New Ways of Thinking
The garbage collectors of Cairo live in neighborhoods spilling over with trash. The children play with the trash and in the trash, when they are not helping to sort or collect the trash. The women sit right in the trash, picking out rotten food with their hands and tossing it to their pigs, which live right there in the neighborhood with them.
—“Cleaning Cairo, but Taking a Livelihood,” 24 May 2009
“I once went into Cairo to collect trash. I realized everyone was well dressed and I wasn’t, so I was a bit upset.” As 17-year-old Adham describes his revelation, he appears determined and self-aware, gazing calmly and intently into the camera. He is zabaleen, one of 60,000 impoverished Coptic Christians who live in Mokattam, outside Cairo: they have collected the city’s trash for 150 years. Adham is hardly content with his fate. 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 the nothing class is the focus of Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander’s remarkable first documentary, airing 27 April as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series. Following Adham and two other teens over four years, the film shows not only how they live, but also how they see themselves, their dissatisfaction as well as their ingenuity. Introduced as he’s counting and cutting cans to recycle, Adham seeks an alternative. At the same time, 16-year-old Osama can’t quite break into the garbage business; in fact, he’s having 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”). Working in a restaurant kitchen, he recalls his father’s warning, that “Garbage work is dangerous work.” Osama prefers washing dishes, he says, “because it isn’t hard like other jobs. Other jobs make my eyes pop out.”
Osama’s apparent lack of focus is contrasted with the utter dedication of Nabil. At 18, he has a vision for his future: working in the garbage business, like all the other men in his family, ensures that he will 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, he sighs, are especially exhausting.
But even as Nabil and Adham have taken up their families’ work, they are also looking ahead, seeking more efficient ways to recycle and generate profits. Over decades, community social worker Laila points out, the zabaleen 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 came from Spain and Italy, they expanded with time,” notes Laila. “The foreign companies’ contract says they own all the garbage.”
But for all their equipment and power, the foreign companies don’t care about recycling. Instead, they’ve been dumping trash into huge landfills. “The city perceives the zabaleen to be old-fashioned,” Laila says. In an effort to counter these corporate bullies, the zabaleen are trying to organize, making their case to the citizens of Cairo that their emphasis on recycling is to everyone’s benefit.
At Recycling School, Adham learns how to sort more efficiently: “Before I felt I was blind, I finally learned to read and write,” he says. Then he and Nabil take a government-sponsored trip to Wales to observe a Source Separation program, seeing how residents in a suburban neighborhood sort their own garbage, into containers full of plastic, glass, and paper. Back at the Wales processing plant, however, the boys notice that 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 zabaleen’s resolve to recycle every salvageable item.
Still, at home he runs into obstacles: lack of money and resources, lack of infrastructure. The film shows that Adham’s ideas for innovation don’t have much of an effect in a world of global corporatization and ignorant governance. Moreover, his journey 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 zabaleen to look ahead, to “modernize our trade.” Her attempts to remake her community begin with convincing workers to get tetanus shots and improve sanitation. While the zabaleen want to protect their livelihoods (“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 zabaleen lack the resources—promotional and technological—to make their case for recycling.
Facing so many logistical complications and, in Nabil’s phrasing, “hardships,” the zabaleen 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 that much desired 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.