Requiem for pigs

The Egyptian revolution showed us how people with very different backgrounds could work together for one cause: to fight a totalitarian regime. But who were they? And how can the conflict between the Christians and the Muslims, which threatens the rise of a new democratic Egypt, be understood? The Egyptian writer Fawzia Assaad paints a portrait of the most oppressed of the oppressed: the impoverished Christian garbage collectors. 

December 14 2011 Text: Fawzia Assaad Translation from French: Carl G Liungman

The rich in Egypt are the richest in the world and the poor are among the world´s poorest people. To dream of living in the city gives poor people hope of a better future. They arrive in masses from the desert´s oases or the Nile valley villages. Christians and some Muslims.

To the illiterate Christians the British once proposed pig breeding, since to the Christians the Muslim distaste for pork does not bring with it any religious stigma. So the farmers who now became pig breeders settled in communities of their own on the outskirts of the city—encircling it to be better able to serve it. But from time to time, as the city grew—all the time expanding past its old borders—they were forced to move and build new homes. The land on which these poor people had built their homes soon became interesting for building contractors. Thus, by order of the Government they were constantly driven away to the capital´s new outskirts.

They built their new homes on land where there were water wells. In the early mornings the men went from house to house, from store to store, and carried away in their baskets the contents of the trashcans. Then they emptied the baskets in their carts. They worked in family groups under terrible conditions. The women and the girls could hardly be seen behind the heaps of garbage they sorted. All the food scraps were fed to the pigs while the paper and the aluminium cans were put aside to be sold.

The children had to work too, to support their families. How would they have time to go to school? They had to help their fathers, tend to the donkeys and the carts, and guard the collected garbage so that nobody would steal their meagre sources of income: the heaps of paper and cans. And the girls had to help their mothers to sort the garbage. There was no church nor mosque, no priest nor sheikh to approach them. There was no hospital to tend to their sick. All they had around them was garbage. But, since they had a job they still felt privileged compared to the other new migrants. They had a source of income: the garbage. When Israel occupied Sinai this particular privilege provoked the new waves of migrants and these refugees from the Suez Canal area were Muslims.

The migrants were not visible in society but Sister Emmanuelle in 1971 made them visible. She was then sixty-three years of age and wanted to change the world. She discovered this community forgotten by the gods and the world. She mobilized the most generous of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, The World Bank, and the NGO:s. Start from the beginning, she said, with the essentials for the future: start with the school. Find chairs and tables and teachers to teach reading and writing.

But the task was not easy. First one had to convince the fathers of the importance of the written word and that the girls had the same right to tuition as the boys. Money was made available for water pipes and sewers and for building real homes where the pigs could be separated from the families´ living and sleeping rooms. There was also money for clearing places for the children to play.

Cairo grew. Garbage multiplied. A recycling industry was organized. Now it became necessary to stop using carts and to mechanize the work. Thus the garbage collectors had to learn to drive, to fix flat tires, faulty gearboxes, and poor brakes. They now became “grease monkeys.”

The one community of garbage collectors that profited the most from this development effort was the one that lived on Moqattam Hill. It was there everything had started: the production of compost from the pigs’ manure, the recycling of paper, and the manufacture of carpets. The church put all its weight on the scales for development, but so did a non-religious non-governmental organization for environmental protection.

At the International Conference for Development both these organizations, the one supported by the church, and the other non-religious one, proudly exposed the products of their efforts. The garbage collectors were the stars of the conference. All the heads of state, all the great decision makers of the world, and others less great, who were concerned with safeguarding the environment, joined up in the queue at Moqattam to admire and buy the objects produced by means of recycling.

Moqattam Hill overlooked the city. Below lay the city sprawl. Cairo, one of the biggest capitals in the world, which had just celebrated its first millennium, lay there with its many mosques, fountains, hospices, as well as its markets for gold, silver, and spices. This city where thousands of artisan crafts were practised. And on top of the hill the garbage collectors´ priests had built their churches and a monastery. Inside, frescoes told the story of a miracle: the founder of Cairo, Moezz the Dine Illah, had ordered the Christians to suffer an ordeal. A holy man, Sam´ane the shoemaker, had to prove that faith could move mountains. According to the legend the mountain rose and then fell down to the earth where it was reduced to boulders.

And, of course, the fact that the monastery and the Fatimid mosques lay close to each other had a symbolic significance: the closeness of the cross and the crescent, which is always desirable in the Nile valley.

One would have thought that the Government should make an effort to improve this very efficient system of garbage collection capable of recycling more than 90 per cent of the capital´s garbage—sometimes even 100 per cent. But no, an effort to undermine it was instead in progress.

Every day the authorities found pretexts for knocking down the walls of one house after another. And then they asked foreign companies to go in and destroy the work and happiness of these impoverished people.

This was in 2002. Cairo at that time, according to the newspapers, was on the way to becoming one of the cleanest cities of the world.

But Cairo very soon instead became the dirtiest city in the world. Monster trucks arrived to collect, crush, and grind garbage to be used as primary material for the foreign companies´ recycling industry. The companies had promised to give the garbage collectors jobs. But the collectors, who over the years had become recyclers, entrepreneurs, and protectors of the environment, were not satisfied with the meagre salary they were offered. Thus they had to either remain self-employed, or accept being badly paid civil servants, or be unemployed.

Then came the flu A/HINI called the swine flu.

This was a day in April in 2009—on the 26th to be exact—which was a Sunday. The inhabitants of Cairo woke up to the menace of an alleged invasion. The city of Cairo, they heard, was surrounded by pigs. The pigs were concentrated to strategic points for a siege of Cairo—seven points in fact. The pigs were small but aggressive; the pigs’ snouts all pointed towards the city centre—the heart of the city. The pig breeders in fact were said to be closing in on the city of Cairo.

The media freaked out, both in the papers and on the Internet. The news was sensational. The Parliament shouted in unison. It was a desperate insurrection. E´demouhom. Excuse them. The Parliament voted and the Government issued a decree.

It was decreed that: “all the pigs in Egypt should immediately be killed by using available slaughterhouses to their full capacity,” as the Egyptian national health care minister Hatem el-Gabali told the press. This was after a meeting with the President Hosni Moubarak, according to the France Presse Agency (Al-Ahram Weekly, May 4-8, 2009).

The Parliament voted and the Government executed. In spite of the experts´ criticism, in spite of the objections from the World Organization for Animal Health, the Government mobilized its army of executioners.

But the resistance did not have the power needed to confront the attack from the Parliament and from its executive branch: the Government and its army.

Some poor families had only their pigs as an income source to help feed their children, give them clothes, and to send them to school. They were totally beaten—like the goat of Monsieur Seguin. Then they declared themselves defeated.

And the improvised garbage collecting system that had functioned within the constraints of poverty stopped working. The pigs were no longer there to eat the leftovers from the kitchens of the bourgeoisie. These pigs had been beautiful anthracite-grey animals of a race descended from the wild boars of antiquity. All were savagely killed in great haste.

Since the garbage collecting companies only collected what was recyclable, the dead pigs were left in the streets to rot. The city that had been on the verge of becoming a model for development now lay in the shade of gigantic heaps of garbage.

How long did it take before the garbage collectors fully realized that the Government was their declared enemy? And that it was not at all concerned with their well being, and that dark forces inside the system had orchestrated the killing of the pigs and the killings of Copts in their churches? They remembered the British occupants who had tried to divide the people of Egypt in order to be able to rule. They reminded themselves of the revolution of 1919, which brought the scheme of the British to nothing. But was it now their own government that had replaced the British as an oppressive power?

Some say this; others say that. On one Christmas Eve in Upper Egypt, at Farachot close to Naga Hammadi, a hijacked vehicle caused carnage just after the prayer meeting. Why had not someone alerted the security forces to the menace before the catastrophe took place?

In contrast, when the church in Alexandria was attacked, when more killings at the Christian places of worship were imminent, friendly Muslims did tell their Christian friends about it. We will pray and die with you, they said.

So, one day, after the Friday prayer meetings, the people started walking to the place El-Tahrir, all of them having decided to unite the crescent and the cross and to accuse the system of its corruption. That was a march of millions and it filled even more millions with enthusiasm. The masses gathered around the city´s heart, the place El-Tahrir. The garbage collectors could hear the slogans that were shouted around the city. Slogans that echoed the slogans shouted in Tunis. It was the people addressing the people—expressing the will of the people: Down with the system! In a vein that was to become a refrain they shouted: Bread, Freedom, Social Justice, Work, Dignity. This is what the garbage collectors’ children needed. Many of them had university diplomas but could not get any jobs. They had been humiliated; their pigs had been slaughtered; killed were also their hope and sense of wellbeing. On Twitter and on Facebook they heard the rallying cries, the appeals for revolution. There was no fear anymore. They were the people, and a people willing to confront fear.

The former garbage collectors’ children did not join in the marches those first few days. Nor in the following days. What might they have gained? Their pigs had been sacrificed on the altars of stupidity and they were informed about this only by means of the images on YouTube. They displayed the good old Wafd banner with the crescent embracing the cross.

But the agents of the counter-revolution soon showed their fangs. They opened the prison gates to let the criminals free. They and others then attacked the people on the very camels and horses that usually carried the tourists. Without work or income since the beginning of the events, without any salaries from their desperate employers, they now rallied against the demonstrators. The demonstrating youths wanted a peaceful revolution. Why then all this violence?

The burning of the Etfih church became one too many of all these acts of violence. After this event, both old and young garbage collectors descended from their hill. Each of them carried a cross—big or small, made of wood, gold, or silver. During ten days and ten nights they dominated the television. The tragedy they were living now became visible for the whole world. A lot of Muslims came there to join them. They had no crosses, but had come to protect the Christians. When the army promised to build a new church they agreed together to end the siege. That was what the El-Tahrir place called for.

Every Friday after the prayer hour new demonstrators joined the masses gathered in order to open up the roads to the future. They knew the struggle would be a long and difficult one.