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.
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.
"For us, it has been a disaster. It is a slow death," he says.
Since then, he has focused on the only other way he knows to turn trash into money: recycling.
While Khalil pulls in about $90 a month from trading garbage, the actual collection of trash pays nothing – literally. Men like Khalil and Qadees receive no money for carting away the city's trash. Their income comes from what they do with the trash.
"There are a lot of things you can make out of garbage," says Khalil, brandishing a white plastic bucket in one hand and the sole of an old shoe in the other.
He sells them to a local recycling facility, where, he says, "they'll wash them, chop them up, and melt them down to use them in plastic hangers or tubes."
Theirs is a complicated and highly efficient system of waste disposal and reuse. Garbage is divided into two piles: recyclable materials like plastic that account for 40 percent of the trash, and organic waste like spoiled food that makes up the rest, which for generations was fed to the least picky farm animal around – pigs.
Without pigs, old system collapses
Garbage is the lifeblood of zebaleen communities like Zarayeb, which is home to about 35,000 people, most descended from migrants who came from Egypt's poor, rural south in the 1950s. But without their pigs, the old system is "collapsing," says Ezzat Naem Guindy, director of the Spirit of Youth Association, a community development group.
The government has instructed the trash collectors to cart what garbage can't be recycled to state-run landfills. But filling up a tank of gas and driving there can cost up to $9, and that doesn't include fees to use trash bins and bribes to officials who, Qadees says, "take money from you to even get in the place."
Unable to afford the fees and bribes, and without the pigs, many zebaleen "throw what they don't need on the side of the road or in empty lots, and take the garbage they can use," says Rami Iskander, the CEO of Heliocare, a private trash collection firm that employs some zebaleen.
If this trend continues, Mr. Iskander fears that Egypt could be facing a whole new public health crisis within months.
Before losing his pigs in May, Khalil expressed the same worry: "People will see, once the pigs are gone, the streets of Cairo are going to be filled with trash. When we take the garbage, they tell us, 'OK, you can keep it.' But without the pigs, why would we ever want this stuff?"
All told, the average zebaleen extended family that operates like a small business – living together in apartment blocks, working the same trash route, pooling work and investments in livestock, sorting trash, and renting trucks – could face added fees, bribes, and labor costs of up to $1,800, estimates Mr. Guindy. And, he says, lost revenue from pigs for the average family could average $3,600.
To make matters worse, many zebaleen now work less often. Fearing swine flu, some clients have asked them to pick up the trash less often. With the financial incentive for collecting 60 percent of the trash now gone, many are happy to comply.
But trash being collected less frequently means less trash to comb for recyclables for zebaleen like Qadees and Khalil, who now rely solely on plastic recycling to get by.
"Before, this whole area used to be piled as high as the second-floor windows with plastic and cardboard," says Qadees, looking down from the roof of his family's squat, four-story apartment building into the tight alleys zigzagging below, "but now it's empty."
Qadees, who is 26, has worked in garbage since he was 8 years old. Every day he walks the fetid slum streets buying plastic bottles from other zebaleen for 17 cents a kilo and selling them to recycling centers for 19 cents. Before the pigs were killed, he also had a night job unloading a neighbor's garbage truck.
But now, he says, "the garbage trucks have stopped coming in as much and we don't see the normal garbage we used to from people's houses. They bring in cardboard and plastic but there is less of everything now."
His income has dropped by half since May, to $98 a month, and now he fears he will never be able to afford marriage. In Egypt, few weddings happen unless the groom can provide an apartment and furniture. Qadees has neither. He lives in one dim room with his brother, and for almost 10 years has been building his own apartment in his family's building, brick by brick. He was engaged once, but his fiancée left him for a wealthier man.
In the building next door, Khalil is also building an apartment for his wife and four children, one brick at a time. It will be on the roof of the family home, which is now strewn with trash and inhabited by 10 thin goats. In the meantime they sleep in a grimy, ground-floor room surrounded by piles of garbage that are infested with large rats.
Khalil worries that without work his plans will fall apart: The apartment may not be finished and he has to save for dowries for his three daughters. His oldest, 10-year-old Rania, is the only one in school, but with tuition running at almost $4.50 a month she may need to drop out.
"Work has slowed down so much now," says Khalil, "No one knows what is going to happen to us."
Looking for creative solutions
Garbage and pigs have gone hand in hand since the zebaleen first arrived in Cairo in the 1940s, says Guindy. Then, too, it was a city with a garbage problem.
In the early 20th century, trash was collected by wahis, migrants from the desert oases, who dried it in the sun and resold it as kindling. But such sales were outlawed in the 1940s, turning trash collection upside down just as the city began to rapidly grow.
The wahis teamed up with new Christian migrants from rural Egypt, who brought the practice of feeding garbage to livestock, says Guindy. It was a creative suggestion that made the most of everyone's skills, he says, and there may be similar solutions to today's pig crisis.
To Guindy the solution is clear: People must focus on goats and recycling.
The neighborhood is full of recycling workshops, large and small, and people will be forced to rely on them for income. He worries this will mean more kids working on the street and fewer in school, compounding the community's 65 percent illiteracy rate.
"People will need all their sons to go out into the streets to search for recyclable material," he says.
And goats, he says, may substitute for the pigs. Never picky eaters, more of them can be seen in the neighborhood since May, gnawing old sandals and delicately chewing loose-leaf paper. Guindy says there are 15,000 here now and that "anyone who has the ability to buy them will do it."
But the zebaleen have been badly bruised by the government. Unsettling rumors ricochet from trash heap to trash heap: The government will ban slum recycling, it will ban plastic, it will ban them from keeping animals.
All the talk weighs heavily on a man like Khalil.
"None of us know what to do," he says. "People are hungry and soon they will starve. We have no work. Isn't that an epidemic, too?"