Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 October 2009
Issue No. 969
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fawzia Assaad

Ahlam and Cairo Zabbaleen

Sunset from the top of the mountain made the world appear as on fire but under my feet there was another fire, a heap of burning garbage, writes Fawzia Assaad*

We weren't aware that the Zabbaleen even existed, when Sur Emmanuelle went to live with them, in 'Ezbet-el-Nakhl, or in Manchiet Nasser. The news of their existence came as a shock though each household had its Zabbal who took away, each morning, the garbage, and collected, once a month, his salary. Marie Assaad was among the first to catch Soeur Emmanuelle's message.

Marie, her two sons, Hani and Ragui, Abouna Sam'an, Mounir Neamatalla and I rode Hani's jeep to Manchiet Nasser at the end of a day, as if to watch sunset. It was in the seventies of last century, the twentieth. I had in front of me, under my feet, a sight of beauty and horror. Sunset from the top of the mountain made the world appear as on fire but under my feet there was another fire, a heap of burning garbage. Breathtaking beauty mixed with disgust and revolt. How can we allow our people to live in such a desperate filth? What do we do with our privileges? Why don't they have access to a proper living, to good health? The answer to all these questions lay not in the temptation to erase their poor houses, made of rags and tin boxes, where animals mixed happily with families, but through the urge to provide the Zabbaleen with all the facilities our society can afford.

Those who were the first to discover the hardship of living with pigs and garbage, deprived of all social services, managed to get funds from the World Bank to initiate a new development. They designed a plan for the area, and the most important families gave their names to the main streets; water and electricity were provided, houses and schools built; small recycling industries multiplied; the space given to swine gradually became smaller and smaller, sometimes disappeared altogether. It was a success story with a future for progress; a witness of creativity born out of poverty; the spontaneous establishment of a society amazingly organized on a capitalistic model: the rich getting richer with their industrial capacity, the poor poorer, relying on a few pigs to feed their children and send them to school.

The project of a book matured slowly. At the beginning I just sat next to Abou Nane, listening to his life story, aware of the importance of what he had to say. An old man dead is a page of history lost. I just wanted to read this page and had no greater ambition. Abou Nane did not know the glorious past of the village he had left, Deir Tassa, a place that gave birth to a civilization older than the dynastic ones we know. Megaddess too came from a similar glorious place, El-Badary. I exploited the small rivalries of their two families to make a story. Though to make a story, reality was rich enough to rouse the imagination.

We were all very unhappy when the government decided to bring the foreign societies to collect the garbage. Why let them dispose of the wealth the Zabbaleen had discovered? Why stop this creative drive to recycle whatever is available in the garbage our society provides with such abundance, at the expense of the environment? Is copying the West such an urge? Are we conditioned by the khawaga complex?

The book came out in Switzerland in 2004. I was proud to present to the West a system of waste management far more efficient than what the West can offer, a system that needed a governmental support to improve. The Arabic translation came out in 2008. What happened after needs another publication. I told my Swiss publisher that I was not the author of "Ahlam et les Eboueurs du Caire". The garbage people, those of Manchiet Nasser, are the real authors. I just gave a literary shape to their words.

* The author of "Ahlam et les Eboueurs du Caire" gives "Beyond" a glimpse of her book.

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