As the sun comes up, the men go out from Garbage City and into the streets of Cairo. Some walk alone, carrying empty plastic sacks over their shoulders. Some drive trucks whose bare beds will soon be piled high with waste. Others are already returning with the trash they collected overnight. They heap it in front of their homes, where the women will sort it amid the rats and flies.
These men and women are known as zabbaleen, literally, “garbage people.” The name evokes not only their work as the ragpickers of Cairo, but also their faith. Almost all of the fifty thousand residents of this neighborhood are Christian. More than the trash they collect, the God they kneel to makes them objects of contempt.
As if to compensate for the de facto prohibition of Christian images elsewhere in Cairo, every building in Garbage City seems to bear some proclamation of Christian faith. Walls are adorned with a verse of Scripture, or a pale Italianate Madonna dissolving into clouds, or a Christ drawing men toward his Sacred Heart. (Popular devotions, like so much of pop culture, seem to spread from west to east.) The overwhelming stench is occasionally interrupted by the smell of grilled pork.