Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Zabaleen - Cairo's unsung heroes

It's the flies that strike you first, followed swiftly by a chorus of curious young voices: "Welcome! What's your name?" and the reserved gazes of the slum's older residents, wondering what this next bunch of whiteys wants with their lives.
More than 60,000 Zabaleen, mostly Coptic Christians, live in Manshiyat Naser (Garbage City) beneath Cairo's Muqattam cliffs. The Zabaleen, literally 'garbage people' in arabic, have made their livelihoods from recycling Cairo's refuse since the 1930s. Despite recycling some 80% of the refuse they collect, the Zabaleen get little or no thanks for their service to the city and often live amid intense squalor.
I visited the Zabaleen one afternoon last week during a trip to Cairo with Middle East reporter Josh Wood after watching the fantastic documentary Garbage Dreams which follows the Zabaleen over a number of years. I can't quite put my finger on why, in these situations, I'm (literally) a pig in shit but that afternoon was the most rewarding and engaging of our entire week's trip. The Zabaleen fulfill such a worthwhile (if unglamorous) role, it was an honour to be able to document their work. Knowing I was able to get a taxi and a shower afterwards probably helped.


  1. Wow. Did you do a full article about it? If so, where can I read it?

  2. thisisbeirut: Hopefully Josh Wood (see blogroll) should be doing a nice big ol' feature to go with these for Esquire Middle East in the next couple of months