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Trash Talk: Egypt's Garbage Speaks for the Everyman

The viewfinder on my camera focuses in, then slightly out. Framed: One cat, scrawny with sparse hairs matted in dirt, crouched on a heaping pile of old papers, rotting fruits, discarded potato chip bags. It’s bitty feet slip between the broken seals of old bottles, its tail drips from an unidentified goo. The cat sits unaffected by the gnats and flies that flick it’s whiskers and then -snap- a moment is captured as it takes a bite from a twisted moldy loaf of bread. I examine the screen to double check the art is perfect.

Someone snatches my wrist, whips me around. Two cavernous nostrils smoke into my face, two eyes, bloodshot under a monstrous brow, gorge into me.

“Take a picture of that,” the man says, an arm flailing to the ancient mosque to my left. “That is Egypt. Not this shit.”


One imagines Egypt as a cultural legacy of monuments to the triumph of man. From the most ancient pyramids in Giza to the most modern library in Alexandria, Egyptian history is littered with temples, tombs, monasteries, forts, mosques and canals that bear witness to the strength and timelessness of rulers past.

And yet, in a country that appears to value longevity above all, I look to the things that are quick to decay, to rot away, to be forgotten in order define a place that I’ve grown to love. In all honesty, it’s hard to not notice the junk that lines the sides of the streets. In Cairo, especially, every corner is characterized by a smelly mess a few feet high. Every morning, citizens of the city casually dump the nightly waste onto the pile and continue on with their day, oblivious to the beautiful mess they are building around them, the seventeen thousand pounds of trash discarded per day to which they are contributing. They may not realize what they are doing, but I do. I’m not solely referring to the environmental decay the city lives in, but to the bigger picture in which the garbage takes center stage. What people toss, as well as the reasons for which they toss it, becomes a momentary monument for the everyman. In a country of lasting tributes to the great and powerful, it is the trash that tells the true story of a passionate people.


2004. Just below the slanting slope of what will soon become Al Azhar park, a young boy is hard at work. Let’s call him Yostus, because, after all, he is a Copt. One by one, he gingerly lifts gnarled and juicy bags of trash from the street side and places it in the back of his donkey cart. He and his clutterd cart will soon brave the chaos of Cairo traffic in order to return to his home neighborhood of Mokattam Village at the foot of the Mokattam Mountains.

Yostus is a part of the Zabaleen (in Arabic translation, a member of the “Garbage People”), a community of eighty thousand peasants who have resorted to a lifestyle centered around trash. Yostus’s ancestors were some of the first Zabaleen in the early 20th century, immigrating to the city from the far western deserts to find jobs when agricultural lifestyles became unproductive. Because many were Coptic pig farmers, they were almost immediately granted outsider status and forced to move to the outer slums of the city without work (most Cairenes were Muslim, and as such regarded pigs as filthy, unholy animals).

Over the years, Yostus’s ancestors found a place within the city ecosystem: garbage. Working with another immigrant population, the Wahiya, the Zabaleen created an intricate system of trash removal from the city streets. The Wahiya were in charge of collecting fees from the citizens to have their trash removed, and they in turn employed the Zabaleen to collect this trash, paying them in the very junk they picked up off the street.

Because of this history, Yostus will take his donkey cart home today and dump out the trash. His father and brother have been off doing the same thing, and this evening, his sisters and mother will go through the items to determine what can be salvaged. Clothes will be mended, metals will be melted down. Organic waste will be composted into food for the thousands of pigs that live in the neighborhood. Some plastics may even be sent abroad for factory materials. In Yostus’s household of eight people, they may actually only bring in about seventy Egyptian pounds per month, but the goods they receive make up for the discrepancy.

Sadly, they’ve been suffering more than usual over the past year. Population numbers have spiked and the Zabaleen just can't keep up. Mubarak, in an effort to clean up the city, employed three international waste management companies to come in and take care of the trash. They set up dumpsters and forced the public to pay for the services, severely limiting the amount of trash and money the already-limited Zabaleen could take in. Over the next few years, especially with a swine flu outbreak in 2009 that results in the mass slaughter of all the pigs of Egypt, Yostus's community will unfortunately suffer, reducing the amount of waste they can process to only six thousand tons per day, a small fraction of the seventeen thousand dumped out daily. Still, the international companies are only managing to take in three thousand tons, and are only recycling maybe 3% of the waste before tossing it into landfills out in the desert while the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Mokattam Village could have used upwards of 80% to increase their livelihood. For now, at least, they are vital and fulfilled.


Rashida’s phone beeps.

It is a picture from her brother, Abdul, in Alexandria. “Tossed my trash on the governor’s car,” it reads. “Make sure Morsi gets the message.”


Early Dynastic Period. The inordinate Sahara sun blazes down upon the men in loincloths, the Hierakopolis horizon hazy in the heat. Together they form an assembly line from the pull cart to the small house, transferring large reed baskets of bone, rotten vegetables and ash into the dwelling where it will be spread on the ground and covered in clay to create a new floor. A smaller cart, filled with inorganic waste (pottery shards and small metal bits, parts of broken stone) patiently waits to be emptied. It will be poured between the outer walls to reinforce structure. Much of the waste comes from the more elite areas of the village: the overseer, the temple priest, for whom trash is unclean and unwelcome.

But these men welcome it willingly, mixing it in with their own waste. A pottery shard with last week’s grocery list. The metal fire plate badly mauled. The papyri on which young schoolchildren practiced handwriting by copying common literary works. Tax forms. Bakery orders. Census forms. Unbeknownst to these laboring men, the cultural predecessors of an equally environmentally savvy population that would thrive seven thousand years later in a town called Cairo, their wilted refuse will continue to sit in the hot sand, preserved in the heat, for thousands of years. Their waste will become their memory, all that remains.


I'm on my way to Metro Groceries when I see the digger, the nabasheen. I've only seen him once before, but it's obvious that he haunts this corner regularly. He is rummaging through a pile of brown and white plastic bags, carefully opening each one so as to not add to the mess. His face is careworn and pocketed and there are bags under his eyes. I slow down my pace to watch him.

A door down the street opens. A woman in a clean, pressed red headscarf and snappy boots saunters towards the corner with her own bag. The digger sees her and his eyes grow a bit wider. She is obviously well-off. Her trash must contain only the best of waste, the creme de la creme of scrum and scraps. Half of last night's grilled chicken dinner. Maybe some aluminum cans he can sell to the Zabaleen for a small price.

As she nears the corner, the woman notices the man. As she walks, she casually opens the bag and reaches inside, searching. When her hand emerges, his eyes light up. A coat. A coat. A lime green windbreaker with an obvious hole in the armpit. But nevertheless, a coat. She tosses the coat and the bag at the man without a word and turns around. He opens the bag. I pass the corner. The interaction passes. She goes back to her world, he goes back to his, and I go back to mine.


There is more to Egypt than monuments. Giant stone structures alone do not encompass a people, a spirit that has evolved and expanded throughout the ages, from past to present. For every pharaoh set in stone, for every leader lasting in the legacy of a dam, there are millions more whose stories go untold, unrecognized by the legions of tourists and historians that seek to classify the nation. There are pyramids of limestone in the desert that reach for the afterlife, but there are also pyramids of fruit peels and cardboard boxes in the streets that reach out for recognition.

This is not to say that the trash on the street is not concerning. One cannot help but look at the mangy piles and dirt-ridden collectors and feel pity for a society that seems, at first glance, literally down in the dumps. Morsi had even acknowledged the squalid state of the streets in his opening promises as president, vowing to clean up the filth in a hundred days. When the realities of the situation came to light - namely that the situation is much too complex to be solved swiftly without endangering the livelihoods of thousands of Zabaleen - Morsi backtracked from the promise, an action that gave opposition powers more fuel to fight him with. People took to the streets, trash in tow, and left it for him to deal with. Waste became a symbol of the rebellion, a challenge to the government: peaceful, but powerful. And while it seems drastic and dirty, there is more to the action than simple littering. Just like the piles whose shape is changing daily, be it by housewives adding to it or Zabaleen taking from it, so too is the Egyptian spirit ever-evolving.

Most important is the story this trash leaves behind. When I take out my camera and snap a street cluttered with garbage, I am not capturing the dismal embarrassments of Cairo, I am capturing a people. A photo of a mound of waste is synonymous with a portrait of an old beggar, an elementary class photo, a facebook profile picture. The trash talks in ways a monument cannot. It reeks of passion, of persistence, of struggle and stability.

Egypt is the shit.

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