Cairo's Christian Ragmen, Unlikely Inventors Of Eco-Waste System

Young Zabbaleen in Manshiyat Naser, aka Garbage City
Young Zabbaleen in Manshiyat Naser, aka Garbage City
Marion Guénard

CAIRO — “Have you seen this? The streets are so filthy, it’s disgusting!”

Suzie Greiss doesn’t even live in one of Cairo’s notoriously poor corners, but rather in the middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis, where the head of Egypt’s Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) says she can no longer stand the filth that has taken over the streets of the Egyptian capital these last few years.

In 2012, now-deposed President Mohamed Morsi used the situation as a campaign argument, saying he would clean up the town in a maximum of 100 days. He failed. “There’s only one solution: putting the Zabbaleen back in the heart of the process of garbage pickup and treatment,” Greiss says.

The Zabbaleen are Christians from Upper Egypt. Nicknamed “Cairo’s ragmen,” they settled in the outskirts of the city in the 1940s. With extremely poor backgrounds, they organized their keep around garbage collection, before taking up recycling in the early 1980s. With the help of NGOs and notably the APE, they equipped themselves with machines capable of recycling plastic, cardboard, paper and metal. Organic waste was left to the pigs that every family kept in their backyards. Animal feces was sent to a compost factory in the outskirts of Cairo to be transformed and sold to farmers.

9,000 tons of waste per day

Today, the Zabbaleen pick up around 9,000 tons of waste per day, almost two-thirds of the 15,000 tons that the 17 million Cairo residents throw out on a daily basis. But it is an essential role that has never been officially acknowledged by the Egyptian authorities.

Moqattam Hill in Cairo — Photo: Matthias Feilhauer

“It’s an aberration,” says Environment Minister Leila Iskandar, who was appointed after Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. “Over the years, the Zabbaleen have created an efficient, viable and profitable ecosystem, with a waste recycling capacity of almost 100%. It’s a source of employment for youth and women, who are the first victims of unemployment in Egypt. We must rely on this local organization.” The minister has worked for several years in different associations in the working-class neighborhood of Manshiyat Naser — also known as "Garbage City" — where 65,000 Zabbaleen live.

Iskandar has chosen to act in direct opposition to the previous governments’ policies, which, for years, marginalized the Christian minority and their work. In 2003, then-President Hosni Mubarak’s ultraliberal regime had turned to multinational companies for waste removal.

“This system is not at all adapted to Cairo, where the inhabitants are used to their garbage being picked up in the buildings’ floors,” Greiss says. “They didn’t have the reflex to bring their waste down to the dumpsters set up for that purpose. The dumpsters then became a target for thieves. Most people kept on paying the Zabbaleen informally, who went up to get the garbage. The inhabitants complained because they also had to pay for the foreign companies.”

The most disastrous measure of all was the mass pig culling in the spring of 2009, to prevent swine flu. “The World Health Organization kept telling the government that the pigs had nothing to do with the epidemic,” Greiss recalls. “The decision was made in 24 hours. In 15 days, 300,000 pigs were slaughtered. It was absurd.” For the ragmen, the loss of income was considerable.

“Each family had at least a dozen beasts. Selling a pig could earn them around 1,080 euros,” says Ezzat Naem, head of the Zabbaleen union. “It allowed them to have money in times of need. The ragmen’s revenue was divided by two.”

Iskandar says that by making the choice they did, Egyptian authorities voluntarily destroyed an ideal ecological system. “After the pig culling, it was no longer possible to recycle the organic waste,” Iskandar adds. Food leftovers then started rotting in Cairo’s gutters.

“We invented the eco-city system”

The aim now is to formalize the work of the Zabbaleen in the waste treatment process. Under the supervision of the Ministry of the Environment and the Zabbaleen union, 44 local disposal companies — which have a workforce of 1,000 families — have officially been recognized. In a month, they will take over a branch of Arab Constructors, an Egyptian company that dropped its contract with Cairo to ensure waste removal in the south of the city.

The minister also aims to develop a selective management between organic and non-organic waste, by conducting an awareness-raising campaign with the population. “Of course, it will take time,” Iskandar says, admitting that she does not yet have the hundreds of thousands of euros necessary to carry out the project. “For the first six months, we want to provide a free service because the Cairo inhabitants are sick of paying for nothing for years.”

Ezzat Naem waves off a swarm of flies buzzing above his head, steps over bags full of garbage, before reaching his office at the Zabbaleen union. This activist, in his fifties, has spent his life in dumpsters without seeing the slightest improvement in his working conditions. This time, he wants to believe in a revolution. “We’ve always been considered incompetent, unable to manage such a big city’s waste. But we invented the eco-city system.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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