Peter Hessler writes: In Cairo, my family lives on the ground floor of an old building, in a sprawling, high-ceilinged apartment with three doors to the outside. One door opens onto the building’s lobby, another leads to a small garden, and the third is solely for the use of the zabal, or garbageman, who is named Sayyid Ahmed. It’s in the kitchen, and when we first moved to the apartment, at the beginning of 2012, the landlady told me to deposit my trash on the fire escape outside the door at any time. There was no pickup schedule, and no preferred container; I could use bags or boxes, or I could simply toss loose garbage outside. Sayyid’s services had no set fee. He wasn’t a government employee, and he had no contract or formal job. I was instructed to pay him whatever I believed to be fair, and if I pleased I could pay him nothing at all.
Many things in Egypt don’t work very well. Traffic is bad, and trains get cancelled; during the summer, it’s not unusual to have five electricity blackouts in a single day. One year, we couldn’t buy bottled water for months, because the plant that produced the water somehow caught fire. Since we moved into the apartment, the country has cycled through three constitutions, three Presidents, four Prime Ministers, and more than seven hundred members of parliament. But there hasn’t been a single day when the trash wasn’t cleared outside my kitchen door. As a whole, Cairo’s waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it’s largely informal. In a sprawling, chaotic city of more than seventeen million, zabaleen like Sayyid have managed to develop one of the most efficient municipal recycling networks in the world.
At first, I never saw Sayyid working, because he cleared my fire escape before dawn. After three months of this invisible service, he approached me one day on the street and asked if I had previously lived in China. I wasn’t sure how he knew this—we had chatted a few times, but never for long. He said that he had an important question about Chinese medicine.
That evening, he arrived at eight o’clock sharp, dressed in his work clothes. He’s not much taller than five feet, but his shoulders are broad and his legs are bowed from hauling weight. Usually, his clothes are several sizes too large, and his shoes flap like those of a clown, because he harvests them from the garbage of bigger men. At my apartment, he produced a small red box decorated with gold calligraphy. The Chinese labelling was elegant but evasive: the pills were described as “health protection products” that “promoted development and power.” [Continue reading…]