omar h rahman


(Photos by Omar H. Rahman)

On the day of the first Egyptian presidential election, as millions anxiously stood in line outside polling stations across the country, I was up to my neck in refuse in a place called Garbage City. I was looking for a church where it is rumored that an Egyptian priest performs mass exorcisms. 

Spending any amount of time in Cairo, one learns to cope with the dirt and grime. In a city of 17 million people living on top of each other, you become accustomed to the blanket of smog, car exhaust, and dust that inevitably settles on everything. But Garbage City, an urban area of unfinished brick buildings on Cairo’s outskirts, must be in the running for the filthiest place on earth. Imagine a dump transplanted onto a city where people eat, sleep, and procreate and you begin to get an inkling of the reality of Garbage City.

In 1969, Egypt’s revolutionary pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser took all of Cairo’s trash collectors—an occupation traditionally held by Egypt’s marginalized Coptic Christian minority—and consolidated them on the outskirts of Cairo at the foothills of Mount Muqattim, a desert area with no running water, sewage or electricity. What has emerged since is a trash city, literally oozing from windows and doors. Whole families of garbage men, garbage women, and garbage children work together sorting and recycling the endless waste. The smell and presence of flies in the sultry weather is enough to make you wretch. You wonder how human beings can live this way until you realize that even a life spent among the trash eventually becomes normal.