Another Man’s Gold

We were definitely lost. We had been driving around the Cairo neighborhood for about twenty minutes, barely sliding past other cars on crooked streets not meant to hold two lanes of traffic. At least we knew that we were in the right place. There was trash everywhere. Not strewn about the streets haphazardly, but stuffed in massive sacks and piled ten feet high on trucks or stacked in warehouses. Every doorway seemed to lead to a room filled with trash; either newly arrived or in the process of being sorted and separated.

This was “Garbage City”, one of the communities of zaballeen, or garbage people, and we had come for a tour by a local. After many concerned phone calls and confused directions, we eventually met our guide Hanna. He had grown up here and started by telling us how everything began.

The community started with a couple of poor farming families who saw that they could make a living by collecting a portion of Cairo’s garbage and recycling it. They went out at night with donkey carts, hauling the garbage back to their homes for processing. Soon they invited other family members, slowly bought trucks and after thirty years the fledgling communities around Cairo had grown to host over 60,000 people who have set up their own power and water lines and live in multistory concrete buildings.

Recently featured in an award winning documentary, Garbage Dreams, this vibrant community is now one of several that lives off recycling the 14,000 tons of garbage produced by Cairo every day. Hanna estimates that every ton of garbage supports about seven jobs: two to pick it up, three to sort it and two more to process the materials before they are resold.

What makes these communities stand out is that they are able to recycle about 80% of the garbage that they collect, more than triple the rate of most Western companies! Plastics, paper, aluminum cans, pipes, bags, just about everything is sorted and either reprocessed into another usable material or resold to factories around Cairo.

In the past, organic waste was fed to the community’s large pig population, which would then be sold for a profit. As Muslims are religiously forbidden from breeding or eating pigs, the zaballeen, who are 90% Coptic Christians, have been given a largely uncontested spot as the city’s garbage collectors. This was a major part of their livelihood. All this changed in April 2009 however, when the Egyptian Parliament ordered the culling of over 300,000 pigs amidst fears of the H1N1 virus. This decision was a huge financial blow to the zaballeen and largely criticized in the international community, as there was general agreement that pigs do not transmit H1N1.

Despite this setback, the zeballeen continue their work. We were first shown to a center that trains the women of the neighborhood how to make paper and rugs from recycled materials. I was under the apparently naive impression that you could only use old paper to make new paper, but it soon became clear that is not the case, as jeans and even onions were added into the mix to give the new paper a unique texture and color. The result is beautiful handmade cards, bags, books and lampshades, some pressed with flowers and decorated as well.

For the cloth, rugs are made out of discarded clothing on huge looms and women are also trained to sew beautiful quilts from other fabric, work they can do at home, allowing them to make an income while still watching their children. Similar schools exist for boys as well, both providing a recycling based-income and tangible skills for those living in the neighborhood.

Hanna then took us to the mountain churches, which are literally carved out of the rock, the largest of which can hold over 10,000 people. Along the walls of the cliff are various pictures and writings chiseled into the rock face by one dedicated Polish sculptor who has worked there for the past twenty-five years!

Most interesting of all however, were the projects Hanna himself was working on. Although he had grown up sorting and cleaning trash that was brought in, he had the opportunity to work with an inspired American PhD student who dreamt of bringing solar power and biogas to Garbage City. Working together Hanna and Thomas started to build small systems out of the recycled material that could provide nearly free hot water and natural cooking gas to the receiving family.

Although since Thomas moved to Germany for a teaching job, Hanna has remained inspired. He took us up to his roof where he had installed a solar water heater and a biogas drum that used organic waste from his house and produces enough methane in a day to fuel a standard stove for two hours! He pointed out the other installations across the neighborhood and told us his dream to make Garbage City “a model for green energy in Egypt.”

The example set by Garbage City is even more incredible when we look closer at what happens in our own borders. New York City produces about four pounds of waste per person per day, more than any other city in the world. This comes out to over 16,000 tons per day, more than Cairo, which is twice its size! And yet the US itself only recycles about 11% of its waste, preferring to send most of it to landfills instead. Although it might not be easy to admit, we could learn a lot from Cairo’s zaballeen.


Baptism by Fire

It is 100 degrees outside. I started sweating before I even got out of the subway and drank half a liter of water before our entire group had arrived. We clustered in groups under the shade of stunted trees planted in the middle of the sidewalk. Anything to get out of Cairo’s baking June sun.

But we had a good reason to leave the sanctuary of our air-conditioned apartments. Today is Cairo’s first batizado. For those of you who do not know Portuguese (I certainly don’t), batizado means baptism, which in capoeira means that today is the day that we earn our first belts. Our capoeira teacher in Cairo invited professors from France, Oman and Sharm al-Sheikh to fly in for our initiation ceremony followed by two days of workshops.

I had been eagerly and nervously looking forward to today since I got back to Cairo but I had not thought about the weather when I saw the date was set for mid-June. But despite the heat, about thirty of us gathered in the courtyard of a French school waiting for the professors to arrive. Luckily it is only 80 or 90 in the shade, by Egyptian standards, completely normal.

The music really began when the professors arrived. Two large drums pounded out a deep rhythm of bap boom bap, bap boom bap which was followed by ten tambourines, a bell and ten others clapping along. At the heart of the music was the unique twang of the barimbau and the rise and fall of the professor’s voice as he led us through a number of call and response songs in Portuguese. I am sure that the nuns who still lived at the school were wondering what the heck was going on in their courtyard.

We then split up into two groups, each making up one half of our large circle, with those earning the green (first level) belts on one side and those earning the green-yellow belts (second level) on the other. While the music continued, we would then pair off, one beginner playing with one advanced student in the middle of the circle, finishing to let the next pair begin. The kicks, cartwheels and handstands, timed to the rhythm of the music, warmed us up for the peak of the batizado. It was time to get our belts.

I have never seriously practiced any other martial art but I appreciated our professor’s perspective on the belts. “Do not get caught up with them,” one told us, “you cannot throw your belt into the ring and expect it to fight for you. They are markers of your ability but they should not be your limits. It is much better to have someone see you play and think, ‘wow, they only have that belt,’ instead of getting a belt and going no higher because you think you are so good.” Be humble and play well they told us, you are much more important than your belt.

But it was time. Those earning green belts (myself included) went first. Each person would play with a professor who would enter the roda (circle) with the student’s new belt tied around their arm, leg, chest or head as if saying, “here it is. Come and get it!”

The interaction between two people in the roda is called “playing” and I think that is the best way to describe it. Each person is not only moving along with the music, but also dancing with their partner, weaving in and out of their kicks or mirroring their cartwheels. Above all, everyone has fun. You can tell the professors pretty easily because they often have the biggest smiles on their faces. :)

When it was my turn, I faced the professor (who had my belt tied around his forehead) in front of the main group of instruments. We started by both cartwheeling into the center and then began the familiar swaying steps of the jenga. We traded spins and kicks, with the professor pressing me but also allowing me room to show off a little of what I had learned. At the end however, he deftly swept my feet out from under me in mid-kick, landing me on the ground and ending our match. Each round ended this way, with the professor finding some way to humble the newly graduated student. It is a ceremony that seemed to say at once, “congratulations on your belt, but you still have much to learn.”

The students earning the next level belt were much more interesting to watch with both students and professors kicking faster, ducking quicker and performing much more impressive acrobatics. As a surprise, our teacher in Cairo also obtained his next belt, but he had to earn it by playing with each one of the foreign professors in an incredible show of skill that at times caused me to stop and stare, missing the beat of the music.

The day ended with a final open roda where everyone freely played, all sporting their new belts. At the end of the day, the main professor spoke to us and said, “I am delighted to be here and I thank you all for coming and for inviting us. The students are the most important thing in capoeira, without them, we teachers are nothing.”

And with that, four hours and at least three liters of water later, the batizado ended. I spent so much of the time clapping to the music and I was actually sore from it the next day. I didn’t even know it was possible to be sore from clapping!

But we had earned our first belts. We were tired, sore and drenched in sweat, but it was worth it. If we are lucky, maybe the next batizado in Cairo will have air conditioning. :P

Kwaheri Nairobi, Ahlan Cairo

A week after we returned from our sojourn to Uganda, I received an email from the Director of the Egyptian Fulbright Office saying that he was “delighted to welcome us ‘home’”.  It appeared that our time in East Africa had finally come to an end.

The wonderful children of our gracious hosts

While we were looking forward to returning to Cairo, it was not easy to leave our new friends in Nairobi. The local Baha’i community welcomed us so warmly, especially the Soltani family, who we had met shortly after arriving, and who graciously hosted us for almost a month and a half, despite our having no idea exactly how long we would be staying with them. In fact, with all the invitations to return, it seems that next time we are evacuated to Kenya, will have no problem finding a place to stay!

I certainly miss the ever-present greenery that definitely did not greet me when I stepped off the plane in Cairo. And we also miss some of the freedoms we enjoyed in Kenya. It was hard to pack up our shorts and tank tops, knowing that we would not be wearing them outside again until we returned the States, no matter how hot the Egyptian summer turns out to be.

The one thing I will not miss however, is being called “mzungu” almost everywhere I went in Kenya. Although the word technically means “someone who moves around” in Swahili, it seems to have become synonymous with “white person” and is used liberally by everyone from hawkers on the street to small children playing in alleys. Coming from the US, where race, and especially the names one group gives to another, is a bit more charged and tense, it was hard to get used to. In an effort to communicate my frustration, I once responded to a man by saying “mwafrika, sasa?” which is the linguistic opposite of “mzungu” and means roughly “African, what’s up?” He didn’t quite know how to take that :)

All things considered, I think that we will be coming back to Kenya. Next time however, it hopefully won’t be amidst a revolution.


Being evacuated from a country makes returning a somewhat odd experience. Some of the first things you notice such as, “there are no longer tanks in the streets” or “the burn marks on the side of police station are gone” and “you can find bread and milk in the supermarket” tell you a lot about the state of the country when you left.

Other signs of the recent unrest still remain however. The graffiti that sprang up during the revolution calling for Mubarak’s removal can still be seen on many walls throughout the city and almost every subway car has the “Mubarak” stop on the map scratched or blacked out, often replaced with “martyrs” scrawled in thick black permanent marker.

There are even some small pockets of protesters in the streets. Around a hundred or so people continue to protest in Tahrir square daily, (with an even larger protest this past Friday) calling for the worst offenders of the previous regime to be brought to justice. The success of the revolution seems to also have emboldened those with long-held and unexpressed grievances to take to the streets and demand change. I recently passed a mass of chanting people blocking a main road with signs and when I looked up expecting to see that they were in front of a police office or the Ministry of the Interior, I instead found that them protesting in front of the Egyptian Academy for Science and Research. It seems that they have had enough of the long years of study that result in a job with a meager salary.

There are even those who have seen the vastly popular protests as a great business opportunity. Tahrir square is now covered with men and women selling a variety of red, white and black hats and pins or shirts with “I <3 Egypt” printed proudly on the front. Even the American University of Cairo Press recently came out with a “Tahrir!” calendar you can purchase and hang on your post-revolution wall. Although some of these items may have existed before, there is certainly an enlivened sense of national pride that has made them vastly more popular.

Not everyone is profiting from the revolution however, and among those hardest struck is the tourist industry. We experienced this personally by being forced to cancel a trip to Upper Egypt because of our evacuation, but we were certainly not the only tourists affected.

Lots of boats, no passengers...

When we returned to our travel agent, whose office is on Tahrir Square (a great spot for business until two months ago), he told us that he was closed for a full month. Once we finally made it up to Aswan and Luxor, we were struck by how few foreigners we saw, especially since this is supposed to by Egypt’s high season. One of our guides told us that of the 500+ boats that normally cruise the Nile packed with tourists, only fifteen are currently operating, a statistic we could easily believe as we were almost always the only customers in every restaurant we visited.

Despite the heavy blow to Egypt’s economy, people seem to be happier. The shouted greeting of “welcome to Egypt!” that we commonly hear walking down the street seems warmer, as if people are telling us “welcome back, we missed you”. There is also a new sense of vitality here, of greater productivity. I have seen areas that had not changed for months now suddenly have shops under construction, repaired sidewalks or new carts dotting the road.

Everyone is also constantly reassuring us that it is ok to be back in Egypt, that things are back to normal. One example that comes particularly to mind is of the woman who owns a vegetable stand near our apartment. After seeing me for the first time in two months, she happily welcomed me back saying, “Egypt is good now, in fact, it’s better.”

In the Eye of the Storm

I remember being a little disappointed when found out that I would miss the most interesting events on Egypt’s political calendar during my year as a Fulbright grantee, as the presidential elections were scheduled for after our departure. I have always been a little envious of friends telling stories of their time abroad witnessing this historic election or that momentous event. I wanted to have one of those adventures, to be on the ground when the path of a country’s history takes a new or unprecedented turn.

Having just been evacuated from Egypt following weeks of mass protests aimed at removing the ruling regime, I can say that the adventure did not turn out quite as romantically as I had imagined. My experience instead followed the seemingly universal truth that many of the best stories or most rewarding experiences are often the ones that are the least enjoyable when you are living through them.

Specifically, adventures are much less fun when you are actively fearing for your life. At first this was true in the very immediate sense, hearing gunshots outside our friend’s apartment and reports of prisoners breaking out of a jail located only two kilometers away, scaring us enough to push couches and chairs in front of our door in a makeshift barricade. It also manifested itself in a fear of impending calamity. In such a quickly changing situation with little sure information, we were frantically moving from one precautionary measure to the next, whether it was stockpiling water because we heard that workers left the purification plants, buying extra food due to reports that major ports had been closed and petrol was scarce, or calling friends to warn them of an impending mobile phone shutdown after a tip from someone whose uncle worked in the government. We were never quite sure what was going to happen, but the knowledge that anything could happen made every danger much more real and provided fertile ground for our imaginations to run away with us.

This was all made worse when the Egyptian government started restricting means of communication, starting first with Twitter and Facebook, then cutting off the internet itself and finally taking down the mobile phone network, leaving everyone to revert to long-unused landlines. Having grown up in a generation in America where instant communication and unrestricted contact with the outside world is taken for granted, being forcefully and completely cut off felt like being slowly suffocated. Losing the ability to instantly reach out to and connect with friends, family and coworkers across the world was like losing one of my senses, as if I had been struck blind, deaf or mute. Even those who did not often use the internet were greatly frustrated by their right to access it being taken away.

The short period of time where we were part of the small minority that had internet access (having moved to a friend’s apartment) led to a feeling of responsibility that we had to get the word out. We frantically posted photos, sent pictures to news organizations, contacted local papers and blogged our experiences, as if we had to make up for those whose right to express themselves was denied.

With or without all our means of communication, we began to live and breathe the crisis, glued to the TV, computer or phone, closely following every new event, passionately discussing its implications and continually guessing as to how the situation would unfold. Unrelated events seem irrelevant, leaving us impatient when the news stations began to report on happenings elsewhere in the world and even a long-awaited email notifying me of my acceptance into a graduate program seemed out of place, as it if did not relate to my life at that moment because it did not relate to Egypt. Other habits also began to fall away as previously regular exercise stopped, daily prayers became shorter and meals were eaten at odd times as our day began to revolve around following the news.


The increasing size and intensity of the protests shocked not only outside observers, but Egyptians as well. With two thirds of the Egyptian population born during Mubarak’s reign, many had never experienced real political change or even the hope of such change. The protests shook them out of old habits, opening their eyes to the possibility of taking part in the recreation of their country. This shock was strikingly clear when we drove by the still smoking headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party (burned out the night before) and not a single person honked as masses of cars wove their way across to bridge with every driver pointing and staring. In a city known for its high levels of noise and especially from cars honking, this was an incredible event. People in Tahrir Square (the center of the protests in Cairo) also began to create their own community, reinvigorated by a newfound sense of national pride and ownership, with some even starting to pick up trash and jointly designating sections of the square as smoking and non-smoking, both events that I would never have imagined to see in Cairo.

In the end, a time of great crisis is also one of great opportunity, where the worst, but also the best, in people is brought to light. During the protests, the darker side of the human nature most often wore the uniform of a police officer or carried the identification card of the secret police. The brutal repression used against the protestors has led to over 300 deaths and numerous stories and videos of beatings, torture and unlawful abductions. Although the image of the police here has never been a particularly bright one, the protests saw levels of brutality that have shocked many, especially because the aggression seems to be ordered if not encouraged by the ruling powers.

Although the violence and looting is what most often dominates the news, the crisis here has also provided many opportunities for man’s higher nature to show itself. The mass looting led to the organization of neighborhood watches where men from neighboring building took up makeshift weapons, set up barricades and organized shifts to protect their neighborhoods. This happened all over Egypt, as neighbors (many who met for the first time) came together in an incredible display of solidarity, united by a common threat. Protestors in Tahrir and elsewhere also demonstrated an inspiring sense of unity, strikingly visible when they formed a human chain to protect the Egyptian National Museum from looting or when Coptic Christians formed a chain around Muslims praying in Tahrir to protect them from the police. These expressions of unity and solidarity were echoed abroad and many of us in Egypt were touched by the many many expressions of love and concern that poured into our inboxes or covered our Facebook walls.


The level of sacrifice on behalf of the people protesting is a testament to their spirit and their incredible desire to be freed from the oppression that has plagued them for decades. In a country with such widespread poverty, taking a day off work may mean giving up a day’s meals and yet still people turned out in the millions, despite the clears threat of violence and some even passionately claimed that they were ready to die for their country, to give their lives so that others may see a better Egypt. There is a deadly seriousness about these protests, one that forces you to see the events not as simply fun or entertaining but as a very real struggle for liberation, one that is being fought daily on the streets of Cairo and virtual avenues of Twitter and Facebook.

There is no way to adequately sum up the events of the past weeks in all their complexity and even those of us who have left the country are still vainly trying to process our own experiences while half our mind is still in Egypt, hearing the chanting and reading the ever-evolving posters and signs in Tahrir. It is clear however, that Egypt will never be the same after these protests, but it is not yet clear what it is that will change. For my part, I hope that it is the sense of unity, solidarity, sacrifice and pride that overcome the corruption, repression and greed that have afflicted this country for so long. I hope that I will be able to say that I was in Egypt at the start of a revolution that profoundly changed the country for the better and gave regular Egyptians a voice in their own future. Like many around the world however, I will just have to keep hitting “refresh” to find out.

Apartment Hunting in Cairo

We had almost everything sorted out before we arrived, except the slightly important point of where we were going to live. In some ways, looking for an apartment in Cairo is just like looking for one in New York, it is hard to do it in advance, the quality of the apartments will be anywhere between “built 50 years ago and never updated” to “just refurbished with Paris in mind” and there is even a Cairo Craig’s list.

Our Bedroom

We arrived with the idea that we wanted to live in an area called Garden City, which we heard was green, quiet and within walking distance from our language school and future work places. We even had a very specific idea of what type of apartment we wanted (something like our apartment in the US but with balconies!) and even a price we thought we should pay.

Unfortunately, finding our dream apartment was not as easy as we hoped. Over the course of four days, we looked at twelve different apartments, spoke with five different samasir (brokers) and even resorted to wandering around different neighborhoods asking the bowabs (a person who sits outside of an apartment building and helps its residents with whatever they might need) if there were any open apartments in their building. Nothing quite matched what we were looking for. However, as we had gradually learned more about the different neighborhoods, we became a little bit more open-minded and broadened our search.

Our Living Room

We were still living out of a hotel room when we were able to meet with the local Baha’is, one of which we connected with through a friend in Brooklyn before we arrived. We went out for dinner with a group of them who turned out to be the sweetest people we had met so far – incredibly friendly, welcoming and really fun! It came out during our conversation that we were still looking for an apartment and to our surprise, one of the people at the table said that he actually had an apartment not located in one of the neighborhoods we were looking at, but we could stay there while we were continuing our search!

He picked us up the next day and took us to a neighborhood called Ma’adi, which is south of downtown Cairo but still connected by one of the two metro lines that run through the city. It turned out that the apartment was perfect! It has a large kitchen, bedroom and living room as well as an extra room and an incredible balcony where we could sit and eat breakfast. We decided that this would be a wonderful home for the next year. To top it all off, our new friend/landlord is an Arabic professor at the American University of Cairo and said that we should just give him a call if we ever need help with our Arabic work!

As we are settling into our new home and looking back at our first crazy week, it seems that our apartment search was much more a process of letting go of our attachment to exactly what type of apartment we thought we wanted and opening up to the possibility that there was a place that we were supposed to live, one that provides what we need now and in ways we might not yet see. Although we had reservations about the neighborhood beforehand, as we heard that Ma’adi was full of Americans, it turns out the foreign portion is farther south and we are the only non-Egyptians we have seen in our area, but yet still not so far from peanut butter and Heinz ketchup. Best of all, there is a Baha’i community close by that welcomes our participation.

Our Balcony

When we work in a direction that is best for us, we receive confirmations that we are on the right path or meet continued resistance if we are not. It is unfortunately my nature that when a door seems closed, I will try and force it open instead of trying another that might open much more easily and lead me to when I should be. As this apartment search showed us, once we let go of our attachments, doors swing open, in this case literally.