A few weeks ago I was in Cairo with a delegation from US Academics for Peace. Trite as it sounds, we had a fascinating driver. He was a Coptic Christian who applauded the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak and his coterie. He accompanied us to the huge and thrilling demonstrations of May 1 in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the democratic revolution, and he talked with us about events that have lately reached the press: the fear of military rule, the rise in crime, the lack of tourists, the collapse of social services, and -- most strikingly -- the indifference of the selectively present police to assaults upon Christians and other minorities. When we were alone, our driver made me a proposal. He said that if I promised not to mention his name, and write about what I saw, he would take my wife and me on a little excursion to a neighborhood known as "the garbage village."
Cairo is a densely populated metropolis with about 18 million residents that is growing by 1000 residents per day. It's the largest city in Africa, and it's filthy. The banks of its many brooks, the crevices of its many streets, and even its richer sections are littered with refuse. Our driver noted that fact as we approached our destination. Upon entering the garbage village, hanging from a few buildings, we saw large banners with the faces of nine young men killed in assaults by Muslim mobs (that any number of imams later condemned). Above in the huge caverns of the adjacent mountains, newly adorned with immense carvings of Biblical scenes, churches were built that can hold 10,000 parishioners. These places of worship perhaps offer some solace. Nevertheless, they tower over an insult both to God and humanity.
Poverty has never subscribed to any particular faith. It works on Christians and Muslims alike. Nearly fourteen million residents of Cairo are "poor," four million don't have potable water, three million lack access to a sewage system, and two million are "destitute." But the degree of misery experienced by the 40,000 residents of this garbage village is something special. Its residents collect most of Cairo's trash. The overwhelming majority of them are Coptic Christians who originally raised pigs that fed on the garbage. Spurred by a wave of Islamic fanaticism and fear of swine flu, however, 300,000 animals were slaughtered in 2009 -- though no case of the disease was ever documented. Only a few diseased goats now wander about this garbage village composed of ramshackle houses, cheerless cafes, empty shops, and a commercial life powered by refuse. With the waste disposal system privatized, indeed, garbage freely follows the path of the commodity form. Carts dragged by emaciated donkeys, and ancient trucks, carry the trash into the village where families living in overstuffed apartments sort it, bind it, and prepare it for sale. The product is then taken to recycling plants and resold thereby creating more garbage in what amounts to a circular process highlighted by exploitation and despair.
Garbage blurs the line between public and private space. It sets the stage on which individuals play out their lives. Its stink fills the air that the garbage people breathe. It lures the swarming flies whose vast number blurs the vision. It carries the germs that produce the countless diseases. It intensifies the already searing heat that often reaches 110 and sparks fires here and there. Grungy children play in the garbage. Wives cook food, wash clothes, and give birth surrounded by garbage. Men work amid the garbage, smoke their hookahs amid the garbage, laugh and cry amid the garbage. Old people with vapid eyes watch listlessly as the garbage is stacked ever higher in the suffocating alleys. Everyone looks as if they are simply waiting to die amid the vermin and the stench and the heat and the dust.
But is the garbage village really such an affront to human dignity? Democratic revolution is underway: there is a new state to be built, a bureaucracy to be purged, an army to be dealt with. Many will say, albeit sadly, that the entire economy is a wreck and that there are issues more important that the plight of 40,000 garbage people. Others will insist that outrage is a product of alien attitudes and that it is illegitimate for outsiders to demand solutions: such poverty is -- after all "normal" in the region. Every city has its poor section, its slum, its ghetto. World travelers will surely note that worse (sic!) horrors can be found in the hellholes of Brazil, China, Congo, Darfur, India, Indonesia, or God knows where. An excuse always exists to avoid redressing the inexcusable. It doesn't take much to shift the viewer's gaze from the matter at hand. My memory of our driver and the garbage people is already growing dim. The only reminder is the lingering chill from the words written long ago by Bertolt Brecht:
And there are some who live in darkness
And there are others who live in light
And one sees those in the light
Those in the darkness disappear.
Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture as well as Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University. His books include Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (Columbia University Press).