If we were still there, today it would be the 10th day of the month of Bashons 1726, as the Coptic calendar lags 284 years behind ours. But we were in the Coptic quarter of Cairo at the end of the month they call Paremhotep or Paremhat (in Arabic برمهات Baramhat, that is in our early April). The Coptic calendar basically comes from the ancient Egyptian one with three seasons instead of four and thirteen months instead of twelve. They begin the year with the Feast of Neyrouz on the 1st of the month of Thout (Tut, 11 or 12 September). But the most important thing is that the day we were there was Easter, the great feast of the Coptic church, and all churches were arranged for the celebration.
Convent of St. George (Mar Girgis)
We wanted to see a lot of Cairo and had very little time for it, so it was a kind of fast fly through the streets of the neighborhood, looking forward to returning one day to stroll them more slowly and to understand them better.
When these streets were laid out, Cairo was only the remains of an old Roman fortress called Babylon. The bases of the future city were laid much later by the Arab leader ’Amr ibn al-’As (640). In the area now known as Misr al-Qadima there has always lived a well established Christian population. Today the Copts are about 10% of the Egyptian population. It is contradictory that although they are powerful and influential in this society, nevertheless they have a marginal group that inhabits the lowest niche of Cairo. The zabbaleen are the (unofficial) scavengers of a city without garbage collection service, one of the most chaotic and dirtiest cities in the world.
For a long time we have wanted to see the film Marina of the Zabbaleen, by the Egyptian director Engi Wassef Egypt, the first film about the life of this complex human group. They are almost invisible on the streets of Cairo, and they are completely invisible for the rest of the world. In May last year, in response to the “epidemic” of swine flu, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of all pigs in the country. For nearly a century the zabbaleen have raised pigs as a system of recycling the thousands of tons of organic waste generated by the Cairene population. The zabbaleen thus became the main victims of the flu by destroying a key part of their system of work and livelihood.
However, a proof that the international community begins to discover this corner of the world is a new film about the zabbaleen, also directed by a woman, Mai Iskander, which has already won a number of prestigious awards: Garbage Dreams (2009).