Sensationalism over Cairo’s “Garbage City” is shortsighted and demeaning


View from the Cathedral of St. Simon in Manshiyet Naser, Cairo (sourced from here–please enjoy the article too, it’s a much better portrait of the area than the thing I’m quoting from below!)

Okay, so this is a mostly perfectly good article about climate change activism in Egypt. It’s cool! Read it if that interests you! There’s just one thing in the very beginning that makes me ragey:

The Egyptian capital even has a slum nicknamed Manshiyat Naser (Garbage City), located at its highest point, in the suburb of Moqattam. Here, impoverished residents build their homes atop waste, and recycle rubbish to earn a living.

Manshiyet Nasser does not mean Garbage City. I have no idea if people ever call it an equivalent of “Garbage City” in Arabic, but I’ve only ever heard foreigners say it. I’ll come back to why the terminology matters in a minute.

First of all, she’s just not giving the zabbaleen (the “impoverished residents” the above mentions) their due. This post I recently read does, I think, a better job of explaining the basics about life in “garbage city”:

[M]embers of Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian community, these entrepreneurial garbage workers recycle nearly all the trash they collect (4000 tones a day), including organic refuse they feed to their pigs. despite the invaluable service they provide to the city, the zaballeen (roughly translated as garbage collectors) live more like untouchables and struggle for legitimacy. with government apprehension over swine flu fears stripping the zaballeen of their pigs, and the advent of european multinationals contracted to collect the cities garbage (lowering the city’s recycling rate from the 80% of the zabelleen to less than 20%), the survival of this community (which dates back generations) is now under threat.

The reason I state all this is that the zabbaleen play an important, if unpleasant, role in the city. They shouldn’t be reduced to pitiable insects on a trash heap. I’m not saying that the life they live is the most pleasant, or that their role should be a model of how to deal with cities’ trash, but she tosses her mention of them off like their existence is just evidence of how much Cairo needs to approach environmental concerns in Western-style ways—and oh look, here are these bright young things forming a Coalition. And that’s great! I’m glad they’re trying to address the massive and widespread ecological problems in Egypt. I just wish she could have gotten there without using these people for shock value. (Cairo EVEN HAS A SLUM NAMED GARBAGE CITY!!! They LIVE AMONG GARBAGE THERE!!! Nothing could be worse, amirite?)

As for the terminology: don’t forget that they’re Copts (Egyptian Christians). While there are some very well-to-do, comfortable Copts in Egypt, as a group they’ve been discriminated against since the 1952 coup that brought Nasser to power. The people I’ve talked to in Manshiyet Nasser are fiercely proud of their Coptic identity (which, of course, doesn’t mean everyone is) and profoundly aware of the various ways that the state continues to discriminate against and even kill them.

What Manshiyet Nasser actually means is “Nasser’s village.” I have to tell you the following with a grain of salt, because it was told to me by a Copt living there (who would have some interest in highlighting the persecution of his community to a tourist), and I haven’t been able to confirm it on the internet; at the same time, I haven’t been able to find any solid-seeming information on the origins and founding of Manshiyet Nasser on the internet, so I don’t have any concrete contradictory information. (More on that subject below.) I was told, at least, that the neighborhood is called that because Nasser forced the Copts to move from their former area, which he wanted to develop, to this place—which was basically just a giant chunk of rock. There was nothing there. Certainly I can tell you that nowadays it is definitely on top of a giant chunk of rock, and when you get out to the outskirts near the cathedral, it’s desert.

So the problem with changing “Nasser’s Village” to “Garbage City” is that it erases the history of who these people are, why they live where they live, what their relationship with the modern Egyptian state has been, and replaces it with garbage.

Words are powerful. At least get the names right.

Update: In doing the image search for this post, I found a fantastic article. It tells a very different story of how the zabbaleen ended up in Manshiyet Nasser–basically, gentrification–but gives no specific evidence; draw your own conclusions. However, when it comes to the present state of the area, this piece has a lot to say:

When the multinational [waste management companies] first arrived, they attempted to hire zabaleen as collectors at about sixty dollars a month, the going rate at the time for manual labor in Cairo. The zabaleen never showed much interest, partly because working for them would be seen as betrayal of the community—like a scab breaking a strike line—but more because the zabaleen recoil at the idea of simple wage labor.

“The zabaleen are business people in their own right,” explained Bertie Shaker, a researcher with CID Consulting, a Copt-owned firm that has advised the government and the multinationals. “They don’t want to be beholden to corporate interests, or to turn over the methods and expertise they’ve spent generations developing in exchange for a wage.”

Amazing how they don’t sound like miserable, helpless ants on a dumpster, isn’t it? Was that so hard?

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