Imagine a town built atop an active landfill. That is “Garbage City” in Cairo, Egypt, longtime home to an impoverished, marginalized community of Coptic Christians for whom life is only going to get harder.
The so-called Zabbaleen have been the trash collectors of Cairo for generations. The fathers and their sons go out into the city and collect the garbage in beat-up pickup trucks or donkey-drawn carts. They bring it back to their community, where the women meticulously sort through all of it. They recycle an incredible amount, as much as 80 percent, selling whatever is salvageable. Particularly poor families rifle through the trash for food to eat. They have created a complex, labor-intensive process for getting the most out of what other people throw away.
Garbage City looks like an American city if the municipal workers had gone on strike — forever. It’s as if, as someone has mused, Cairo had been picked up by one end and shook so that all the rubbish fell on the homes of the Zabbaleen. They live among their livelihood, the waste that no one else wants and that few would dare touch.
Yet there is a timelessness and pluck to the Zabbaleen. “We are one community, and we all know and love each other,” a garbage collector says in one video explicating their way of life.
The area’s juxtaposition of the dignity of simple people against a trash-strewn, post-apocalyptic backdrop is so compelling that it has twice recently been the occasion for feature-length documentaries.
The Christians of Egypt have been historically repressed, and the Zabbaleen are a potent symbol of their station. They were pushed to the outskirts of the city hard up against the Moqattam Mountain. When the authorities — typically — tried to obstruct the building of a church, the Zabbaleen dug out worship space in the adjoining caves. With its huge amphitheater that can seat thousands, the “Cave Church” is now a tourist attraction. It is magnificent and spiritually vital, built on the faith of the humble.
The Zabbaleen community never got any favors when times were good in Egypt. Pigs were an integral part of its operations. They ate the organic matter in the trash and could, in turn, be sold. A few years ago, in its wisdom, the Egyptian government decided to use the swine-flu outbreak as the occasion to kill untold numbers of pigs — an ostensible public-health measure that just happened to disproportionately harm Coptic Christians.
That looks enlightened and fair-minded compared with what may yet come, as the Egyptian revolution plays into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and even more radical Salafists. Earlier this year, residents of Garbage City were set upon by deadly Muslim gangs in what religious expert Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute calls “more a pogrom than a ‘sectarian clash.’”
If there were equity in international outrage, the plight of Garbage City specifically and Coptic Christians in Egypt more broadly would be a front-burner issue for all the global great and good who exalt diversity and tolerance. Christians there could face the same slow-motion, largely ignored extirpation as their Christian brethren in Iraq.
On November 11, the Cave Church was the site of a vast, fervent Christian prayer service, the largest anyone can remember. It was during his stint in Harlem in 1930, among a shunned but vibrant Christian community, that the great German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below.” There is no other vantage point from Garbage City. Everyone there must instinctively understand the lines of our vintage Christmas carol, “Why lies He in such mean estate / Where ox and ass are feeding?”
Asked by the Voice of America about the future of Garbage City a few weeks ago, resident Adel Gad el-Rab said, “We are the garbage collectors, but we live on a mountain of faith.” They will need all of it in what may well become a time of terrible testing.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate