The Middle East Channel

Cairo’s ‘Garbage Dreams’

  "Garbage Dreams," a heartbreaking new documentary by the Egyptian-American filmmaker Mai Iskander, is making its way around festival circuits and university screenings, and amassing an impressive array of awards. The movie depicts the struggles of Cairo’s "zabbaleen," a unique community of Egyptians (mostly Christian) who make their living collecting and recycling the vast amounts ...

Barry Iverson/ ITVS
Barry Iverson/ ITVS

 

"Garbage Dreams," a heartbreaking new documentary by the Egyptian-American filmmaker Mai Iskander, is making its way around festival circuits and university screenings, and amassing an impressive array of awards. The movie depicts the struggles of Cairo’s "zabbaleen," a unique community of Egyptians (mostly Christian) who make their living collecting and recycling the vast amounts of trash produced by their city of 18 million.  Their struggles offer a unique and devastating window into a rarely seen side of urban existence in today’s Middle East. 

The zabbaleen, estimated at about 60,000 people,  live together on the outskirts of Cairo, where they collect, sort, and recycle garbage — the community claims that it recycles at least 80 percent of the waste it collects. Anyone who has spent time in Cairo knows the sight of their rickety trucks patrolling the city streets with garbage piled improbably high, the sound of individual zabbaleen clamoring through the inner courtyards and fire escapes of apartment buildings, collecting the day’s waste, can by can, bag by bag.

The film plays with viewers’ natural revulsion to this scorned profession, by introducing you to several young zabbaleen — Adham, Osama, and Nabil, all of whom eke out an incredibly precarious living in the streets and trash dumps of greater Cairo. We also meet and spend time with Leila, a young woman who appears to the audience as a kind of social worker for the community, dispensing medication and advice to younger and older zabbaleen. Viewers are granted entry into the seemingly hopeless world of these youths (older zabbaleen are not foregrounded and appear typically in passing), including their homes and family lives.

Each of the boys has a distinctive personality — reflective Adham, who yearns for his unjustly-imprisoned father to finish an apartment for him on the roof, so he can get married; feckless Osama, who drifts from one job to the next and who has clearly worn out his mother’s patience, and stubborn Nabil, who scoffs at the automated recycling methods he sees with Adham on a trip to Wales.

Of the three, we are given the clearest picture of Adham — in one of the most poignant sequences, after returning from Wales, Adham listens over and over to a tape of Welsh music given to him by a woman there. Adham is despondent about the future of his community, but still dreams of opening his own recycling plant, and it is through him that the casual viewer will understand that the zabelleen don’t see themselves as needing to be rescued from this life — in fact they are proud of it, earn their living from it, and despair at the prospect of its destruction.

"Garbage Dreams" begins and ends with the zabbaleen under siege. The government has hired  foreign companies to take over the work of the zabbaleen, who are now forbidden from collecting the trash on which their livelihoods depend. These contractors are also now very visible on the city’s streets, with their distinctive green uniforms and expensive trucks. The film begins when the threat first appears (the two firms were actually hired in 2003, and one has since ceased operating), and as time passes periodically, the zabbaleen are increasingly threatened, and respond by trying to update their practices in an effort to convince the state that they can modernize.

The tragic postscript to this film involves last year’s culling of Egypt’s pig population, a fearful (some would say hysterical) response to the global swine flu epidemic. Pigs play an important role in the organic recycling process pioneered by the zabbaleen, and many trash collectors stopped gathering trash, where it mounted and festered in posh neighborhoods like Mohandiseen.

The plight of the zabbaleen is eerily reminiscent of past attempts by the Egyptian state to discard the traditional and force the allegedly modern on its reluctant citizens, from the imposition of order on "moulids" to the taming of the Nile with the High Dam. The problems depicted in "Garbage Dreams" are thus twofold — a community facing the destruction of its livelihood, and the state’s refusal to recognize or protect the benefits of the zabbaleen’s practices. Instead of trying to improve living conditions in the community itself, the state chose to do away with their expertise altogether.

As such the attack on the zabbaleen is not an isolated response to this particular community, but an ongoing effort, much like the settlement of the Bedouin in the Sinai, to impose an externally-conceptualized sense of "normality" on Egypt — an Egypt that is safe for tourists, indistinguishable from the tidy European capitals on which the Mubarak regime models itself, and which the country’s technocrats see, or would like to see, when they look in the mirror.

"Garbage Dreams" ends with its main characters in limbo, as the zabbaleen try to survive on an ever-dwindling supply of trash. Whatever the fate of the community it depicts, "Garbage Dreams" is a beautiful, meditative look at a group of people that post-colonial theorists refer to as "subalterns."  It is not to be missed.

The film will be broadcast nationally on the PBS series "Independent Lens" on April 27 at 10 p.m.

David Faris is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania and soon-to-be Assistant Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University. His work has appeared in Technology & Politics Review, Arab Media & Society, The Daily News Egypt, and Al-Arabiyya.

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