

The garbage collection trade in Cairo dates back to the early 1900’s, when members of the nomadic Muslim Waahi tribe migrated to the city and began collecting wastepaper and selling it as fuel to public bathhouses and food carts. In the 1940’s, Coptic farmers migrated from Assiut to the capital in search of work. They took to collecting garbage, forging an informal alliance with the Waahi. The Copts delivered all wastepaper they collected to the Waahi. They kept the rest, trading metals, glass, plastic and other recyclables. Food scraps were fed to the pigs they raised for slaughter. They used the meat to feed their families or sell to other Christians.

As Cairo’s trash output continued to grow, more and more Copts moved to the city to work in what quickly became a family business. They built shantytowns using tin and other scrap materials they scavenged.

Over the years, these “Zabbaleen” steadily developed an intricate arrangement for trash collection. Families established regular routes, knocking on residents’ doors to collect their garbage. After taking the trash home and sorting it, they sold recyclables to middlemen, who specialized in repurposing cloth, metal, paper and plastic. By the end of the century, the Zabbaleen were recycling some 80 percent of the trash they collected, making their waste disposal system one of the most efficient in the world.

But in the early 2000’s, the Cairo Cleansing and Beautification Authority (C.C.B.A.), a government agency established to oversee the city’s waste management, commissioned private firms to collect trash, maintaining that the Zabbaleen did not service the entire city.

French and Spanish international companies won the contracts to manage waste disposal in three of Cairo’s four municipal zones. The government contracted the fourth zone to a private Egyptian firm. According to reports from CID Consulting, the C.C.B.A. treated these companies much differently than it did the Zabbaleen. Whereas the C.C.B.A. paid out fees to the companies, it required the Zabbaleen to provide a deposit up front for the right to service specified apartment blocks. And the agency still taxed residents for the Zabbaleen’s services, which it added to their electric bills.

According to Dr. Iskandar, the companies found Cairo’s dizzying maze of streets and alleys complicated. Their newly hired crews also turned out to be fickle; turnover rates were high. As a result, the companies often subcontracted to the Zabbaleen, who for meager wages more or less resumed their old jobs.

Other Zabbaleen, such as Mrs. Nagib and her children, continue to ply their routes without guarantees. “It’s the only way for us to feed ourselves,” she says. “People aren’t going to stop working.”

Mrs. Nagib sits in the cramped living room of a third-floor apartment, surrounded by her children. The room is small, about 100 square feet. Crosses and icons of the saints cover its whitewashed walls. In a corner, an old television plays a Christian channel.

The family slowly built the house over the past 12 years, adding rooms and levels as the children married and began their own families. Its shoddy construction shows; the doorframes sag from the weight.

“The multinationals made life harder for us,” says Mrs. Nagib. “Before, we were paid by apartment owners. But now they feel they don’t have to pay us. So, some do and some don’t.”

Then, in 2009, the government struck the community another blow. When the deadly swine flu broke out, President Hosni Mubarak’s government ordered the killing of all the pigs in Egypt. The order was made despite a lack of any scientific proof linking the virus to swine.

By eating food scraps, the Zabbaleen’s pigs had performed a valuable role in the city’s waste disposal. Ironically, since the cull, food refuse — rife with bacteria and other pathogens — has flooded the streets of Cairo.

For the Zabbaleen, the slaughter signaled more hard times. “We sold pigs before the cull. They were our income. We used them for work and food, selling them every year,” recalls Mrs. Nagib.

“We took other jobs, more work, more hours,” she says of how her family coped. Many Zabbaleen already lived in abject poverty. Some parents had little choice but to pull their children out of school and put them to work.

Most Coptic Christians in Egypt viewed the government’s action as religious discrimination and an excuse to push through a popular policy in the predominantly Muslim country. Christians make up roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million people. Muslims account for the other 90 percent and consider pigs sinful and unclean.

Recently, some members of the Zabbaleen community have started secretly raising pigs again. To hide them, families pen them up inside, in the rear of ground-floor apartments.

On weekends, Mrs. Nagib’s 12-year-old son Bishoy works with his older brothers collecting trash. During the week, he attends a public school.

“I don’t like it there,” the boy says shyly, beating his long eyelashes as he looks down. “They hit me and they are very mean.”

Bishoy is the oldest of Mrs. Nagib’s children still in school. Despite her efforts to keep her children in school, all of Bishoy’s older siblings dropped out to work and help support the family. They either work as garbage collectors or as laborers in a nearby factory.

Bishoy says he wants to be a police officer when he grows up. But his mother shakes her head. “They’ll never let us be police,” she explains. “The government oppresses us.”

Her daughter-in-law, Nermine Amin Nagib, nods in agreement. The cheerful 27-year-old wears a pink housedress. She grew up in a different Christian neighborhood, where many residents work as carpenters. She holds a diploma in commerce and worked as a nurse before marrying her husband four years ago. Now, she works with her mother-in-law sorting trash every day except Sunday.

“It was difficult at first,” she says about life in Manshiyat Naser, “but now it’s okay.”

Compared to where she grew up, the standards of education and health are much lower in Manshiyat Naser. “I try to tell them to be careful of viruses,” she says, “but it’s very hard.”

The family’s health care consists of little more than an annual check-up and blood test through a local Christian charity. Doctor visits are paid out of pocket.

Devout Christians, most residents in Manshiyat Naser attend services at St. Simon the Tanner, a Coptic church carved out of the face of a cliff dominating the neighborhood.

Though some parishioners wish the church could do more for the community, the parish offers relief. For instance, it provides material assistance to orphans, widows and disabled persons. And it runs a nursery school, which enrolls some 500 boys and girls from the neighborhood.

The 2011 revolution ended Hosni Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule and ushered in historic democratic elections. The ensuing civil unrest, however, often split along religious and sectarian lines, alarming members of Egypt’s Christian community.

The elections, held in May and June 2012, confirmed fears among Christians about their future in the new Egypt. Members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Islamic group, the Salafi, together won nearly two-thirds of the seats in parliament.

When the 88-year-old Coptic Orthodox pope, Shenouda III, died this past March, the Salafi in parliament refused to participate in a moment of silence for the pontiff. Christians now wonder whether anyone in public life will champion their interests as he did.

“Without him, I don’t know what will happen to us,” says Mrs. Nagib.

Above her hangs a picture now ubiquitous in Manshiyat Naser — a montage of photographs of nine young Coptic men killed in clashes between Christians and Muslims on 9 March 2011. Coptic protestors had staged a demonstration near Manshiyat Naser to express outrage over the burning of a church in another part of Cairo. The demonstration spiraled out of control, as protestors and area Muslims exchanged gunfire and Molotov cocktails. Nine Christians and one Muslim were killed; dozens of others were injured.

Mrs. Nagib remembers being terrified. She and other residents in Manshiyat Naser were asked to turn off all the lights. She hid with her youngest children on the darkened street, weeping. Her oldest boys joined the fighting, saying they had to defend the neighborhood.

Since the revolution, Mrs. Nagib worries about her children’s safety more than ever.

“I can’t guarantee my sons will return from work every day” she says. “They work in a tense neighborhood. I bid them goodbye every morning and pray they come back.”

Many of the Zabbaleen’s problems stem from their lack of government representation. As the lowest rung in Cairo’s society, they have no say in any government policy that affects them.

The nongovernmental organization Spirit of Youth is working to strengthen the Zabbaleen’s political voice. Founded by members of the community in 2004, it is currently organizing a union for independent Zabbaleen garbage collectors. The goal, says Director Ezzat Naem, is for the union to pressure the government to cancel its contracts with international sanitation companies and instead employ union workers.

Despite pressure from Spirit of Youth and others, the C.C.B.A. so far will not cancel the contracts signed by the Mubarak government. It argues that the agency will owe millions in contract termination fees.

Mr. Naem, however, thinks the C.C.B.A. has other reasons. “I don’t know why they don’t trust our abilities,” he says. “They know Zabbaleen are going to take the garbage anyway, because they rely on it to survive. They know that this system is like the goose that is delivering gold eggs.”

Cairo-based journalist Sarah Topol and photographer Dana Smillie cover events in the Middle East. Dana Smillie

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