In bare, weakly sun-lit rooms nestled under Cairo’s Mokattam Hills, known locally as Garbage City, walls are littered with religious artifacts and most floors strewn in heaps of trash, waiting for sorters. At the break of dawn men collect up to 13,000 tons of waste daily, roving among the winding streets balanced atop trucks and donkey carts. Women and children will sift through and eventually recycle an astonishing 85% of material gathered. Bits of plastic and cloth become hangers and rugs. Such efficient figures are unmatched internationally. These are the Zabbaleen, a community 35,000 strong surviving by a blend of salvage, industrious ingenuity, and ancient faith. A clearly marginalized minority among a 90% Muslim megalopolis, Cairo’s street sweepers are Coptic Orthodox Christians. They are the present day picture of a people with a dazzlingly rich church history. In the 1950s many migrated north into the city as poor farmers and pig raisers, taking on tasks unfit for Muslims to lawfully carry out themselves. In this way, they have nearly become Egypt’s untouchables while providing a completely vital and self-sustaining service.
The 1980s saw a flurry of fascinated researchers, non-profits, and clergy raise up schools and care centers, sending ripples of pride and goodwill through the Coptic community. Still an undercurrent of uncertainty exists with the government only recognizing their status as that of scavenging squatters. Threats of eviction and relocation persist. While attempts have been made to replace them, foreign contractors have failed to match the unrivaled ability of Zabbaleen effectiveness. This tale calls to mind the natural ebbing of empires and shifting social tides. It is a story that reverberates in every corner of the globe, of a people excavating excess and turning it into just enough. A method honed by necessity, a treasure in trash hunt, crumbs from the table cascading down as daily bread. Yet these families profess by their creed to be heirs of unfathomable inheritance. I was drawn to these seeming dichotomies of visible reality and unseen conviction, manifestations of piety and willpower. There is a strong sense of industry and ingenuity, much of it propelled by the truth of a believer’s new-found identity in Christ
Father Samaan is a prominent and beloved figure in the community. In a recent documentary produced by Diane Vermooten, Father Samaan recounts his first attempts to reach out to the Zabbaleen with the gospel nearly 30 years ago, “When I went to invite the people to come and hear about God, they would hide in the pigsties. So I used to go in with sandals and couldn’t get my feet out of the mud. Then God told me to use boots. The second thing He told me was to take a torch because it was very dark. So I wore my trousers tucked into my boots, took my torch to find them. It was not easy for them to come. And God told me to take their hand, and kiss their hand. Then kiss their head. And if they did not want to come still, I would take shoes and put it on their feet. That would really shake them. But then they would come with me. All this I learned from the Holy Spirit who told me how to work in this area.” He clearly sees the unique potential of the Zabbaleen in Cairo, “We cannot reach all of the people because we are so limited. We only have Masses and meetings in our churches. But those garbage collectors can reach all the people. God has chosen them to be a blessing for Egypt…when one of them knows Christ, they become a light to the world.”
The stench of refuse and bleating goats fades below on the steep climb to their church. The largest in the Middle East, it seats 20,000 and is chiseled entirely out of the hill’s gleaming limestone rock face. Its location is supposedly an ancient excavation site quarried by the pharaohs during the building of the great pyramids at Giza. Duck into the cool silent caves, ornately decorated, and witness what knits the Zabbaleen together—not poverty but promise. These are remnants of those who have literally carved an identity for themselves out of stone. The Lord has done absolutely amazing things in this city with countless devoted individuals sacrificing themselves to see hospitals, schools, and businesses birthed and thriving. Beneath the more visible social improvements, quiet miracles of love have transformed many hearts. Worth, dignity, and hope have come through Jesus Christ, and the Zabbaleen surely bear his image.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alexa Wan recently graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a degree in Art. Having grown up in dozens of homes overseas, she is most excited about undertaking documentary projects celebrating the global church.