Reviewed by Kelsey Jones-Casey
Flourish Magazine, Fall 2009
In the twisted streets of the world’s largest garbage city, thousands of Coptic Christians recycle the refuse of wealthy Cairo-
dwellers in order to survive. These “garbage people,” known as the Zaballeen, have lived as untouchables in the suburbs of Cairo for approximately 100 years. In her film Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander explores the Zaballeen’s relationship with their trade, their government, their families, and their faith.
The film features three young Zaballeen men—Adham, Nabil, and Osama— who are coming of age in a tumultuous time in the garbage industry. The City of Cairo has signed contracts with foreign waste-disposal companies that are beginning to monopolize the city’s garbage-collection. Now, not only must the Zaballeen spend longer hours collecting trash, but also they must do so with care because their work is now banned in some neighborhoods.
In the Zaballeen neighborhood of Mokattam where the “nothing class” lives, pigs and goats climb the mountains of food waste and cloth—dramatic topography in this urban slum. Young boys snip hundreds of soda cans each day with a large pair of rusted scissors, and girls cook dinner in overcrowded hot apartments rooms that are stacked precariously on one another like wooden blocks. But where most outsiders would see chaos, Iskander draws us deeper to show us the hidden rhythms and order of the Mokattam.
In fact, the Zaballeens’ practice of waste-disposal is so methodical that they are able to recycle more than 80% of the garbage they collect. And, their attitude towards refuse is enlightening. Adham describes the garbage as “a gift from God to be recycled and reused.” Each scrap of cloth, metal and plastic is meticulously prepared for export to Asia, and will later be manufactured into another product. While the foreign waste-disposal companies have expensive mechanized vehicles and smart uniforms, they do not economize Cairo’s waste like the Zaballeen. Garbage Dreams is story of power and privilege, but it is also a commentary on our consumption.
When the young men travel to Wales to observe “modern” waste-collection and processing, they are stunned by our excess. While workers only recycle that which is most efficient to recycle, Nabil and Adham frantically scan the conveyor belt for reusable items. Viewers are compelled to simultaneously admire the Zaballeen for their thrift, and admonish the rich for their waste. But what bewilders is this: the two are inseparable; the Zaballeen make a living off of the excesses of the rich. And, at every turn in the filthy streets of the Mokattam, we are reminded that we simply cannot romanticize the lives of the Zaballeen.
Buried within Iskander’s commentaries on globalization and privatization are the coming-of-age stories of these young men. Adham becomes the provider for his family after his father is imprisoned for building an apartment without a permit. Osama, is his desperateness to be good, attempts to reform his waywardness by becoming a more faithful Coptic. Nabil works tirelessly in hopes that one day he will be able build an apartment and support a family. All three young men attend a “recycling school,” where local activists and social workers teach them skills they can use in their own recycling enterprises. This is the dream of young Zaballeen, including Osama. “Before the foreign companies came [to Cairo] I dreamed of owning a cans-cutting factory.” Now, in the face of international corporations, the Recycling School is trying to make these dreams more possible.
Iskander’s film is as rough as a day’s work at times, and as gentle as worship in a cave-bound church at others. Most often her scenes are intimate and close—shadowy streets, small workshops, and dark apartments. But when she takes us to the rooftops of Mokattam to see beyond the slum, we remember that our worlds touch, and that the connections between us are tighter than we imagine.