Sanaa Malik is humming while she makes her way through her work sorting the piles of garbage that line the dirt pathway leading to her apartment building. She is one of the 50,000 or so zabbaleen (trash collectors) who live in the sprawling Garbage City neighborhood under the Moqattam Cliffs on the edge of Cairo. In the lap of her floral-print abaya, with her bare hands, Sanaa, 34, deftly separates plastic, glass, metal, and paper waste from fruit and vegetable peels and other food scraps to be fed to the variety of livestock her family raises on the roof of a shorter, adjoining building. Her 11-year-old daughter Heidi is sorting at her side but then stops and leads me up the littered stairwell to the roof in order to gleefully reveal a secret: their animal farm even includes pigs, prohibited by law since the government slaughtered most of them in order to clean up the area under the pretense of the H1N1 virus scare in 2009.
Once sorted, the cracked koshary containers, sticky soda bottles, dented cooking oil cans—any nonfood items—are stored in the building’s garage to be later shredded, melted, burned, and sold in bulk for profit by Sanaa’s brother-in-laws. They are the ones who collected all this trash from homes throughout Cairo with their own pickup trucks at nominal cost to residents, and almost no cost to the government.