The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

(More) Garbage Dreams

Nabil, one of the young protagonists of Garbage Dreams

Issandr has already written about the documentary Garbage Dreams (which we saw in June at Darb 1718's great outdoor movie-viewing space). Now you can read my two cents about the movie--which you can buy online now--over at The National. I've been to the Zabbaleen area many times, but I still learned some new things while researching the community's genesis: 

As far as anyone knows, organised rubbish collection began in Cairo at the turn of the 20th century, when the wahiya, a Bedouin tribe from the Dakhla oasis, contracted with building owners to collect their tenants’ refuse. The wahiya charged the tenants a small fee, and resold the domestic waste – compacted into dry patties – as fuel that heated the city’s public baths and cooked its morning foul medames.

By the 1930s, the residents of Cairo were switching to fuel oil for their heating and cooking needs and the wahiya were looking for new customers to buy the garbage they held the rights to. They found them among poor, pig-breeding Christian immigrants from southern Egypt. The wahiya farmed out garbage collection to the soon-to-become zabbaleen, who fed their pigs the city’s discarded leftovers and learnt to recycle its paper, tin, rags, glass, plastic and bones.

In the 1970s, a group of zabbaleen were evicted from Cairo and forced to resettle in an abandoned quarry at the foot of the Moqattam cliffs. The barren spot had no water or electricity. One in four infants died in the settlement’s early days. But over the years, thanks in large part to various international assistance programmes, conditions have improved. Basic services were introduced. NGOs and schools were established. Once electricity arrived, the zabbaleen started small workshops specialising in recycling plastics, metals and fabrics.

I also asked the director, Mai Iskander, some questions over email, but because of the article deadline wasn't able to include them in the piece. Our interview after the jump.

Your film has attracted a huge amount of attention (and now even a grant from the Gates foundation) for the zabaleen community. Did you hope something like this would happen? Did you think of your film as a form of advocacy as well as art?

Garbage Dreams is a 20th-century coming-of-age story that follows three teenage boys growing up in the world’s largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo. When I first visited the garbage village, I understood why it was often referred to as “Dante’s inferno.” Home to 60,000 Zaballeen, it is a world folded onto itself, an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash. Garbage is piled three stories high and the smell of rotting vegetables permeates the waste-covered streets. In the midst of it all, the dirt, the poverty, the smell of the garbage, the Zaballeen have retained their joy and zest for life.  They are the warmest people I have ever met.

I was quickly made welcome into this extraordinarily resilient and joyful community and the time I would spend there affected me in profound ways, re-calibrating my notions of community, family, ability, and sustainability. The trash-piled streets where the Zaballeen live, which initially seemed terrifying and dirty to me, started to look like the site of a community eminently worthy of preservation and admiration. The Zaballeen would work long into the night to clean up after us, the modern, industrialized world.  Beyond that, by creating the world’s most effective resource recovery system (recycling 80% of everything they collect) they are actually saving our earth. From out of the trash, they lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world’s most pressing crisis.


Of course, as a filmmaker, I quickly saw potential for a documentary in this David vs. Goliath tale, but it was the teenagers, students and their personal stories that really drew me. The desire of the teenage boys to gain knowledge, to develop their trade and to succeed in life through diligence, determination and persistence was quite inspirational. In addition to the fact that their way of life and  community was in jeopardy, these kids were also facing typical teenage concerns: fashion, pop music and their workout routine, and their aspirations to be the coolest and most popular. Over time, I saw more of myself in them and was reminded of our shared humanity. My desire to share this experience with others is what compelled me to make a documentary. The larger story of recycling and the work the Zaballeen was simply a window into the lives of these young Egyptian men. It was their struggle to maintain their dreams for a workable sustainable future, even as those dreams seem impossible to realize, that was the remarkable story that needed to be told.

Have you shown Garbage Dreams much in Egypt? Has it participated in any festivals there? What have reactions been? I live in Egypt and I know there is a lot of sensitivity on the subject of the garbage collectors and their "backwards" ways, so I'm wondering if the reception there has been different than abroad, and if you think it's important to show it in Egypt, precisely to change people's perceptions about this community?

Garbage Dreams has screened three times in Egypt and around 400 people attended each screening.  Each screening was followed by a Q&A; whereby the Zaballeen talked about their vision of integrating the Zaballeen into the formal sector of solid waste management and of instituting a garbage segregation campaign throughout Cairo.  In Egypt, Garbage Dreams is used to spread awareness of the work and life of the Zaballeen.  Viewers leave with a bigger respect for the Zaballeen in their role of keeping Cairo clean.

There are more screenings coming up in the next month, including one at the Alexandria library. The screenings will be posted on Facebook/Garbage Dreams.

It is not so much that the Egyptians need to value the Zaballeen as much as the world needs to value them. Trash is a global issue—it gets imported and exported all over the world. I hope that people around the world will come to see the Zaballeen as leaders in the environmental movement.


On the surface, it might seem that “Garbage Dreams” deals with local concerns, but the themes in the film are universal. I am pleased that is what strikes a chord with most viewers.
"Garbage Dreams” had encouraged people to re-examine the true value of what they throw away each day and the real cost of throwing out the expertise of Zaballeen.

Audience member in Egypt and the US have told me that they see a little bit of themselves in the three teenagers of the film. People are able to see beyond the hardship and poverty of the Zaballeen and discovers the riches they possess — the depth of their love and the strength of their community.

What do you think would be the ideal outcome for the zabaleen? Cairo's garbage collection system will inevitably change (for one thing, the zabaleen system's efficiency is based on women and children's free labour and on the unhealthy proximity of garbage sorting and recycling and the home) -- what do you envisage as the best new system and the role of the zabaleen in it?

It is the hope of the Zaballeen that the waste disposal system will be more cohesive and will integrate the Zaballeen and their expertise. With the help of the Gates grant and Garbage Dreams, the Zaballeen hope to implement a city-wide campaign of garbage segregation, whereby residents of Cairo separate their trash by throwing them out into two different bins (one for organic waste and one for non-organic waste); to create a union or syndicate of garbage collectors and recyclers; to educate their youth (learning to read, write and use computer, how to run a business); and to establish and to legalize their own recycling factories.


I've seen people in the neighborhood your film is set get angry when they are photographed. How did you manage to get people to trust you enough to let you make your film? And can you tell me a bit more about your relationship with your three stars? How did you explain what you were doing to them? Were they surprised/nervous/flattered to be the protagonists of a film? What about their relatives and neighbours--what did they make of you following these teenage boys around with a camera?

In 2005, when I was volunteering at The Recycling School, I helped the students paint murals on the outside of their school. One day, I decided to bring my camera and film the students just for fun. Initially, I was just going to edit a little video for them as a present. One of the boys who later became a major subject in my film, Osama, started bragging to his friends that an "international film crew"--in actuality, it was just myself and my camera--was making a movie on him in order to document his incredibly charismatic self. Neighbors and friends immediately started calling him "Tommy Cruise."

Now that I had "Tommy Cruise" in the movie, I just had to turn this film into a feature. I returned to the garbage village for a couple of months over the course of four years. It was rewarding to be part of their lives as these boys grew up and became young men, and it was pretty cool to be able to capture that all on camera.

Over four years, I was able to document the different aspects of these teenagers' lives: their enthusiasm for any new adventure, their longing to find love and acceptance, their desire to make a mark in the world, and their desire to hold onto and develop their trade.

Garbage Dreams took four years to make.  The story begins in 2005 and ends in 2008.  There are lots of other great stories and people to follow but unfortunately I chose to focus on three in order for the story not to get diffused. Each of the characters had their own very unique personality, story and aspirations.

When I first started filming, I was introduced to Adham. His enthusiasm for his recycling trade and his desire to develop it was truly inspiring to me. He was very idealistic and a big dreamer. I often wondered how he would pursue his ambitions and how he would come to terms with his reality as he grew older. Osama was a one time happy slacker that couldn’t hold a job. He was charming and is the antithesis to Adham. He added moments of humor to the film. Nabil was someone that does not want much out of life, but only wanted to have a family and some sense of security. His humility and his simple desires are what drew me to him. Also, his family was the one of the families that was most effective by the coming of the foreign multinational waste companies. In the end of  the film, Nabil is humiliated by the fact that he has to scavenge for scraps on the streets of Cairo after his family loses their garbage collection route.

As a film-maker, what were the challenges of making this film? What were the pitfalls you wanted to avoid?

One of the greatest obstacles in making Garbage Dreams was getting people used to the camera. I spent many hours filming the boys (I filmed over 250 hours of footage.),  documenting all the nuances of their lives. At the beginning, they did not quite understand what exactly I was filming. I decided to give the boys at The Recycling School a video camera so they could better understand the filmmaking process.

I was hoping that this would also provide the boys a sense of ownership, so that in some way, they were the authors of their own stories. They listened intently to my instructions, making sure they understood every aspect of the camera. I was blown away by their photographic ability and the intimacy of their footage. I included much more of their footage than I had originally planned. Five minutes of Garbage Dreams was shot by the kids themselves.

You didn't interview any government officials or (besides one sequence) speak to representatives of the foreign garbage companies. Do you think it might have been interesting to include more of their side of the story?

I did not want the film to turn into a debate of whether it is positive or negative move to have the foreign companies take over Cairo's garbage collection and disposal, the fact of matter is that it affected the Zaballeen of Cairo a certain way, in a difficult way and I wanted to show this.  I wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the Zaballeen, the point of view that for the most part that has been for so long ignored and unheard.

Mai Iskander also adds:

Support the Zaballeen by learning about source separation (how to separate your trash to enable more efficient recycling). The Zaballeen are asking residents separate their waste into 2 categories: throw organic materials (waste - food remains) in a bag or a bin…And non-organic materials (everything else) in a separate bag or bin...

The campaign that was previously held at the Heliopolis Sporting Club by Nasseej Project, witnessed a great success: they are now separating, and we will be able to have screenings, run awareness campaigns in the Club, give trainings to the youth, etc... They will very soon expand to other parts of Cairo....

People can get more information on source segregation campaign at and by sending an empty SMS to 6069 (with the normal price of any SMS).
To make a donation to The Recycling School or to arrange a screening in Egypt in your community, school, organization and/or religious institution, please contact

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