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The Zabbaleen: what Cairo’s Garbage City could teach the West

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Hammad Haider’s photograph reveals how 80% of the city’s waste is profitably recycled by the Zabbaleen, or garbage collectors, that live in Manshiyet Nasser

Hammad Haider: Manshiyet Nasser (Garbage City), Cairo. November 2022 Samsung S10 phone.
Hammad Haider: Manshiyet Nasser (Garbage City), Cairo. November 2022 Samsung S10 phone.

Cairo’s ancient City of the Dead has found its graveyards put to new, contingent use by the living, as the local poor appropriate their grounds as home, adding new skin to the bones below. While analysing the site for his MArch project at Sheffield School of Architecture, Hammad Haider discovered nearby Garbage City, whose ‘Zabbaleen’ (garbage collectors) process the city’s waste – stripping back, separating and collating it, then selling it on for profit. These 60,000 residents are mainly Coptic Christians, whose pigs efficiently consume the organic lowest level of waste. The Zabbaleen reportedly recycle 80% of city refuse, far in excess of Western norms. Perhaps it was this virtuous circle that French Tunisian artist eL Seed alluded to in 2017 when he created his massive mural here, taking in several housing blocks.

But look beyond this and your assumptions. Look at the random rubbish that is in fact ordered bales of material ready for onward sale; at the finely decorated timber pigeon towers – symbols of affluence, says Haider, perhaps built by families who sold their swine herds to Cairo’s hotels for Western tourists. Look at the rooftop city farms where goats graze, and at the appurtenances of aspirational living – air conditioning units and satellite dishes. Set against a mesmerising urban grid of concrete and brick, lost in plain sight, it proves that where there’s muck, there’s brass.

Hammad Haider was winner of the RIBA Photo Festival 2023 Photography contest. See this and shortlisted entries here