They’re called the Zabaleen. Zabaleen, which translates directly from Arabic as ‘Garbage People’ harvest and hand-sort 15,000 tons of waste every day. This is a dark side to Egypt that the authorities don’t want foreigners to see: a secretive society of tens of thousands of people literally living in rubbish in a Cairo ghetto overrun by rats and disease. They live with garbage stacked to the roofs of their multi-story homes, eeking out a living recycling the rubbish by hand. They face all kinds of discrimination from the Muslim majority, yet without them, Egyptians literally would be swimming in their own waste.
Ahram The Zabaleen are unique for another reason. They’re part of Muslim Egypt’s Christian Coptic minority, a community that is besieged by persecution, extremism and a creeping Islamization in Egypt’s security services. One of the most sensitive issues faced by some of those in Egypt – their decision to convert to Christianity – a decision that some Muslims believe should be punishable by death under a strict interpretation of sharia religious law.
Manshiyat Naser (or Manshiyat Nasser), also known as Garbage City, is a slum settlement at the base of Mokattam Hill on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. Its economy revolves around the collection and recycling of the city’s garbage. The Zabaleen are a minority religious community of Coptic Christians who have served as Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for approximately the past 70 to 80 years. The city’s garbage is brought to Manshiyat naser by the Zabaleen, or garbage collectors, who then sort through the garbage to attempt to retrieve any potentially useful or recyclable items.
As a passerby walks or drives down the road he will see large rooms stacked with garbage with men, women or children crouching and sorting the garbage into unsellable or sellable. Families typically specialize in a particular type of garbage they sort and sell — one room of children sorting out plastic bottles, while the next of women separating cans from the rest. Anything that can be reused or recycled is saved by one of the numerous families in Manshiyat naser. Various recycled paper and glass products are made and sold from the city, while metal is sold by the kilo to be melted down and reused.
Carts pulled by horse or donkey are often stacked 2.5 to 3m high with the recyclable goods. The economic system in Garbage City is classified as the informal sector. Most families typically have worked in the same area and type of specialization in the garbage piles and continue to make enough money to support themselves. The living conditions in Moqattam Village, and the other Zabbaleen settlements, are poor. The Zabaleen are characterized by poor health and high rates of disease, especially those related to their garbage collecting activities.