Saturday, July 31, 2010

Garbage Dreams documentary captures Cairo's zabbaleen

The National (Ursula Lindsey)

Modern history rather than Egyptology, but a fascinating insight into an area of Cairo society. Here's a short excerpt.

As far as anyone knows, organised rubbish collection began in Cairo at the turn of the 20th century, when the wahiya, a Bedouin tribe from the Dakhla oasis, contracted with building owners to collect their tenants’ refuse. The wahiya charged the tenants a small fee, and resold the domestic waste – compacted into dry patties – as fuel that heated the city’s public baths and cooked its morning foul medames.

By the 1930s, the residents of Cairo were switching to fuel oil for their heating and cooking needs and the wahiya were looking for new customers to buy the garbage they held the rights to. They found them among poor, pig-breeding Christian immigrants from southern Egypt. The wahiya farmed out garbage collection to the soon-to-become zabbaleen, who fed their pigs the city’s discarded leftovers and learnt to recycle its paper, tin, rags, glass, plastic and bones.

In the 1970s, a group of zabbaleen were evicted from Cairo and forced to resettle in an abandoned quarry at the foot of the Moqattam cliffs. The barren spot had no water or electricity. One in four infants died in the settlement’s early days. But over the years, thanks in large part to various international assistance programmes, conditions have improved. Basic services were introduced. NGOs and schools were established. Once electricity arrived, the zabbaleen started small workshops specialising in recycling plastics, metals and fabrics.

If you are interested in modern Egyptian history there are a set on interesting stories in this week's Al Ahram Weekly, two of which look at the revolutions of 1919 and 1952 (in Opinion). There's also a piece about the Arabia exhibition at the Louvre (in Culture).

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