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When reading up on Egypt over the past couple years, my curiosity was piqued by an article on Atlas Obscura about a part of Cairo where a majority of the country’s Coptic Christians live and work sorting trash. Originally, the Zabbaleen (Arabic for garbage people) came to the area they presently reside in from Upper Egypt, and were raising animals until they realized that collecting, sorting, and recycling the abundance of trash within the city was more profitable. For the objects they were able to recycle, they would compact and sell them, whereas the organic waste leftover was fed to their animals.

However, in 2009 when the scares over H1N1 emerged in the international media, the Egyptian government forced the Zabbaleen to kill all of their pigs, so this extra bit of income was depleted from their lives and the organic waste wasn’t being utilized anymore. On top of this, in recent years the Egyptian government decided that instead of financing the Zabbaleen, who would typically go door to door to collect waste and/or find bins throughout the streets to scavenge, they would instead bring in private international companies to control the waste disposal. Whereas the Zabbaleen are known for being able to recycle 80% of the waste they collect, most international companies only end up recycling 20-25%, and the rest is poured into large holes in landfills to become buried forever.

If this doesn’t sound crazy enough, the population lives among the garbage, and is mostly unknown to the rest of Cairenes due to being such a minority. However, this part of the city has in the past couple years become more of an off the beaten path tourist destination to visit as it also houses the Cave Church (Monastery of Saint Simon) with seating for more than 2000 people, the largest Christian Church in the Middle East. With one taxi driver agreeing whole heartedly that he knew where we were headed, we jumped inside to be whisked off to what we thought would be the Cave Church, but were dropped instead in Coptic Cairo. We figured there was no reason not to check out Ben Ezra Synagogue within the old city, as it was supposedly where baby Moses had been found while floating down the Nile (which has since dried up and is nowhere to be seen around this area).

Once Jeremy was promptly yelled at for taking photos inside when there were clearly signs saying no photos, we left and flagged down another taxi, making doubly sure that he knew to bring us to the correct place. At first, we had to haggle with him for a better price, and he kept telling us how the streets in Mokattam were very bad with lots of potholes. Eventually, we were able to get him to lower his price, but as we approached and made our way through the small congested streets filled with bags of trash on either sides, tuktuks, and crowds of school children, we were made aware of the true nature of the road conditions while bouncing up and down in our seats. Finally we arrived, and were ready to explore.

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The entrance to the Cave Church.

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View over the city from near the Cave Church.

Upon finishing up at the Church, we walked back into town and began our trek through the narrow roads, stopping to try speaking with locals who were all smiles, seeing tourists coming through their neighborhood. There wasn’t a moment where we felt uncomfortable or unsafe, and so many people were more than happy to have their photos taken and generally very curious as to who we were, what we were doing there, and why.

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Sorting by colors.

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The dusty main street.

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Most of the store fronts and ground levels were extremely colorful.

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In the basket are baby chicks for sale. Each was 1 Egyptian Pound (about 12 US cents).

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Spending upwards of an hour to an hour and a half within the village, we headed out to the main highway to get a ride close to the Citadel, and it was then that I realized how awful my throat and sinuses felt. Thinking about the reality that thousands of people live within a village where the particles of dust in the air are visible at all times was difficult to fathom as I chugged my bottle of water and blew my nose. Black soot remained on the tissue as I looked down at it, sadly realizing that sometimes the world is an unfair place, and the kindest people are born into the most unfortunate circumstances.

  • Kush Jain

    Very well written! For once i felt myself in there.. Great photographs. And umm heart felt last lines.. I think some experiences change us for whole life tym..
    So till next time.. Bbye.. And keep going !

    • Jonas Raider

      Thank you so much for the comment! These experiences truly have allowed me to take a step back and see how differently the world works depending on where you live and grow up.