James Hider in Cairo
Just beyond the medieval ramparts, moats and mosques of Cairo’s citadel sprawls an equally medieval site that tourists rarely see. Unlike the well-preserved fortress, however, this is one slice of the city’s past that the authorities are keen to consign to history.
For hundreds - locals say thousands - of years, the zabaleen have collected the rubbish of the Arab world’s greatest city and hauled it by donkey cart, or more recently overloaded pick-up truck, to their fetid ghettos dotted around the city. They are Coptic Christians, a sect that predates Islam and most other forms of Christianity, and until recently they fed the city’s slops to their pigs. These they would either eat or sell to wealthier Christian butchers.But Manshiyet Nasser, one of the main shantytowns peering over the desert bluffs towards the citadel, is now a pig-free zone. Last month the authorities ordered a massive cull of the country’s 300,000 pigs because of fears of a swine flu epidemic from Mexico, although no cases of the disease had been recorded in Egypt.
In just a few weeks, amid riots and arrests in the Coptic communities, an entire way of life was eradicated. In the hysteria, a large number of the pigs were herded into pits and buried alive for what the authorities described as rapid hygienic disposal.
“They destroyed our income,” said Umm Gerges, a 37-year-old mother who lives in Manshiyet Nasser, where narrow, unpaved roads are lined with sacks of salvaged garbage piled 10ft high. “Since the cull we don’t have any work. We just sit around and don’t know what to do.”
The zabaleen - the name means “trash collectors” in Arabic - still collect the city’s refuse, going from house to house and then sorting recyclable plastic, glass and metal for resale. But they no longer feed the waste foodstuffs to their pigs, which lived in now-empty yards between the tightly packed, squat houses. The authorities feared that the close proximity of so many pigs next to so many humans who criss-crossed the city every day was a pandemic waiting to happen.
But furious residents say that since swine flu had not reached the country, the swift and massive response was just an excuse to attack the impoverished minority.
“Why did they do this to us?” said Umm Gerges, emerging from a murky, unlit room where she was sorting salvaged scraps of plastic into sacks. “There were 20 people who were arrested for protesting. They are still in jail. We have no political connections or lawyers to get them out.”
Her neighbour, Abu Albert, voiced a suspicion that many share but few dare speak out loud for fear of government informers. “It was a political decision. This is a Christian neighbourhood.” His comments provoked a fearful reaction from a neighbour. “You’ll send us to Hell talking that way!” he shouted.
At that moment, two men suspected of working for the Government pulled up in a pick-up truck and the crowd slunk away in fear.
Odd as it may seem to visitors to these jerry-built shantytowns, the inhabitants are proud of their traditions and the grubby livelihood passed from one generation to the next. They also know no other way of life, and fear the Government’s efforts to shunt them into new housing developments with no schools or clinics, far from the metropolis and its scrap from which they have always made their living.
Worse, they now have to drive the waste food to landfills almost 60 miles away, as they cannot carry it back to their township if there are no pigs to eat it. They survive now on recycling broken plastic and scavenged cardboard and soda bottles, but many are losing money having to drive the wet waste out to the new disposal facilities.
Ishaq Michael Bors, who heads a Non Governmental Organisation representing the zabaleen, said the Government had contracted an Italian company to collect the rubbish, a solution he said was more expensive and less environmentally friendly than the age-old method his people employed. If the zabaleen were not let in on the profits, they would stop collecting trash and let Cairo find out what it was like to live among rotting refuse.
What locals really want is for the new waste-disposal facilities to be built near their shantytowns so they can continue to ply their trade, albeit without their pigs. But they fear that the Government wants them and their fly-strewn business out of sight as the city of at least 15 million continues to expand. Already, new office buildings are rising in the lee of the historic citadel, close to the entrance of the slums.
“They don’t want us to be near the city because of the smell and our lifestyle,” said Samuel, a lifelong resident of Manshiyet Nasser. “When we came to this area 35 years ago it was a desert; now the city is moving forward. But we only have running water after midnight and no sewage system.
That’s what causes diseases.”
An animal welfare charity has warned Egypt that its mass slaughter of pigs risks damaging its lucrative tourism industry. Compassion in World Farming, based in the UK, said “horrific methods” had been used to cull the pigs, including burying them alive.
“Egypt’s Government needs to act quickly to stop this appallingly cruel and totally unnecessary cull,” said Philip Lymbery, the group’s chief executive. (AFP)