Salvaging Dignity

A Coptic Christian family perseveres against all odds

text by Sarah Topol with photographs by Dana Smillie

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Wadad Nagib’s neighbors often joke that she has enough children to form a soccer team. The 46-year-old mother takes their playful teasing in stride, usually responding with a good-natured smile. After all, her six boys and five girls, ages 3 to 28, are her life.

The Nagib family lives in Manshiyat Naser — also known as Garbage City — an impoverished Coptic Christian neighborhood nestled in the jutting desert cliffs that rise above Cairo’s bustling streets. Called Zabbaleen, or “garbage people” in Arabic, most hail from the rural province of Assiut, 250 miles to the south. For generations, the Zabbaleen have served as Cairo’s de facto garbage collectors, earning a meager living hauling away city dwellers’ trash and recycling anything salvageable.

To spend time with the Nagib family is to witness in microcosm the struggles of an entire class of people — and to realize that they are struggling not just to salvage what others discard, but also to salvage dignity and a way of life.

Mrs. Nagib’s husband collected trash for a living. Now too old to work, he has passed his route on to his children. And it seems, one by one, the Nagib children are carrying on the tradition.

Six days a week, Mrs. Nagib rises before dawn to see off three of her sons to their work as garbage collectors. At 5, the young men will have climbed into the family truck to head down the slopes to the city — a drive that takes two hours. There, they go from apartment to apartment along their route collecting garbage. By early afternoon, they head home, the truck loaded with trash.

While the young men rest, Mrs. Nagib and her daughters begin picking through the garbage bags with bare hands. They sort the debris into piles: aluminum cans, food waste, glass, etc. Later, the family will sell the recyclables.

Mrs. Nagib’s 3-year-old daughter plays barefoot in the trash heaps. Flies swarm around the mother and daughters. The sickly sweet stench of rotting waste fills the neighborhood’s narrow, unpaved streets.

“It’s not easy, but it’s what we have become accustomed to. All we want is security and God’s blessing,” Mrs. Nagib says. The slender woman wears a bright blue headscarf and small, simple earrings. As she gestures with her hands, she reveals a tiny tattoo of a cross on her right wrist, a common marking among Copts. “Maybe in the future things will get better.”

For the Zabbaleen, life has never been easy. But in the last decade, it has become even tougher.

“The community has suffered at the hands of the multinational corporations and at the hands of poor government policies,” says Dr. Laila Iskandar, head of CID Consulting, a group that has supported development projects in the Zabbaleen community for 15 years.

“However, they have managed to improve their housing stock, send their kids to school and expand their recycling markets in spite of the culling of the pigs, their exclusion from the current formal contracts and their harassment by police. It is a true testimony to their perseverance, resilience and grit.”

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