Monday, September 24, 2007

When we first arrived last year, Neghi was ringing our doorbell at 9 am on the first morning. How did he know we had arrived? A few days later, a member of Cairo’s permanent underclass, known as the zeballeen, visited us. The zeballeen are garbage men by trade—it’s a family tradition that goes back for generations. You’ll see the families walking along the crowded streets, the father bent at the waist, arms contorted around the twisted straps of an ENOURMOUS SACK OF GARBAGE, which is balanced somehow on his back. The sizes of the sack and the man are dramatically out of proportion in relation to one another. The kids, if they have come along that day, are sometimes walking alongside. If the zeballeen is particularly industrious, well-off, resourceful or just lucky, he’ll be pedaling down the street aboard a kind of centaur-like creation, half-bicycle, half-cart, full of other people’s garbage.

Where do they take the garbage? We’ve heard it’s off to the edge of town, where they sort out the plastic and glass bottles, which can be returned for some money, and they burn the rest of the garbage. Given the size of this city, I can only image the size and depth of these burning pits. They must be vast…and stinky. In fact, depending upon which way the breeze blows in the Nile Valley, some of that smoldering stink can waft back over the city, which already has problems with pollution.

I’d like to provide a detailed summary of the typical day of the zeballeen, but I don’t know enough to give a faithful telling of their particular tale. But I know enough—the heavy sacks full of garbage, for instance—to have an inkling. Which brings us back to the zeballeen who visited us last year, in the first week of our stay in Egypt. Apparently, without my entirely knowing it, I engaged in some sort of contract with him regarding the disposal of our refuse—even though the building has an “official” garbage man to whom we pay 10 LE per month. We had been told about this guy, the “official” guy, but the zeballeen fellow, who I meant to politely decline, instead begins to knock on our door to collect our garbage. And I find myself sorting out the bottles for him, so he won’t have to, and shelling out another 10 LE per month (not to mention “bonuses” at the post-Ramadan Eid and Christmas) for his services, which really aren’t necessary, if the truth be told, since we have the official guy.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year thinking about this zeballeen fellow and why I haven’t fired him. I find that I don’t have the stomach for it, to fire a man so I can save less than $2 per month. I also think that reason reveals an attitude of pitying condescension on my part; my good intentions and well-meaning attitude only underscores what is an indescribably dramatic difference in the conditions of life for the zeballeen and me. Even my thirteen year-old nieces have $2 of disposable income.

Am I just handing out charity? No. I give charity to the old woman who begs on Falaki St. near campus, even though her panhandling is dressed up as a legitimate business—packets of tissues in exchange for charity (truth be told, tissues are in high demand here). For the zeballeen, I am supposed to charge a fee in exchange for a service. The man has professional pride, after all, as an independent businessman of sorts. But the truth is that I don’t really need his service, and he did engage in the rather “unctuous grace that qualifies as deference in the Middle East” in order to secure my monthly fee—he knew that I didn’t understand exactly what I was agreeing to—and he will let me twist in the wind of my ignorance of the language as he attempts to extract extra money for both Muslim and Christian holidays. But I think I know why he does these things. He does them because 10 LE per month is in fact a lot of money and he is willing to hump a month’s worth of garbage to the edge of town and light it on fire in order to get it. He is willing to pretend he missed me while I was away this summer. It’s the same reason why the taxi drivers will sometimes get worked up over another 2 LE they perceive to deserve (the taxis have meters, but none of them work). It’s the reason why the vendors at the pyramids will offer “free” camel rides then charge 50 LE to help you off the moody beasts. It’s because they need the money. They need it. I think I understand very little about such Egyptians, the vast classes of the economically depressed, but this much I know for sure. They need it to live. And so I’ll pay more for a cab and tip our gopher 10 LE each week, just for bringing a case of beer and some bottled water into our kitchen. I’ll pay the zeballeen 10 LE every month and I will resist the feeling that he is taking advantage, which wells up in me sometimes, usually when I am idly reading or watching satellite TV or looking at the dead potted plant he still hasn’t taken away.

After all, I know I’d do the same in his situation. Work for the money to live, and cling to it, and get a bit more here and there when I can. Wouldn’t you?



Ellen said...

Yep, I would.

Anonymous said...

giving these ppl a few extra cents will cost u nothing but could change thier worlds,,so bragging about the fact that u actually gave it is very selfish.....
they deserve every cent they take from you..u come to thier country live like a king,but when they visit urz,u treat them like SHIT
and its zabaleen not zebelleen,if u want to know further info about them just reasearch them,research the A.P.E in egypt and maybe then u'll appreciate them.
thank u..Yasmine