Sunday, June 10, 2012

In the City of the Dead

A woman walking through the streets of Manshiyat Naser.  This is where the mainly Coptic zabbaleen live, making their living by gathering, sorting, and then selling the materials.  A good portion of the plastic and other raw materials are now exported to China.

Originally the settlements were in and amongst the mausoleums and graves of the cemetery on the east side of Cairo.  From there, they expanded further eastward toward the cliffs of the Moqattam (the limestone bluff that originally protected the city behind the Citadel).  The original informal shantytown gradually grew into a densely populated neighborhood of brick and concrete apartments.  In the picture above you can see the bags of sorted recycling on the roofs of the buildings, along with tall pigeon coops, and pens for cows, goats, and pigs.  The community is incredibly efficient at sorting the garbage and have what appears to be a fairly steady source of income.  Respiratory diseases, hepatitis C, and cancer rates however are well above average, due to the highly unsanitary working conditions.

The community is about 90% Coptic, and posters of now deceased Pope Shonouda are everywhere, along with posters of the Virgin Mary, and of Shafiq.  The Copts have been marginalized by the mainstream Muslim authorities, and the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely not popular in this neighborhood.

The streets are lined with houses, cafes, shops, and the businesses that sort the garbage.  Everywhere are posters with Coptic iconography.

Our first stop on the tour, led by Wagdy, a young engineering student from the community, is at the Church of St. Simon, carved out of the sandstone.  It is the largest Christian church in the Middle East.

At the church is a depiction of a miracle said to have occured there sometime around the Fatamid period.  It was a enactment of the "moving of mountains, if you have faith the size of mustard seed."  Almost every site we visit has some kind of similar story marking it as a spot of divine significance.

Young girls curious about these strangers in their midst (note Mohamed in the background on the right, greeting some of the men at the local cafe).  There are lots and lots of kids there, a sign of a very high birth rate typical of poor neighborhoods.

 Goats in the stairway of one of the homes.  The Copts used to have pigs that disposed of the organic component of the trash collected by the zabbaleen.  During the swine flu scare of 2009, the government had all the pigs slaughtered (despite a lack of evidence that anyone was getting sick from them).  As far as I can tell, it was a thinly disguised form of discrimination against the community, reflecting the low-level tension and dislike between many Muslims and Copts.  There is a modus vivendi, but it does not work to the benefit of the Copts.

A roof scene, where cows and pigs (in the shade) live amidst the half-finished upper floors.  Like most houses in Egypt, these structures are left unfinished, awaiting additional floors to house the expanding families (or additional livestock).

 In Sabah's house, the wife of Hanna, who is one of the leaders of the Solar Cities project that has installed the solar water heaters and biogas generators on the roofs.  He is now in Sweden, part of the "brain drain" that is another challenge for Egypt.  By the time you get to the 4th floor of the building, it is clean and bright, and we get tea and hear about the work of the Solar Cities project.

 Here are the solar water heaters on the roof.  The one on the left was made from local, salvaged materials. Again, the government did not approve of the design, seeing it as unsightly, and required more "professional" looking version, imported from China.  This is a prime example of how government regulation can get in the way of creativity and local entrepreneurship.  On the right is the biogas generator.  5 pounds of food scraps per day produces 2 hours worth of methane for cooking in the kitchen three floors below.  In the background on the right is one of the pigeon coops.

 A typical truck, piled high with a load of plastic for market.  A young man sits perched atop the pile, talking on his cell phone.  Donkey cart on left.

 One of the women sorting garbage, also talking on her cell phone.

A local woodworker, planing the door to a cabinet he was building, and greeting us as we passed.

We met with workers in the Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE), started by Laila Iskandar, which works with local women to produce handicrafts.  They have made a nice documentary about some of the young men in the community, called "Garbage Dreams" (worth checking out).

No comments:

Post a Comment