The Town of Trash
The slum on the outskirts of Cairo, at the base of Mokattam Hill, is called Manshiyat Naser, but it is more commonly known as “Garbage City.”
Garbage City is a fully-functioning neighborhood, one filled with shops and homes and thousands of residents. But more noticeably, it is filled with garbage. One of the poorest areas of Cairo, there is no running water or electricity here, and the streets perpetually run with trash—the locals’ primary source of subsistence and income.
For decades, Garbage City’s residents, the zabbaleen, as they are called in Egyptian Arabic, have taken up a role as informal garbage collectors. The zabbaleen collect refuse from all over Cairo and bring it to Garbage City for sorting. In homes and on street corners here, men, women and children crouch to separate recyclable items and re-sellable clothing. Typically, each family focuses on one particular type of trash, whether it’s plastic bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard boxes or scraps of metal.
When there is this much trash in a place, it becomes not just a job, but part of the environment. Children play on piles of clothing and adults wade through plastic mountains to get to work.
Cairo’s zabbaleen are primarily Coptic Christians, a sizable minority who have a history of being ostracized by Islamist powers in the country. The country’s Christian population was both hopeful and fearful during the January 2011 revolution, although life improved little for them as political Islamists came to power. The Coptic community was scapegoated following the Army-led overthrow of the Islamist president this summer, leading to many attacks on Coptic churches. As political turmoil continues to plague the country, life goes on and little improves here in Garbage City.
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Born in Paris in 1979, Jonathan Alpeyrie moved to the United States in 1993. He has shot photographs for local Chicago newspapers, in the South Caucasus, Congo, the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. His work has appeared in The Sunday Times, Le Figaro magazine, ELLE, American Photo, Glamour, Aftenposten, Le Monde and BBC.