One of Cairo’s seven settlements of the Zabbaleen, garbage collectors who make their living picking through and efficiently recycling the city’s trash, has gotten a little brighter with the addition of a massive multi-building mural that only comes into focus from a particular perspective. ‘Calligraffiti’ artist eL Seed organized a community-wide effort to paint sections of the mural onto the walls of 50 structures, blending arabic calligraphy with contemporary graffiti style. The work spells out a quote by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, who said “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.”
It’s not clear how many of the city’s inhabitants can actually access the spot on Mokattam Mountain where the various pieces of the mural actually come together into a cohesive whole, but it has certainly added some vibrancy to their neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr. In photos of the mural, you can clearly see the trash bags piled high on the roof of virtually every building in the frame, and the streets look much the same.
‘Zabbaleen’ literally translates from Egyptian Arabic as ‘garbage people,’ and their community is known throughout the world as ‘Garbage City.’ Over 90 percent of their 20,000-30,000 population is Coptic Christian. They’ve supported themselves by processing Cairo’s trash for decades, using donkey carts and pickup trucks to transport it. Organic waste is fed to pigs and their recycling rate is an impressive 80 percent (compare that to the Western world’s average of 20 to 25 percent.) Their way of life is currently under threat due to Cairo authorities’ decision to transfer trash contracts to three multinational disposal companies.
“The Zaraeeb community welcomed my team and I as if we were family,” says eL Seed. “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 Zabbaleen (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.”