The Zabaleen

Mourad’s mornings are all the same. He wakes up at 2am, then fights to get his sons out of bed for an hour before leaving late for his garbage route in Shoubra.

Nestling haphazardly at the foot of Cairo’s Moqattam mountain, eclipsed by the impressive Monastery of Saint Samaán with its daily influx of worshippers, pilgrims and wealthy tourists, this remarkable community quietly and diligently goes about its business of gathering and recycling the immense tonnage of solid waste produced by the Arab world’s most populous state.

Socially ostracised, discriminated against and facing cool disregard from the authorities, this community of an estimated 60,000–70,000 Coptic Christians migrated from remote regions of Egypt in the 1950s, settling on low-value land on Cairo’s eastern edge. Now known as the Zabaleen, an Arabic phrase which means quite literally “garbage people,” the community has evolved into a hardworking and self-sustaining people offering an informal yet highly-organised service to homes and businesses throughout the city. For generations, garbage has represented an asset to them as they have pursued the invaluable harvesting and hand-sorting of the 15,000 tonnes of rotting domestic refuse produced every day by the city’s 17.8 million residents.

From early morning the men leave Garbage City on donkey-driven carts or modern flatbed trucks, making the rounds of the same households and offices their fathers and grandfathers have served for years; offering a door to door collection service which no foreign company brought in by the government to try to rationalise the city’s garbage collection has yet been able to equal. Hours later, piled high with the day’s gathering, they return to Moqattam, where the women and children eagerly offload the waste, painstakingly separating plastics, metal, glass, paper and fabric from amongst foodstuff and organic waste.

Against an unlikely backdrop of filth and flies, a staggering 80 percent of all solid waste is recycled, positioning Cairo as a world leader in the race for effective waste-management. The remaining organic waste has traditionally been used as pig feed, but the government’s questionable decision to slaughter more than 200,000 pigs in 2009 — ostensibly as a means of preventing the spread of swine flu — means that there is now no effective way to dispose of it and poses a very real health problem. At the same time, it seriously impacts the livelihood of the Zabaleen, who farmed the pigs as a food source or earned revenue by selling them on to non-Muslim butchers.

Once comfortably remote on the outskirts of the city, the ever-expanding suburbs of Cairo now encroach on Moqattam. Surrounding land values are rising and the Zabaleen’s untidy presence is becoming more evident and even more unwelcome.

Currently in production, Zabaleen is an independent film from a team of socially-driven filmmakers. It looks beneath the surface, creating a platform from which these resilient, industrious and innovative “garbage people” tell their own profound story of ongoing struggles, entrepreneurial and environmental achievement, and their vision for their future livelihood.

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3 thoughts on “The Zabaleen

  1. I would really really really love a report on what the situation really is in Cairo with regard to waste, and the ‘efficient’ recycling happening through the Zabaleen.
    It is true we would be much worse off without them, but THIS is simply not true: “Against an unlikely backdrop of filth and flies, a staggering 80% of all solid waste is recycled, positioning Cairo as a world leader in the race for effective waste-management.”
    Our streets are full of waste, the ‘recycling’ happening is not necessarily environmentally friendly, the zabaleen area itself is a mess.
    Please please please again – we need more than the zabaleen to get a grip on our waste in which we are drowning daily.

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