Nestled in Cairo's Manshiyat Naser neighborhood sits Garbage City, the crassly nicknamed settlement which houses the Coptic community known as the Zabaleen.
For decades, the Zabaleen have worked as unofficial sanitation experts, privately traveling door to door to collect the capital's trash, return to their homes to sort through it and identify the salvaged materials that could be sold to factories and wholesalers. Most organic waste would be fed to the community's pigs.
Informally, the Zabaleen developed one of the most efficient, cost-effective recycling systems in the region. According to The Guardian, they collect around 9,000 tons of garbage per day, which amounts to nearly two-thirds of the trash thrown away by Cairo's inhabitants. On top of that, Laila Iskander, Egypt's Minister of State for Environment Affairs, estimates the mini city boasts a recycling capacity of nearly 100 percent.
Despite the Zabaleen's efforts, their quarter of Cairo is often viewed as nothing more than its nickname. "The place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated," street artist eL Seed wrote on his Facebook page this week. "In my new project ‘Perception,’ I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences."
The French-Tunisian artist's new anamorphic mural in Manshiyat Naser spans 50 buildings, and can only be viewed in total from a certain point atop the Mokattam Mountain. The mural showcases the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic bishop from the third and fourth centuries, who said: "Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first." (In Arabic, it reads: "إن أراد أحد أن يبصر نور الشمس، فإن عليه أن يمسح عينيه")
"The Zaraeeb community welcomed my team and I as if we were family," eL Seed continued on Facebook. "It was one of the most amazing human experiences I have ever had. They are generous, honest and strong people. They have been given the name of Zabaleen (the garbage people), but this is not how they call themselves. They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the ones who clean the city of Cairo."
Egypt has historically struggled to fulfill waste management expectations in urban and rural regions, and have embarked upon policy decisions that have disenfranchised the residents of Garbage City along the way. In 2004, President Mubarak's government placed household waste collection in the hands of multinationals, thereby jeopardizing the Zabaleen's way of life. The community suffered even more when, in 2009, Mubarak ordered the culling of more than 300,000 pigs as a precaution against swine flu. The pigs had served not only as a means of disposing organic waste, but as a source of income for the neighborhood (the Zabaleen would sell the meat).
More recently, the Zabaleen waste pickers have been reintegrated into the city's sanitation services, and policymakers like Iskander have encouraged them to formalize their companies. Today, residents of the city can't help but be reminded of the Zabaleen's signficant impact on Cairo's day-to-day life, thanks to eL Seed's work.