The Zabaleen, literally “garbage people,” are a community of about 20,000 to 30,000 people who have been living in a Cairo slum since the middle of the 20th century. They support themselves by going door-to-door and collecting trash from residents all over the city at almost no charge.
Using donkey carts and old pickup trucks, the Zabaleen transport the garbage back to Mokattam village—dubbed “Garbage City.” There, up to 80 percent of the collected material is recycled. For contrast, Europe’s average municipal recycling rate is around 32 percent.
I recently spent six months in Cairo, and while there a colleague invited me to join him in visiting Garbage City. Initially, I was not interested in working as a photographer there, mostly because the slum has been largely documented. Still, it was an opportunity to see the slum with my own eyes. I packed my camera and wore my oldest clothes.
We had to stop a few taxis before one of them agreed to take us to Mokattam. Once there, we could not escape the pungent smell of rot mixed with burnt rubber. I felt that covering my nose with my scarf would be considered disrespectful for the inhabitants, so I instead opted for a cigarette—despite my being a nonsmoker.
Soon enough, I realized the smell would not be the most unbearable part of the experience. Around me, women and children sat on the floor sorting through trash and separating it into 16 different types. After these divisions, they sell the salvaged materials to factories and wholesalers. The remaining organic waste feeds pigs, whose meat will eventually be sold to tourist hotels.
My colleague and I discovered that recycling usually takes place in a large room, or the bottom of a house, where aluminum, plastic, and anything recyclable is melted and prepared to be sold. We saw men carrying enormous bags full of empty cans, and rooms with mountains of plastic containers and piles of paper. The faces of the inhabitants looked very tired, but many of them were still laughing hard.
I promised to never complain about my life again.
As the day was approaching its end, our guide insisted on showing us the church of Saint Simon, embedded in a cave. Ninety percent of the population of Garbage City is Coptic Christian, and they are deeply proud of this church. It is located on a ridge above Garbage City and considered the largest in the Middle East. Drained, we walked the dark streets to the top of the Mokattam hill.
Many people stood outside the church dressed in colorful dresses. Children were running around full of joy. A car pulled up toward the crowd just as some firecrackers exploded loudly. It was the celebration of a wedding.
Inside the church, the atmosphere of the ceremony was spiritual. Both the bride and the groom looked thrilled, and in many ways it seemed like any other wedding in the world. Then we all went back to the streets and walked to the party. The contrast between the sumptuous dresses and the landscape was striking. Rats lurked among the trash and the smell was once again vile, but the nuptial procession seemed not to notice and the unanimous happiness was tangible.
At this exact point, I realized that this was the story I wanted to tell, and this wedding would become one of many I would attend over the course of four months. Like most wedding ceremonies in Garbage City, this one was held in the middle of the street. By the time the couple reached the gathering, family and friends were waiting for them, the music was loud, and everybody was dancing. Someone fired a gun in the air and the party was incredibly noisy.
At most weddings in Garbage City, the couple traditionally sits on a platform where they are able to oversee and greet their guests as they arrive. Everybody is welcome to join the celebrations. Beers and a humble lunch are served at the tables.
It always surprised me how I could walk from one wedding procession to another on the same day. The community always seemed pleasantly surprised to see a foreign photographer at the weddings, and they welcomed me with warm smiles, food, and invitations to dance. The euphoric dancing went on for hours while the kids played with firecrackers.
Ultimately, what fascinated me most was how weddings in Garbage City marked a time when surroundings could be forgotten and simply replaced with hours of pure joy.
Erica Canepa is an Italian freelance documentary photographer and videographer. View more of her images on the Proof story “Photographing Inside the Gates of a Closed Community” as well as on her website.