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An altar hanging above a street in Manshiet Nasser

Cairo’s 20 million people produce an estimated 10,000 tons of waste each day. Piles of rubbish are found on the streets of many neighbourhoods. At first sight, the problem seems worst in Manshiet Nasser, which since the late 1960s has been home to Cairo’s largest community of Coptic Christian zabbaleen (‘garbage collectors’). They say they recycle 80 per cent of the rubbish they collect, most of which is shipped to China.

In the past every zabbaleen family had a small area of Cairo whose rubbish they collected in exchange for a small fee from the residents. In 2003, the municipal authorities signed a deal with a number of international refuse collection firms. Mai Iskander’s documentary Garbage Dreams follows three young zabbaleen trying to decide whether to try to change the way they recycle in order to compete with the foreign companies, or just to start working for them.

When I visited Manshiet Nasser last month, the unpaved streets were covered in a carpet of unsorted rubbish. There were bundles of plastic strips, and ten-foot-high stacks of cardboard; in one warehouse I saw a small mountain of drinking yoghurt containers. And more garbage was arriving all the time, in pick-up trucks, lorries and donkey carts.

My guide, Mustafa, was not one of the zabbaleen. He came from a neighbouring, predominantly Muslim part of Manshiet Nasser, with a history of tension with the zabbaleen which he was quick to play down. ‘I don’t have problems with anyone,’ he said. ‘I come to the zabbaleen area all the time and everyone knows me, we are friends.’

People called out to him from shops and small rooms ankle-deep in garbage. In one, plastic bottles were dropping through a hole in the ceiling, to be scooped up and put into a shredding machine. In another, a woman and two girls were picking cans out of the rubbish. They passed them to a boy who cut off the tops with a hand-held guillotine.

Mustafa took me to see the head of the new local syndicate. Shehata was smoking a shisha beneath an election campaign poster. ‘This man used to be part of the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s Party,’ Mustafa said. ‘After the revolution he tried to pretend he was different and ran as an independent, but praise God, he lost.’

I asked him how the syndicate came about. ‘We started thinking about a syndicate after the foreign companies were given the contracts but Mubarak’s government was a big obstacle. Now we can organise and try to solve our problems.’

I asked him what the main problem for the Zabbaleen was. ‘Pigs,’ he said. ‘We used to feed the organic waste to pigs, we had many, many of them. But in 2008 the government ordered all the pigs to be slaughtered.’ The nationwide cull was prompted by worries about swine flu. Approximately 300,000 pigs were killed in zabbaleen areas alone. Since then most of Cairo’s organic waste, about 4000 tons a day, is dumped in landfill.

Shehata’s phone rang. He stood up and took a few steps away. Mustafa said, not very quietly: ‘This man is a liar.’

‘About the pigs?’ I asked.

‘No, about wanting to help. He is just corrupt.’

When Shehata returned I asked him if he thought the new Islamist-dominated parliament would let them keep pigs in sufficient numbers.

‘God willing, yes. The pig is a friend of the garbage collector. We have raised them for forty years. But we can’t do this till the government say so, and most of them are Muslim. We should not mix religion with politics. We are citizens of this country and we want what is best for it. For instance, the pig meat used to be 30 per cent of the meat market. Not just the Christians, but also the tourists. This means that the price of the other meat is now higher.’

Mustafa didn’t agree about bringing back the pigs: he said he was worried about infectious diseases. For a moment it looked as if an argument was about to break out. But Shehata wouldn’t be drawn any further. Instead we talked about the way other communities in Cairo have started residents’ associations in order to solve the problems – sanitation, inflated prices, the condition of the roads, the lack of affordable gas cylinders – that the state is unable or unwilling to tackle.

After we left Shehata, three men in a café, drinking tea and smoking, called Mustafa’s name. We joined them. I asked about their jobs. All three were from families that specialised in recycling plastic. I asked if it was more profitable than glass or metal. ‘It depends on many things,’ one of them, Emad, said, ‘but the main thing is to have the machine, which is very expensive, about 200,000 EGP ($33,000). This is why only a third of us work in recycling.’

‘At least there’s still plenty of that,’ I said.

‘Yes, but it is not the same.’ The problem was not the lack of garbage, he explained, but the fee that Cairo’s residents used to pay to the zabbaleen to take it away, which now went to the companies instead.

‘Look,’ Emad said, taking a tattered piece of paper out of his pocket. ‘They add the fee for garbage collection to our electricity bills every month. Three pounds for everyone! Even the zabbaleen!’

The companies ‘take money, but they don’t take the rubbish,’ Emad said. ‘We know, because we are the ones who must take it. It is a kind of corruption. They get some of the money, and the rest goes to someone in authority. They stop doing this even before the revolution. It is not so bad for those who recycle, but for the others it is hard.’

I asked if they thought things might change under the new parliament. Emad was sceptical: ‘The companies have a contract until 2017.’

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