The stench reaches my nose long before I’m anywhere near the mess. The smell is putrid, a combination of dank and ripe, with notes of sewer, maggots and mold thrown in for good measure. I pick up the pace as the smell intensifies. Closing my mouth I breathe through my nose in short, shallow bursts in an attempt to quell the rocking waves of nausea that are causing bile to rise in the back of my throat.
Within five short feet I’m overpowered, almost knocked over, by the slap of a foul odor emanating from two piles of garbage on either side of the road. At this point the assault has moved beyond olfactory to become painfully visual as well. There’s a school to my right and a grandiose old villa on my left, and in the middle of it are industrial-sized, grocery-sized, small-sized, all-sized, black and white bags haphazardly thrown onto one another. Half of the contents rest on the sidewalk while the other half bleed onto the street, a rank heap of refuse: toilet paper and candy wrappers, discarded food and plastic bottles. All of it oozes forth from gaping holes that have been shredded and carved – thank you urban feline population – into the papery thin and bloated corpses of every single multi-sized plastic bag.
Kindly keep in mind that it’s not even 9am, which means the real Egyptian heat hasn’t set in. There’s an hour at most, maybe two, before this decomposing, rancid mess starts to get going.
Hordes of flies cut through the air as they look for something to feast on. A cockroach the size of my fist scuttles under one small pile, while a kitten, diseased and malnourished, licks something moist and gluey from another pile. Five feet away a street sweeper makes pretty piles of leaves, dust and wrappers, which he picks up with two pieces of saggy cardboard and places into his push cart. Just as I come out from under the dead weight of garbage stench and open my mouth to draw in a big gulp of air, two high school kids propel empty chip bags, plus an Oreo package for good measure, onto the street below.
Huh? I’d insert a litany of expletives here, but I’m sure I’d be wasting my breath.
Waste and its disposal is a serious problem in Cairo. It’s such an environmental hazard that it has turned one of the most ancient and bustling cities in the world into one of the most polluted as well. There is garbage everywhere. If it’s not in piles on the sidewalk it’s scattered across roads and in the few green patches of grass the city is blessed with. There’s debris caught in fences and door frames. There’s garbage floating haphazardly through the air, man-made tumbleweeds rolling across an urban expanse. Wrappers and bags hang from bushes and trees, and all sorts of waste clogs up the waterways that veer off the Nile.
Far too often waste is dumped with ignorance, arrogance and nonchalance. It’s unflinchingly ejected from balconies and car windows. Mothers, fathers and their children, businessmen and youth, the elderly and law enforcement (tsk tsk, they should know better) are littering with abandon and don’t seem to give a damn. The notion of using a garbage can is lost on many and this is despite the presence of receptacles – both old wire mesh and shiny red bins emblazoned with butter yellow golden arches – across the city.
You see, Cairo actually has the capacity to deal with the amount of trash that its 20-odd-million residents generate. Aside from the companies awarded government contracts to handle urban waste disposal, there’s a whole district of Cairo dedicated solely to trash. Manshiet Nasser is an informal settlement nestled at the base of the Muqattam foothills, and with more than 700,000 inhabitants (mostly Coptic Christians) it is home to the Zabaleen (garbage people). Every cubic inch of this place is filled with refuse from across the city.
People live in garbage. They are born into organized filth. They die in it.
Originally a squatter settlement, residents of Manshiet Nasser have established an informal economy that thrives on the collection, sorting, handling and recycling of waste. The work of the Zabaleen is done – day in and day out – in spite of the dire conditions they live in: residents lack access to basic education and public health services, unemployment rates are high and there’s an absence of sustainable environmental practices for solid waste disposal and industrial pollution.
Families that live in Manshiet Nasser are specialized in the handling of one particular type of waste and they sort through tens of thousands of garbage bags and bins each week to acquire the materials that will bring in returns so they can put food on the table and a roof over their heads. Up to 80% of the garbage the Zabaleen collect is recycled (*note: as a comparison Germany recycled 48% of municipal waste in 2008, Belgium and Sweden recycled 35% and Canada 30%) and many in the community have established small enterprises and industries that generate employment by recycling practically every material imaginable. Whether it’s traditional handicrafts (baskets and candle holders), household goods (hangers), industrial goods (casing for electrical wiring), kitchenware (oven mitts and plates), meat for consumption (any pigs left following the 2009 H1N1 cull are fattened up on edible, organic waste), furniture (tables and chairs), or material for resale on national and/or international markets; you name it, the Zabaleen deal with it.
Now although the way the Zabaleen recycle and dispose of garbage is admirable, trash is still burned at astonishing rates and landfills on Cairo’s perimeters – used by both government contractors and the Zabaleen – are bulging at the seams. And while the current waste disposal system is in dire need of an overhaul, it’s not the only thing that requires serious modification. The average Cairene needs some civic education about the problem of garbage in this city along with cultivating an understanding about the notion of collective public space. Because we are living on top of one another in this sprawling, sweat-box of a metropolis it is imperative we look out for one another and not be so arrogant to presume that as long as we’re not polluting in our own part of town it’s ok to do so anywhere else.
Case in point: several months ago I stepped onto my terrace just in time to see a taxi driver pull over on the side of the road, get out of his car, walk to the passenger side of the vehicle and start urinating on the sidewalk. He didn’t even bother to take two steps towards the fence in front of him where he’d at least be watering the bushes of the playground bordering the Nile. No, instead he relieved himself next to a pile of trash, where his urine ran down the sidewalk onto the road. Afterwards he turned, reached through his passenger window, grabbed several fast food packages and ejected them onto the street. This was, of course, nowhere near the pile of garbage he had just urinated next to.
I was livid. Partly because he was doing this in front of my home, and as he did so seven cars, one man, three women, two children and a police officer walked by and nobody batted an eyelash. I was mainly enraged; however, because I’m pretty damn sure if I went to his house in Giza/Shoubra/Heliopolis/Imbaba/Boulaq, took a shit in front of his door and placed my household garbage on top of it afterwards, he – and his neighbours – would be rather displeased and have me running for the hills.
Cairo’s streets – the scarce green areas, public buildings and through-ways – they belong to everyone. You see that green area over there, the one in front of the Central Train Station? That’s public space. Al Azhar Park and Tahrir Square? Public space. The alleyways of Khan el Khalili, the land the pyramids were built on and each cubic meter of the Nile are all part of Cairo’s public space, which means it should be maintained and cared for as if it were your own living room, terrace or backyard. Same goes for the 6th of October underpass, the park where your children play and the goddamned street in front of my house.
Indeed there are plenty of things that need to be addressed in the new Egypt, there’s no doubt about that. Whether it’s the flailing economy, unemployment, the youth bulge, stabilizing the price of natural resources, food scarcity, education, reforming the justice and law enforcement sectors or securing citizen’s basic rights (particularly for women and children), the new president-elect and parliament will have plenty of reforms to make and they’ll be expected to do so in record-breaking time. However, for the sake of citizens living in ever-organic urban centers, like Cairo, I hope that environmental reform – with a long, hard look at adopting sustainable waste disposal practices – will be high on the agenda of the country’s policy makers.
Mind you, given the way things are going at the moment, I don’t advise anyone to hold their breath.
Regardless of how bad the stench may be.