The Zabbaleen keep Cairo's garbage in check by recycling 80 percent of what they collect — an incredible feat by any standard. But not everyone is happy.
The Zabbaleen are Christians in a city of Muslims, which is where the relationship with other residents begins to fray. (Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
Not far outside the main area of Cairo, Egypt, is a city of trash.
And the citizens of Garbage City, as it's called, are surprisingly happy. Only one thing really seems to worry them: the thought that their livelihood dealing in Cairo’s trash will be taken away.
Different families in Garbage City focus on different sorts of trash. Some deal in metals, some in plastic bottles, some in paper — sorting each group into “sellable” and “unsellable.” Anything that can be reused or recycled is saved. Carts pulled by donkeys ply the streets, stacked sometimes 10 feet high with recyclables.
These expert dumpster-divers are known as Zabbaleen, that’s “garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic, and they recycle an amazing 80 percent of the waste they collect, compared with a mere 25 percent among garbage companies in Western cities.
The Zabbaleen, who live mostly at the southern end of Manshiyat Naser ward, are consummate outsiders — and not just because they collect refuse for a living. They are Christians in a city of Muslims, and pig-farmers in a society that reviles swine.
But these outsiders do Cairo an enormous favor. For going on 80 years, they’ve collected, sorted and disposed of the solid waste of one of the world’s largest cities.
For the Zabbaleen, garbage isn't just a lifestyle, it’s an identity. (Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)
With a population of around 25 million, Cairo makes mountains and mountains of solid waste every day. And the city’s 80,000 Zabbaleen are thankful for every bit of it, as are the many thousands of pigs that live among them.
They use the pigs to get rid of rotting food, which the animals are happy to eat. Women sit in the midst of a trash heap picking through the junk, tossing them decayed bits of fruit or meat.
As you’d expect, it’s a life of appalling smells and sights, but the Zabbaleen don’t mind. In fact, as they’re proud to admit, trash isn’t just a lifestyle, it’s an identity.
An identity, however, that’s in constant peril of being taken away. The people of Cairo, even the government of Egypt itself, all seem to want the Zabbaleen gone.
Back in 2009, when swine flu was running rampant in many places, the Egyptian government decided to do away with all Egypt’s pigs, even though there was no swine flu there at the time. Some 300,000 pigs were slaughtered.
The country’s pig farmers, largely Zabbaleen and almost entirely Christian, were up in arms. They saw the move as an existential threat. The World Health Organization said Egypt’s decision had no scientific basis, and the United Nations called it “a real mistake.”
Before long, the government admitted that the pig-slaughter wasn’t about staving off a swine-flu epidemic. It was the first move, they said, in a plan to “clean up” the Zabbaleen.
It wasn’t the first time Egypt’s government had tried this. A few years before, government officials decided to contract out Cairo’s waste disposal to local companies. But the companies were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of waste, while the Zabbaleen largely went on doing what they’ve always done. For their efforts, they got little thanks from Cairo’s residents, who otherwise would have ended up living in a city of trash.