Egypt's "Greenest of the Green" at Risk: The Zabaleen, Cairo's Garbage Recyclers Are under Threat. Mel Frykberg Reports Form Cairo

Article excerpt

ACROSS FROM THE Moqattam settlement, nestling under the Moqattam hills, lie the remains of the ancient city of Fustat, on the outskirts of modern-day Cairo. Encapsulated in the medieval walls is a city, steeped in history, culture and civilisation.

But within the shadows of this impressive historical monument lies another world and another people with a very different history. As one approaches the Moqattam Hills settlement, home to Cairo's 30,000 Zabaleen or garbage recyclers, the stench of decomposing garbage fills the air. Donkey carts, piled high with refuse compete with dilapidated jalopies for space along the rutted roads of the shanty town's rubbish-strewn streets and sacks of putrefying and decomposing refuse, over which swarms of flies hover.

Fustat was established in AD648, during the Islamic Umayyad period, near other historically famous Egyptian cities and towns such as the Roman Babylon fortress of Byzantine, Giza, Heliopolis and Memphis. The city was built as a military garrison for Arab troops, who had arrived in Egypt as Islam swept over the region following the death of Prophet Muhammed in the AD 600s. It later became a regional centre before the Umayyads made their last stand against the new Abbasid Dynasty which succeeded them.

Later when the Abbasid Dynasty was supplanted by the Fatamid Dynasty, Al Qahira (Cairo) was officially founded in AD969. During its history various dynasties would add suburbs to the city and construct important structures that became famous throughout the Islamic world including the Al Azhar Mosque, the Muslim world's highest centre of Islamic learning.

Its 21st century inhabitants, the Zabaleen, are mostly poverty-stricken Coptic Christians who eek out a living from recycling the garbage of 18m Cairenes with such efficiency that the Egyptian government has been unable to replace them with modern machinery and professional garbage collection companies.

These industrious people sort, wash, compress, reuse, repair or resell Cairo's leftovers to Egyptian companies who then sell the recycled material for domestic consumption as well as exporting it to international markets.

Everything thrown away in Cairo, every newspaper, torn pair of trousers or slice of bread, starts on a secret journey from the moment it is put in the bin. The ingenuity of the Zabaleen ensures that 85% of Cairo's garbage is professionally, efficiently dealt with, a figure that is comparable to modern recycling operations in western countries.

The women of the household sort out the various categories--plastics, glass, metal, paper and textiles. It is back-breaking work and involves long hours--but more environmentally friendly than the mechanised garbage crushing trucks from Europe that the Cairo municipality brought in about 10 years ago.

The story of Cairo's rubbish also runs along religious lines. Purchasing the bags of old food and clothes thrown away by the citizens of the metropolis of Cairo began with the Wahis (oasis people), the original collectors who were Muslims from Lower Egypt.

They bought long-term rights to the city's refuse, which they then burned to cook the national dish "foul mesdames" or spicy bean stew and to make charcoal. About half a century ago they moved up a rung and sold the collection routes to the newcomers, impoverished Christian Copts from Upper Egypt.

Francis Sawaris, 52, married with four children and originally from Assuit in upper-Egypt, invited The Middle East into his humble abode, a crumbling three-room apartment with bits of dirty plastic and rags where windows should have been. Sacks of foul-smelling rubbish lined the walls. Two relatives, Wahid Darwis, 50, and his daughter Marsa, 16, crouched on their haunches sorting through the pile of plastic on the floor. Periodically they waved away flies and wiped the sweat from their brows on this hot and humid day where temperatures peaked at 40 degrees celsius. …