the nytimes adds to the chorus of international press reaction to egypt’s decision to cull its pig population. its narrative places the decision within the government’s long-standing ambition of eradicating cairo‘s garbage collecting or perhaps of bringing the methods into the twenty first century and highlights the complicating factor of religion (the zabbaleen of cairo are predominantly christian in 90% moslem country and critisicms of religious discrimination are widespread). michael slackman in the times:

The zabaleen are Christians. Egypt is a majority Muslim country. The zabaleen are convinced that the government wants to use the swine flu scare not to help improve their lives but to get pigs out of Egypt. Islam prohibits eating pork.

ahmed wrote of that pig cull when the news was fresher (and imho used misleading analogies to the uk’s own animal genocides). i was amused that many of my london friends brought the subject up with me on my recent trip there – the news it seems was absurd enough to make the city’s dinner conversations (slipping in neatly between the latest celebrity break-up and the mp expenses cacophony).

the government’s reaction seems as heavy handed and arbitrary as you’d expect but i am not knowledgeable enough to opine one way or the other.

what this all has reminded me of though is a documentary i caught (its middle east premiere i think) at last year’s dubai international film festival.

marina of the zabbaleen is engi wassef’s (who i met breifly at diff and who sounds awesome: attended harvard university, received a B.A. degree magna cum laude in government with a minor in arabic; worked on Wall St. for goldman sachs; pursued MFA in film at new york university‘s tisch school of the arts graduate program) first film.


it’s certainly an impressive debut and i look forward to seeing what enji does next (i think it’s a soccer themed feature being shot in the uk). enji spent months at cairo’s main garbage collecting neighborhood. the industry is dominated by small (and not-so-small) family businesses that literally live their work. the families including their young offspring traverse the megalopolis collecting and returning with the refuse where it is sorted and recycled and resold. slackman:

Cairo is a sprawling city of about 18 million people. The associations representing the zabaleen say they collect 6,000 tons of trash a day…

The system dates to the late 1940s, when peasant farmers moved to Cairo looking for work. They took over trash collection and became the zabaleen.

the zabaleen live amidst the cairene detritus and the the visuals are as striking as you would expect. young children nonchalantly handling dead rats and curiously playing with and tasting whatever surrounds them. you could almost smell the stench in the cinema.

max rodenbeck in his lovely cairo: the city victorious (review coming soon) has a slightly different take on how to think of the industry:

[cairo's] trash-collection system is a scandal – if, that is, getting the stuff out of sight and mind is assumed to be its goal. change the objective, however, and it becomes a model of efficiency. cairo’s waste disposal industry converts most garbage into usable goods, while employing more people productively than that of any other major city.

the last point strikes me as proof of inefficiency rather than the claimed efficiency!

most of this is achieved without fanfare by a highly organized network of private collectors who trundle about in donkey carts and haul their loads back to the ragpickers’ colonies ringing the city. the zabbalin, as these people are called, may leave behind a lot. their children may spend more time sorting rubbish than at school. the zabbalin may live surrounded by trash and be shunned because the smell bad, but they have self-respect and job security for generation on generation. they even earn a decent income. and they form a vital link in the city’s economy, supplying thousands of little workshops with recycled raw materials for everything from plastic flip-flops to car parts to television antennae. discarded clothes turn into multicolored rag rugs. biodegradable stuff feeds flocks of chickens and ducks and herds of goats and sheep. even pigs grow fat on cairo’s waste – since most of this industry happens to be run by coptic christians – and produce very tasty pork indeed.

there was a moment when some minister decided that the zabbalin were an eyesore. he persuaded the amierican government to fund a project that would put them out of business.

needless to say the expensive project failed to achieve its goals. rodenbeck’s explains why entertainingly in his book which was first published in 1999 btw!

the film starts off wandering through the neighborhood before zooming in on the cute photogenic eleven year old marina and her family in their, surroundings-apart, quite normal upbringing. it’s by and large shot sensitively and paced thoughtfully. the doc’s only misstep was the weighty emphasis on the religious persecution which felt clumsily high-handed.

the film’s trailer is on the tribecca film fest site and on the official marina of the zabbaleen site.

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  • Madeleine

    A more recent documentary film has come out about the Zaballeen and their trash trade; Garbage Dreams – directed by the Egyptian-American Mai Iskander, tracks the lives of three adolescent Zaballeen boys as they watch their livelihood dissipate before their eyes as the Egyptian government starts using multinational garbage corporations to collect the trash in Cairo. The film is being shown at the Seattle Film Festival on June 9th and 10th and if you wanna find out more information go to It's a really fantastic film!

  • avantcaire

    thanks madeleine, will check mai's garbage dreams out.

  • avantcaire

    thanks madeleine, will check mai's garbage dreams out.

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