Modern Cairo – a Story of Happiness, Unhappiness, Their Causes, and Garbage.
I had not expected much from the city of Cairo - perhaps, a few history lessons and strolls along the Nile. However, when I arrived for a teaching job in fall of 2019, I discovered a city as complex as it was old.
During my 7 months in Cairo, I never blogged and rarely posted on social media. Blocking websites had been a routine form of censorship for years. But in 2018, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi intensified this censorship when he made it illegal to access or share information from a blocked website. Those who did faced jail time and fines[i]. By the time I arrived, hundreds of websites were blocked. He was barring foreign journalists from the country, and jailing local ones by the dozens[ii]. Downtown in Tahrir Square, protests were picking up in frequency. There were whispers of another revolution. Teachers who I worked with told stories about what had happened in 2011 and then again in 2013 when protests lead to a second coup.
The country's unfolding politics were infuriating and fascinating, but also dangerous. I was working in a country with a spotty human rights records. So, I stopped writing online.
Now, though, I think of Egypt often, and fondly. Cairo is both a sophisticated metropolis of malls and yoga studios, and a clumpy-dirt desert where hundreds of poor people shelter in cemeteries. Cafes are crowded. People spend hours there talking, smoking, and drinking diminutive cups of coffee brewed thick with cardamom. Egyptians are friendly people. Warmth emanates from them as surely as the call-to-prayer emanates from the speakers mounted on telephone poles on every street throughout the city. There is a lot to be enamored with (the lemon-colored morning light, palm trees, the fluffy bread sold on the corners for a quarter, the Nile) but there are also confounding difficulties.
90 percent of the country is Muslim. 10 percent is Christian. Like many cities in developing nations, Cairo does not have an official government-run garbage service. Instead, the hungry, looking for a way to make a little money, collect, salvage, resell, or recycle the garbage. At dawn, I would see kids, not yet teenagers, jumping off in-motion donkey-drawn carts or small rusty trucks. They'd run, grab a plastic bottle or aluminum can, and jump back onto the cart before it was a block away. These were the people of Garbage City, the neighborhood within Cairo where the city's trash was collected, sorted, recycled, burned, or dumped.
The people of Garbage City did not have paved roads. They did not have dwellings separate from the great mounds of meticulously organized newspapers, cans, bags of plastic wrappers, and oily to-go containers. They lived in and made their livelihood out of the everyday remains that the rest of the city discarded.
Most in Cairo called them the Garbage People (or Zabbaleens in Egyptian Arabic), looked down on them, said they stank. Taxis refused to take tourists to the Cave Church, an ancient site of an early Christendom, because they'd have to travel the bumpy unpaved roads of that neighborhood. And while not all Christians in Cairo were garbage people, almost all of the garbage people were Christians.
Religious discrimination is extremely common everywhere. In the US, Muslims are a target. At the school in Queens where I taught for a decade, a colleague was fired after telling a female Muslim student wearing a hijab that the Islamic religion was sexist. After all, she had once told me, God is all loving, why would he make a woman cover herself and be the property of her husband. This woman was Catholic, and other than this blind spot of bigotry, I loved her. She was almost always kind and unwaveringly tolerant.
I can understand ignorance on the individual level. My colleague had grown up in a very Catholic Columbia. She didn't know much about Islam. And she had drawn conclusions based on the bits of information in Western media throughout the 90s and 2000s. Information like women being arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia, and Malala Youssafzai being shot in the face on her way to school in Pakistan. Clearly, there's sexism here. These are examples of what happens when a nation's faith, politics, and sexism get all clumped together in one big ball of violence. My colleague saw this and blamed Islam - an accusation I can understand since conservative leaders in the Middle East have claimed that the Quran justifies this violence. But theirs is only one voice (loud and bloody though it is) in the modern Muslim world, which spans from Indonesian to India across the deserts of the Middle East to Morocco. My colleague didn't know that. I can forgive her.
What I can't forgive: the way the good people of Cairo treat the inhabitants of Garbage City. I can't forgive it because I can't understand it. The Zabbaleens are doing an essential service. Typically, the government manages a city's trash. Egypt has failed to do this. The citizens of Cairo should be grateful that a community formed to take care of their problem. Instead, they complain: the Zabbaleens are dirty, they live in filth.
If the Zabbaleens were Muslim, would the city have cleaned up the slum? Would the workers have been offered formal employment? Don't tell me that Cairo -- a city that after 18 days of protests in 2011 ended Hosni Mubarak's 30 year presidency known for corruption and police brutality -- couldn't request that the new government take care of the garbage.
I've never been able to make sense of the prevailing attitude toward the Zabbaleens. In general, I found Egyptians to be kind and understanding. At the school where I taught, Muslim and Christian Egyptians worked together closely and happily. They greeted each other as habibi, or my darling, and during breaks, hung out the windows of the teacher's lounge together, sneaking cigarettes like teenagers.
What I can't understand is how, in Cairo, there can be so much kindness for those in your community, and so little for the Zabbaleens. Every morning around 7:15, I would wait for the school's van that picks up teachers. A lot of mornings, I'd see boys, sometimes as many as 5, collecting garbage. They were skinny, their hair thick with dirt, and they were working. Meanwhile, my students were doing what most teenagers across the globe do in the hour before school starts: get on school busses, wolf down breakfasts, complain with friends, gossip, scroll through Instagram.
The Zabbaleens take pride in their work. In just 70 years, they've established not only a business that sustains a marginalized community, but also one of the world's best waste management systems. The slum takes in anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 tons of garbage a day, and recycles 75-85% of it[iii]. This is a massive achievement compared with global recycling levels. The EU, for example, recycles about 50% of its waste, and the US, about 35% [iv]
I don't pity the Zabbaleens. Journal articles and news stories published outside of Egypt have rightly recognized them as legendary waste managers[v]. But they have no choice, no other options than to work with and live around bags and piles of garbage. And the total absence of choice (for the Zabbaleens or for anyone anywhere) is unacceptable.
In the West, and perhaps especially in America, education is the clearest path to choice. High school and university education enable a person to choose their profession. This singular choice impacts every other circumstance of one's life: income, social status, where you could live, how many babies you'll have, access to healthcare, and the list goes on.
When I see Zabbaleen kids picking up trash in the haze of the morning, I see hard workers who have no choice. I go to school and prepare my classroom for my first class of 30 or so disgruntled 14 year olds. Around 8, they enter, shoving each other, sharing food, and tossing water bottles across the room. They are typical teenagers: more monster than human, but their mothers still love them, and they'll emerge from the hormonal nightmare known as adolescence eventually. And when they do, they will have some choice about the direction of their lives. The Zabbaleens will not. Cairo will go on about its business as it has for 4000 years. They will build homes and tear them down. They will marry and move, abandoning their broken chairs and old TVs to the sidewalks. They will wake up late on Saturdays in the summer, order Uber Eats and wile away the afternoon with a lover. After the sun sets, they will drop the day's garbage in the bin outside the building. You know what will happen in the morning. Life will go on. Almost, as if there were no choice.