Some neighborhoods in Cairo are intimately linked to certain trades or professions. Manshiet Nasr, at the bottom of the Mokattam hills, is one such neighborhood. The area belongs to the Zabbaleen (50,000 of them to be exact), which literally translates to “trash collectors.” If the area sounds familiar, it’s because the now deposed Mubarak government executed a policy of culling the neighborhood’s pigs in response to a perceived threat of H1N1 virus (swine flu) in 2009. The predominantly Coptic community in the area used the pigs in the process of recycling and processing waste. Needless to say, even at the time, the decision to kill the swine population was considered irrational and politically motivated.
Still, the Zabbaleen have kept at it, building an entire local economy around the business of trash and recycling. A number of groups, like the Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E.), have worked within this sector to empower women who would ordinarily have limited opportunities with sophisticated recycling skills and handicraft tools.
Walking around Zabbaleen, it is impressive how the chain of labour is organized in efficient ways. Many men, but mostly women, work to separate the seemingly never-ending piles of waste into different components such as plastics, bottles, papers, etc. Those components are then processed through different methods at their respective stations.
Meanwhile, the Zabbaleen have begun to rebuild the swine population, supplemented by goats that can do similar work at a far slower pace.
At the end of one of Zabbaleen’s winding main roads is a cluster of extremely old but well preserved Coptic churches. The foremost of these churches, the Monastery of Saint Simon, is an awe-inspiring space carved directly into the side of the Mokattam hills. Surrounding Saint Simon are other smaller churches, some of which were found far more recently then Saint Simon itself.
Be sure to check out all the photos below.
Photos: Zabbaleen, Mokattam Hills, Cairo – April 3, 2011.