All We Know
We know the threat.
“As the saying goes,” says Adham, “‘Each one gets what is written.’’ For 17-year-old Adham, that means he is expected to pick up garbage. He’s Zaballeen, one of 60,000 impoverished Coptic Christians who live in Mokattam, oustide Cairo, and have collected the city’s trash for 150 years. Adham is hardly content with his fate. When he went into the city on a truck to do the collecting, he recalls, “I realized everyone was well dressed and I wasn’t, so I was a bit upset.” Over low angle images of streets and trucks and piles of waste, he observes, “There’s the upper class, the middle class.” Adham takes a breath, then adds. “The nothing class: that’s us.”
The fate of this “class” is the focus of Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander’s first documentary, recently included on the Academy Awards shortlist for documentaries. Opening 6 January at the IFC Center in Manhattan, the film follows Adham and two other teens over four years. As Adham—introduced as he’s counting and cutting cans to recycle—seeks an alternative, 16-year-old Osama can’t quite break into the garbage business. He’s had trouble holding any job for long, he admits, and the film shows him arriving late and suffering the complaints of his family (“He’s an irresponsible failure”). As the film begins, Osama is working in a restaurant kitchen. “Garbage work is dangerous work,” his father has told him. Osama prefers washing dishes, he says, “because it isn’t hard like other jobs. Other jobs make my eyes pop out.”
Osama’s lack of focus is contrasted with the utter dedication of Nabil. At 18, he has a vision for his future: working in garbage, like all the other men in his family, ensures that he will achieve his own goal, which is to be married, a sign of maturity and a route to respect in the community. “I feel I can be responsible for a family,” he explains, “because I know how to work hard. I imagine marriage means that my wife will be my friend. I’ll tell her everything and we’ll face hardships together.” In the meantime, he notes his current hardships, like sorting through “the small and fine things.” Yogurt cups in particular are exhausting, he sighs.
Nabil’s work, like Adham’s, is focused on recycling. Over decades, community social worker Laila points out, the Zaballeen have developed means to recycle some 80% of the trash they collect, out of necessity: they’re paid so little by the city, they must support themselves by selling what they pick up. Now, however, European companies have entered the scene, bringing with them new equipment, big trucks and bulldozers. They don’t care about recycling, though, and have been dumping trash in huge landfills. The Zaballeen try to organize, making their case to the citizens of Cairo that their emphasis on recycling is to everyone’s benefit.
If their sorting by hand isn’t wholly efficient, it is effective. When Adham and Nabil take a government-sponsored trip to Wales to observe a Source Separation program (residents in a suburban neighborhood sort their own garbage, into containers full of plastic, glass, and paper). Still, back at the processing plant, conveyor belts don’t catch all the pieces, sending too much garbage to the landfill. “There is technology, but no precision,” Adham insists. He imagines an improved system, combining new machinery and the Zaballeen’s own emphasis on recycling every recyclable item.
As the film shows, Adham’s ideas for innovation don’t have much of an effect in a world of global corporatization and ignorant governance. Moreover, his trip abroad only inspires in him more fervent desire to leave Egypt. His father’s in prison (having violated building permits laws while trying to build an apartment for his son) and his can-counting is endless. “When I think of my father,” he says, “I get sad.” His frustration at having to be the family’s “main provider” is wearing on him.
Nabil feels sorry that his friend is so unhappy back home, while his own traveling has only made him appreciate his family and sense of place more emphatically. Though he confesses, “I worry about the future,” he feels committed to pursuing the vision he has at the start, to be married and live long as one of the “garbage people.”
Laila encourages her fellow Zaballeen to look ahead, to “modernize our trade.” Her own experience is focused on trying to remake her community, convincing workers to get tetanus shots or improve sanitation. While the Zaballeen seek to protect their business and lives (“This work is all we know,” Laila says), now they face another question: who owns the garbage produced by Cairo’s citizens? When the corporations collect it, their careless disposal methods are harmful to the environment, but they make short-term profits. The Zaballeen lack the resources—promotional and technological—to make their case for recycling.
Facing so many layers of complications and, in Nabil’s phrasing, “hardships,” the Zaballeen remain focused on the future, however they see it. Each boy’s “garbage dreams” are different. When at last Osama takes a job with one of the foreign companies, he has a uniform and a salary, as well as a chance to marry. “The girls are falling for me,” he boasts. Adham is back to cutting cans. “I can’t keep living like this,” he says. That much is clear.