For Egypt's Christians, pig cull has lasting effects
Reacting to swine flu by slaughtering pigs, Cairo upends a key part of its service economy – Christian trash collectors.
Semaan Khalil sits with his children on the rocky earth outside their cement apartment block in Zarayeb, a Cairo slum that Egypt's zebaleen – Christian trash collectors – call home. Every day his family sorts piles of garbage under the scorching sun, and all around them neighbors do the same.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Khalil's next-door neighbor, Barsoum Qadees, overturns a giant trash bag, sending a cascade of plastic bottles, cardboard boxes, and empty tuna cans spilling onto the pavement. As the refuse crashes at their feet, Khalil's children laugh and compete with each other over who can pick out bits of plastic the fastest. For them garbage seems like a game, but to Khalil and Mr. Qadees it is a serious business, their sole means of support.
The zebaleen occupy a place both on the margins of Egyptian society and at its heart. Scorned for their desperate poverty, the perceived dirtiness of their work, and their Christian faith in a Muslim country, their services are Cairo's primary means of waste disposal. Without zebaleen like Khalil and Qadees – and the pigs that they have long employed to gobble the organic refuse – this city of 18 million would be buried in trash.
That's become all too clear this summer as a recent government decision upending the zebaleen system has forced many to toss garbage into empty alleys and vacant lots.
In May, because of fears of swine flu, Egyptian authorities ordered all of the nation's 300,000 pigs slaughtered.
An Egyptian newspaper posted footage of the slaughter on YouTube, showing pigs scooped up by bulldozers and killed with knives and clubs. In Zarayeb, there were clashes between pig keepers and police, and today locals whisper of neighbors arrested and tortured for resisting the slaughter.
By any measure, it has been a financial disaster for the zebaleen community, a nuisance for the city, and a policy failure for the government. (The World Health Organization condemned the slaughter, which was ordered before even a single swine flu case was registered. With 329 cases reported by August, the culling clearly didn't prevent the spread of the disease.)
Religion forbids Muslims – 85 percent of Egypt's population – from eating pork, and pigs are unpopular animals here. But they were central to the zebaleen business model: Pigs ate up to 60 percent of each day's haul and fetched a good price at market. When the slaughter began in May, authorities came to collect most pigs in open-backed trucks. Few families have been properly compensated for the sudden loss of their investment.
'It has been a disaster'
Until May, Khalil's financial security rested on the back of the 40 pigs his extended family kept in a muddy sty that opens onto the ground floor of their multistory family home. When the culling was announced, authorities asked him to round up his pigs and bring them to the slaughterhouse himself.
The government pledged $5.4 million to compensate pig owners, and Khalil says he was promised $18 for each of his pigs, but was given only $7. It's a fraction of the $90 to $180 a pig sold for at market before the slaughter. Khalil was one of the fortunate ones, though: Few zebaleen have been paid anything for their lost pigs.