There is a school-trip atmosphere about this party of waste-disposal professionals off to the rubbish dump: the packets of sandwiches handed out beforehand; everyone piling onto the coach in the heat and waiting for hours, talking shop, talking rubbish. Mainly men, though there is a scattering of women. The occasion: an international symposium on waste disposal at Bosphorus University, Istanbul. This has got to be the Cinderella end of environmentalism, less cuddly than dolphins, lacking the apocalyptic quality of the hole in the ozone layer.

That’s probably why they’re surprised to see me here: an accompanying wife, and a writer too. ‘What have dump sites to do with literature?’ they ask. In fact, I used to do technical translations that had to do with waste so I do know a little about it. They ask me if I’m going to make this visit into a novel. ‘Maybe,’ I say. I’m a scavenger. I pick up what I can and where. I tell them I want to see the other scavengers, the ones who sift the dumps for recyclable material.

Item: on 28 April another Istanbul dump site gave way and killed 39 people. Twelve of them are still buried there. The professor, the one in charge of this trip, promises my husband (a consultant of some reputation in the waste disposal world) a visit there later in the week. I’m always attracted to the macabre, so I invite myself along.

We’re told that today we’re off to the worst site in Istanbul. It’s the only one with a weighbridge. They’re planning a sanitary landfill in Istanbul, the kind we have over here, with compactors and liners and vents for methane gas. I ask my husband if that won’t put the scavengers out of business, and he says it will.

Everyone is pleased to be visiting the worst site even in their best clothes. It’s a long way up the motorway. On the way we pass a small, unauthorised dump site. A ripple of interest passes through the bus, but the cries of delight on seeing a bin lorry turn to exclamations of horror at the sight of some small boys swimming in a pool just by the heap of refuse, soaking their pores in God-knows-what sort of cocktail of leachates. You don’t need chemicals to produce toxic seepage from a dump: the contents of your household bin will do it. I’ve translated several papers dealing with the corrosive qualities of ordinary leachate. There’s nothing we can do to warn these children. The bus takes us onward. We have a bigger rubbish heap to view.

We’re driving through the remnants of a countryside: there are tiny peasant houses and bright green vegetable patches, a stork’s nest on a pillar in a dusty field. The air is full of chemical stink, and the trees seem to be struggling. There are half-built houses and industrial developments everywhere. And mosques. There’s a building boom in mosques, proof (like the women’s concealing scarves) of Islam’s resurgence even in secular Turkey. The new minarets are precast in reinforced concrete and delivered in sections to the site.

Item: it’s estimated that Istanbul produces eight thousand metric tonnes of municipal solid waste per day. Add to that industrial waste. This is all freighted out to three dump sites operated on behalf of the municipality by a contractor. The scavengers on the dumps are self-employed sub-contractors who sell recyclable materials to the contractor. Nice technical language.

The dump, when we reach it, fills the horizon, acres of it, fifty metres or so high, a mountainous smoking badlands with a sheer cliff-edge looming above the plain. It’s easy to see how something like that can slide. There is some growth of dried-out thistles on the lower slopes, even a scrawny sunflower, but the vegetation soon gives out. We drive up a ramp between rat-holed banks of waste; there are bits of black plastic blowing everywhere, and the remnants of a squashed fox on the road. The stink comes into the coach: a sour smell emerging through harsh smokiness. On either side there is a writhing mass of rags (or plastic bags) seamed with rusty cans. I can see scavenging dogs against the sky.

The coach driver doesn’t want to go up: his vehicle was never built for trips like this. The professor has to bribe him, and even so the driver’s whole body shows his reluctance. He probably wonders what sort of people we are to want to go there. He might well ask.

The coach comes to a halt, and we all climb out, the men in their clean shirts and polished shoes, the women in their flimsy soles and high heels. I’m already nervous of treading in some hideous lake of toxicity and disintegrating, or of being bitten by one of the dogs (very likely rabid, according to the professor). ‘What’s in it?’ I ask, but David, my husband, refuses to commit himself. That’s what you get for marrying into the trade. How will I manage not to breathe the smoke? It’s everywhere.

The burnt, dusty men who work the dump are unmoved by the arrival of a coach bringing well-dressed people. They keep to their work, raking through the debris, picking up cans and throwing them into heaps. No gloves, no protective clothing, arms bare to the elbow. I wonder what their life-expectancy is. Their shanties are on the summit, built out of plastic sacking and rusty corrugated iron, a television aerial on top of one, armchairs outside. The dump heats up as the refuse decomposes and ignites spontaneously: the fires burn for years. The mass below us is riddled with fire voids, I’m told. The sun burns in the sky, the fires smoke on either side, the surface retains the heat and stokes it up. Underneath, the chthonic fire voids. The smoke blows across the messy desolation. It’s an impressive location, but I want human interest. I collar one of the Turks in the party and make him question the workers for me.

They’re all from Sivas, the town in Eastern Turkey which will become the scene of an anti-Rushdie riot within a fortnight. Migrant workers, supporting their families at home on just over the minimum wage – about one and a half million Turkish lira a month, or about 80 pounds. This job – says my interpreter – is the last resort before you turn to crime. They talk a lot. They don’t like working here. They think they’re being underpaid for the material they deliver. They say the contractor cheats them. They know about the sanitary landfill, and they think there’ll be work for them there, and better conditions. I assume there’ll be no work for scavengers at a sanitary landfill, which relies on compaction of refuse, and I mention this to my interpreter. He thinks they’d go there anyway ‘and soon it will be just like this one.’ One solution would be to employ the men to sort refuse before it’s land-filled.

I ask if I can see inside one of the shanties. A moustached young man agrees (I think he hopes I can do something to improve his conditions). He points out that he’s an unmarried man, but they said that there are no wives here anyway. Or maybe there are some, hidden away, forbidden to show their faces till after hours, shawled and veiled in plastic sacking perhaps? There’s a bed, a brass teapot on a plywood table. Dust everywhere. All the food, all the crockery and cutlery must be heavily contaminated. The walls are blue and grey plastic. Several pairs of trainers lie on the step. He tries to keep the place clean by taking his shoes off at the doorway. There’s washing hanging up to dry.

‘Do you live here all the time?’ asks my interpreter. ‘Yes,’ says the man. Afterwards, he says no, he made a mistake. These are just daytime shelters. I’m doubtful. Then he says: ‘We have electricity here.’ This is obvious: you can see the lines going into the shanty with the television aerial. But he contradicts himself again. ‘No, I made a mistake. We don’t have electricity.’ ‘Batteries?’ I ask. ‘Yes,’ he says through our interpreter. ‘Batteries.’ I think they tap off electricity, as they do in the Hong Kong squatter townships. Good luck to them.

I’m impressed by the friendliness of the men, their hospitality even, the way they accept our presence as we get in their way, hold up their work, and ask them intrusive questions. It’s hard to imagine what their life is like. Do they ever get used to the stench? Every one of them scorched deep brown by the sun and smoke: small and wiry, most of them. I catch sight of an even smaller one; he doesn’t look more than ten. The Turkish expert tells me about a boy of ten who was found in the crusher of a bin lorry: he’d fallen asleep in a bin, probably as he was scavenging. They noticed him just before the blades came down.

I tread on a half-buried vinyl disc, try to see the label, one of the scavengers scrapes it for me. Turkish music, I don’t recognise the artists. There’s a butterfly – what’s it doing up here? Quite beautiful, yellow with black spots. There are pigeons flapping about too, but no cats, though the refuse collection points of Istanbul are patrolled by them: starveling, mangy beasts, but elegant, the way thin cats are.

By now, all but the most determined voyeurs have fled to the coach and the coach-driver is blowing his horn – he’s probably afraid his tyres will melt. Stinking ourselves now, we bump and jolt downhill again. A section of the dump flares up as we pass: bright red flames, rubber or toxic chemicals, a fiery Etna-like slope. Everyone takes photographs. Everyone says again and again they’ve never seen anything like it.

Two days later David and I visit a fourth dump site, one that’s committed murder and been closed. We go by taxi, with a graduate student from the university. It’s an overcast, windy day. Once again, there are bits of plastic blowing everywhere, and the fires are still burning in the dump, the dogs still prowling. There’s even a man scavenging. We don’t mount this one, but climb to a viewpoint. You can see the deep valleys either side, and, in the middle, the erupted refuse. The taxi driver, who knows the area, says the buried valley was as deep as the others. Beyond the slide, there is a hillside of houses: illegal houses erected without permits. As always, the disaster has affected the poorest. There used to be a creek in this valley. Now there is only a turgid seepage through the refuse.

When the site was closed, the municipality had the top covered with subsoil. The contractors who brought the soil were told to lay down at least two metres: they put down three – the stuff was bound to settle. Since the hard-covering was heavier than the dump’s interior, it’s not surprising that heavy rain brought on a slide. It’s generally agreed that a methane void was uncovered, that the gas mixed with oxygen and took fire, exploding and accelerating the eruption so that it buried houses five hundred metres away.

Children are playing here, crop-headed, in sleeveless vests. They tell us, through the student, that some of their friends are buried under the rubbish. There are milking cows wandering around. This is about the most depressing place I’ve ever seen, and the worst imaginable grave. A river of lava, a landslide, even a slagheap has more dignity. I think of those makers of non-biodegradable clothing, those who overpackage. I’d like to hold their noses to this stink.

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