In Cairo, my family lives on the ground floor of an old building, in a sprawling, high-ceilinged apartment with three doors to the outside. One door opens onto the building's lobby, another leads to a small garden, and the third is solely for the use of the zabal, or garbageman, who is named Sayyid Ahmed. It's in the kitchen, and when we first moved to the apartment, at the beginning of 2012, the landlady told me to deposit my trash on the fire escape outside the door at any time. There was no pickup schedule, and no preferred container; I could use bags or boxes, or I could simply toss loose garbage outside. Sayyid's services had no set fee. He wasn't a government employee, and he had no contract or formal job. I was instructed to pay him whatever I believed to be fair, and if I pleased I could pay him nothing at all.
Many things in Egypt don't work very well. Traffic is bad, and trains get cancelled; during the summer, it's not unusual to have five electricity blackouts in a single day. One year, we couldn't buy bottled water for months, because the plant that produced the water somehow caught fire. Since we moved into the apartment, the country has cycled through three constitutions, three Presidents, four Prime Ministers, and more than seven hundred members of parliament. But there hasn't been a single day when the trash wasn't cleared outside my kitchen door. As a whole, Cairo's waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it's largely informal. In a sprawling, chaotic city of more than seventeen million, zabaleen like Sayyid have managed to develop one of the most efficient municipal recycling networks in the world.
At first, I never saw Sayyid working, because he cleared my fire escape before dawn. After three months of this invisible service, he approached me one day on the street and asked if I had previously lived in China. I wasn't sure how he knew this—we had chatted a few times, but never for long. He said that he had an important question about Chinese medicine.
That evening, he arrived at eight o'clock sharp, dressed in his work clothes. He's not much taller than five feet, but his shoulders are broad and his legs are bowed from hauling weight. Usually, his clothes are several sizes too large, and his shoes flap like those of a clown, because he harvests them from the garbage of bigger men. At my apartment, he produced a small red box decorated with gold calligraphy. The Chinese labelling was elegant but evasive: the pills were described as "health protection products" that "promoted development and power." Inside the box, a sheet of instructions reminded me how sometimes the Chinese can be much more expressive when they use English badly:
2 pills at a time whenever nece necessary
Before fucking make love 20minutes
"Where did you get this?" I asked.
"In the trash," Sayyid said. "From a man who died." He told me that the man was elderly, and had lived down the street. After his death, his sons threw away the pills and other possessions. "Many of these things were mish kuaissa," Sayyid said. "Not good."
I asked what he meant by that.
"Things like this": he sketched with a finger in the air, and then he pointed below his belt. "It's electric. It uses batteries. It's for women. This kind of thing isn't good." But talking about it seemed to make Sayyid happy. He told me that the trash had also contained Egyptian sex pills and a large collection of pornographic magazines. He didn't say what he had done with those things. I asked where the dead man used to work.
"He was an ambassador."
I had been studying Arabic for less than a year, and Sayyid's tone was so matter-of-fact that I asked him to repeat this. "He was in embassies overseas," Sayyid explained. "He was very rich; he had millions of dollars. He had four million and forty-four dollars in his bank account."
The precision of this figure caught my attention, and I asked Sayyid how he knew.
"Because it was on letters from the bank."
I made a mental note to be careful about what I threw away. Sayyid asked for details about the Chinese medicine, and I did my best to translate the part about waiting twenty minutes before fucking make love. He was vague about what he intended to do with the drugs. I checked the ingredients—white ginseng, deer antler—and decided that there probably wasn't any risk. I had a feeling that it wouldn't be the first time he'd taken a pill out of the garbage.
After that, Sayyid began stopping by regularly with questions. Over time, I realized that there are a number of people he's recruited as informal consultants. He's illiterate, like more than a quarter of adult Egyptians, so if he wants to read something that he pulls from the trash he goes to the proprietor of H Freedom, a small corner kiosk. If he finds himself involved in a neighborhood dispute, he calls on the man who distributes government-subsidized bread. My own field of expertise ranges from foreign things to sex products and alcohol. If somebody throws away a half-finished bottle, Sayyid checks with me to see if it's imported and thus might have resale value. He's Muslim, but not particularly devout; when he stops by at night, he often asks for a beer. He's the only guest I've ever had who carries away his empties, because he knows he'll end up collecting them anyway.
In part because he can't read, he's skilled at picking up on subtle clues. He hand-sorts all the garbage, and at one point he noticed that foreign women often throw away empty packs of pills whose number corresponds to the days of the month. Sayyid concluded that they were an aphrodisiac, and he asked me if they have the effect of making foreign women desire sex on a daily basis. I explained that this isn't exactly correct, although the assumption was understandable, because Sayyid finds a large number of sex drugs and paraphernalia in the trash. A couple of times, he's brought by other forms of Chinese sex medicine, and he shows up with drugs that have names like Virecta. Anything blue catches his eye—recently, he appeared with a half-finished foil pack of Aerius, which excited him until I went online and learned that it's an allergy medication that happens to be the same color as Viagra.
I live on Zamalek, the northern part of an island in the Nile that's situated in central Cairo, and Sayyid has become my most reliable guide to the neighborhood. Occasionally, I accompany him on his predawn rounds. The first time I did this, in February of 2013, he led me to the top landing of the fire escape of a building on my street.
"This is Madame Heba," he said, grabbing a black plastic garbage bag and tossing it into a huge canvas basket perched atop his back, Quasimodo style. He descended while engaging in a running commentary about residents, whose names I've changed. "This is Dr. Mohammed," he said, at the next landing, and then he climbed down another level. "This one's a priest, Father Mikael. He's very cheap. He gives me only five pounds a month." He heaved two big bags. "He says he doesn't have any money, but I see all the boxes and bags from the gifts that he gets. People give him things all the time, because he's a priest."
On a different floor, we picked our way across a landing covered with rotting food; a pile of trash bags had been ripped apart by stray cats. "This one's a foreigner," Sayyid explained. "I'm not supposed to touch her garbage. The landlord isn't happy with her; there's some kind of fight. He told me not to remove her trash." Sayyid said that this isn't unusual: people can tip him to remove trash, but they can also tip him to allow somebody else's garbage to accumulate. We descended to the next floor, where he remarked that the resident was a Muslim with a drinking problem. "There are always bottles in her trash," he said in a low voice. By way of illustration, he ripped open the bag on her doorstep and showed me the empties: Auld Stag whiskey and Casper wine. He did the same thing with a bag at a building across the street. "This is Mr. Hassan," he said. "He's sick." Sayyid tore open the plastic, rooted around inside, and pulled out a pair of used syringes. "I think he has diabetes," he said. "Every day, there are two syringes in the garbage. He takes one in the morning and one at night."
Sayyid's route twisted through a maze of fire escapes that climbed through narrow, chimney-like atria. Periodically, a stairway led to the roof of a building, where the gray streak of the Nile was visible two blocks away. Zamalek is a relatively prosperous part of Cairo, and it has always attracted foreign residents, but there are also many middle-class and even poor people, because rent-control laws keep the price of some apartments as low as a few dollars a month. As a result, landlords rarely make improvements, and old buildings have a kind of fading glory. On my street, many structures were built in the Art Deco style, with marble lobbies and beautifully patterned wrought-iron grillwork along the balconies. It's common for apartments to have a kitchen door that leads to the fire escape, like mine.
Sometimes, an early riser will hear Sayyid working, and she'll open the kitchen door to greet him and offer a cup of tea. One morning, I was with Sayyid when an elderly woman handed him four hamburger patties that she had carefully prepared in a plastic bag, for his lunch. In Cairo, where many basic services have developed informally, and where there's a strong culture of tipping, people tend to be generous when somebody is working hard. This is one reason that Sayyid dresses so poorly—he knows that dirty, ill-fitting clothes are more likely to inspire generosity.
And the information that he gathers from the trash helps him interact with residents. In addition to the door-to-door collection, he sorts garbage in the street, collecting it into piles that are hauled away by trucks. He greets everybody who passes, asking about spouses and children, and he's particularly attentive to details of health. On his early-morning rounds, he comments on whether a resident is receiving injections, or taking medicine, or wearing diapers. If something seems particularly interesting, he'll open the bag for my benefit. Once, Sayyid stopped at a landing and whispered that the resident was a sex-crazed Lebanese man. Then he ripped open the trash, found a discarded bottle, and asked me to read the label: "Durex Play Feel Intimate Lube."
Sayyid's conversations revolve around the three fundamental forces in his world, which are women, money, and garbage. Often these things are closely connected. In the beginning, it was Sayyid's father's unquenchable passion for women that led to his son becoming a zabal. Sayyid's father worked as a watchman on the outskirts of Cairo, where he embarked on a rapid series of marriages and divorces. All told, he went through nine wives, or ten if you count the Christian woman he married briefly before Sayyid's mother. Nobody seems to know how many children he fathered, but it was too many to support, and he died when Sayyid was six. As a boy, Sayyid never attended a single day of school, and by the age of eleven he was working full time as an assistant to zabaleen.
Despite this difficult childhood, Sayyid speaks fondly of his parents. And in his ancestral village in Upper Egypt residents remember his father in almost mythical terms. They say that at heart he was a true Arab, a Bedouin, a man of the Sahara; and thus he was fated to restlessness. The villagers also make it clear that they don't count the Christian wife.
Sayyid eventually found work as an assistant to a zabal named Salama, whose life in garbage was also inspired by an abundance of women. In Salama's case, there was only a single wife, but she gave birth to eight daughters and no sons. "He didn't do anything his whole life other than prepare his daughters for marriage," Aiman, the husband of Salama's oldest daughter, told me once. Aiman runs a small recycling business, and like many zabaleen he has a nickname: Aiman the Cat. "Other people build buildings," Aiman the Cat said, of his father-in-law. "He built daughters." When Salama died, and there was no son to pick up his route, it was loaned to Sayyid. He's allowed to collect the trash, but he has to pick out all paper, plastic, glass, and other resellable commodities, and give them to Aiman the Cat.
They have no formal contract, but it doesn't matter, because Cairo's waste collection is shaped by tradition, not by laws and planning. The system began in the early nineteen-hundreds, when a group of migrants arrived from Dakhla, a remote oasis in Egypt's Western Desert. They became known as wahiya—"people of the oasis"—and they paid Cairo building owners for the right to pick up garbage and charge fees to tenants. In those days, much of the garbage was flammable, and the wahiya used it as fuel for street carts that made ful, the fried beans that are a staple in Egypt.
Inevitably, Cairo's population grew at a rate that upset the delicate balance between trash and beans. In the thirties and forties, a new wave of migrants began to come from Asyut, in Upper Egypt. They were Coptic Christians, which meant that they could raise pigs that ate organic garbage. The Christians subcontracted from the Muslim wahiya, who evolved into middlemen, managing access and collecting fees. The actual hauling and sorting was done by the Christians, who became known as zabaleen, and who made much of their income by selling pork, mostly to tourist hotels. The government played no role in establishing this system, which worked remarkably well. Social scientists often cite it as a success story among developing-world megacities, and in 2006 an article in Habitat International described it as "one of the world's most efficient resource recovery" systems. It was estimated that the zabaleen recycled roughly eighty per cent of the waste that they collected.
But the system became a victim of dysfunctional national politics under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. In 2009, during the worldwide epidemic of H1N1 swine flu, the Ministry of Agriculture decreed that all Egyptian pigs had to be killed. There was no evidence that pigs were spreading the disease, but the government went ahead and slaughtered as many as three hundred thousand animals. Some Egyptians believe that the decision was driven by a desire to appease Islamists, who had become outspoken critics of the regime, and supposedly hated pigs even more than they hated Mubarak. But the policy backfired, with hundreds of furious zabaleen taking part in protests. They also started tossing organic waste into the streets, because it had no value without pigs. The declining hygiene of the capital and the unrest of the zabaleen were part of the general unhappiness that culminated in the revolution, in January, 2011.
For Sayyid, none of this—the people of the oasis, the wandering pig-raisers, the Exodus-style slaughter carried out by a dying regime—is exotic or unusual. He doesn't believe that there's anything particularly complex about the relationships he has to negotiate in order to gain access to trash. In Zamalek, he collects from twenty-seven buildings, which are subcontracted from seven individuals. One is Aiman the Cat, the zabal, who is Christian, and the others are Muslim wahiya who are known by nicknames like the Beast and the Fox. The Fox allows Sayyid to handle seven buildings; the Beast grants him one. Another wahi has been dead for a decade, but his son, a government clerk, retains rights to the trash, so he subcontracts to Sayyid. There's also a dead wahi who left a widow, so Sayyid is obligated to send her a hundred pounds—about fourteen dollars—a month. Periodically, he checks to see if the widow is still alive, but he wouldn't dream of cutting her off, out of respect for the sacred link between women and garbage.
He keeps track of all this, and the monthly tips of more than four hundred residents, by memory. And he's constantly acquiring peripheral information that can be leveraged into baksheesh. A few years ago, Sayyid was hauling trash late at night when he saw the daughter of a doorman returning from university with a boy. Believing that they were alone, they kissed. "Since I've eaten with her father and mother, I didn't like what I saw," Sayyid told me. "So I told the father." Undoubtedly, Sayyid thought that the doorman's gratitude would be of some benefit to him, but this was a miscalculation. The daughter denied everything, and the doorman barred Sayyid from collecting the building's trash. At that point, Sayyid called upon the owner of H Freedom and the man at the local bread kiosk for help, but their intercession only convinced the doorman that the story was spreading. He gave the garbage rights to another zabal, and now Sayyid says that he should have minded his own business.
It's rare for zabaleen to do hard labor into middle age, and Sayyid, who is forty, has chronic pain in his back and his knees. He expects that within the next decade he'll be unable to continue, but he doesn't know what to do next—he often describes himself as stupid, and fit only for the work of a donkey. But in truth his job requires him to be observant and perceptive, and he must interact with the full range of Egyptian society. In particular, he has to be sensitive toward Christians, who dominate the industry. The first time I accompanied him to his neighborhood to watch a soccer match at another zabal's home, Sayyid prepped me with a list of things that I should and shouldn't say, so that I wouldn't offend his Christian sensibilities.
One evening, Sayyid stopped by my apartment to chat, and my wife, Leslie, and I began talking about a rich and notoriously stingy woman in the neighborhood. She's middle-aged and well educated, but she never married, and I asked Sayyid why.
"There's a proverb," he said. " 'If you befriend a monkey for his money, then tomorrow the money will be gone, but the monkey will still be a monkey.' That's what it was like with her. Nobody wanted to marry her."
I remarked that the woman is also obese, but Sayyid shook his head. "She used to be pretty," he said. "I've seen pictures of her from fifteen or twenty years ago. She looked so different. Beautiful!"
"Where did you see the pictures?"
"In the garbage," he said. "She threw them away."
I asked why he thought she had done that.
"Maybe she didn't want to remember those times," he said quietly. "Maybe the pictures made her sad."
Sayyid himself married late by Egyptian standards. When he was twenty-nine, he arranged with some neighbors to marry their cousin, an eighteen-year-old named Wahiba. She came from a village outside Aswan, in Upper Egypt, and she was educated, having attended a trade school after high school. She moved to Cairo to be with Sayyid, and they soon had two sons and then a daughter.
On the seventh day after the daughter's birth, Sayyid invited Leslie and me to his home for the traditional celebration that's called the sebou. We took a cab and then a microbus out to Ard al-Liwa, an area in northern Cairo that includes a number of ashwa'iyat, or "informal" settlements—illegally built slums. Sayyid's ashwa'iyat is dominated by garbage collectors, and we walked through narrow alleyways full of trash that was in the process of being hand-sorted. There were bags of glass bottles, stacks of old rags, pallets of crushed plastic, and piles of rotting vegetables that would be used as goat feed. In one spot, a man had picked dozens of pieces of bread from the garbage and laid them out to dry; eventually, they would be fed to water buffalo. Everywhere we walked, we could hear rats rustling through trash. But the homes were made of concrete and brick, and were relatively well constructed. This is generally true of Cairo, where about two-thirds of the population lives in ashwa'iyat. David Sims, an urban planner who is the author of "Understanding Cairo," has pointed out that the capital's slums have a functionality and permanence that's rare in many parts of the developing world.
Before visiting Sayyid's home, I had had the notion that it would be furnished largely with things from the garbage. In Zamalek, he's always showing me discarded objects that still have value, and once he told me that the bread I'd tossed out a day earlier had been perfectly good—he'd taken it out of my trash and used it to make sandwiches for some friends at H Freedom. So I was surprised to find that virtually everything in his two-story apartment was new, and for the first time I realized how effective Sayyid had been at inspiring tips. He usually earned nearly five hundred dollars a month, which was about twice the average household income in Cairo, and his apartment had cost more than thirty thousand dollars. He had two televisions, and his couches were still wrapped in factory plastic. A computer was being installed for the eldest son, Zizou.
When we entered, we were greeted by Wahiba, who was another surprise. She was strikingly pretty, with fair skin and a heart-shaped face, and she wore blue eyeshadow and dark eyeliner. She was slender, and dressed in a long white gown embroidered with beads; it was hard to believe that she had given birth to her third child only a week earlier. She greeted us warmly, and we chatted for a few minutes, and then she politely excused herself. A few minutes later, she returned in a niqab, the full head covering that is worn by conservative Muslims.
And after that I never saw her face again. In the next couple of years, I visited Sayyid's home on a number of occasions, but Wahiba usually stayed out of sight. She would remain in the kitchen, behind a closed door, making tea or dinner, which would be served to me by Sayyid or one of the children. The few times that I caught a glimpse of Wahiba, she was wearing the niqab, and we never had another conversation. I realized that I had caught her unaware at our initial meeting, and it felt strange to remember that first and only glimpse. The more I got to know Sayyid, the less I felt I knew his wife, and the more mysterious she became.
Not long after the sebou, tensions appeared in the marriage. Sayyid had always worked long hours in Zamalek, but now he seemed to delay going home, often returning as late as midnight. He complained that he was fighting with Wahiba, usually about money. Sometimes he mentioned the possibility of divorce, which has little stigma for male Muslims in Egypt. One of Sayyid's older brothers had recently divorced for the second time and now was searching for a third wife. "You keep one for a while and then you change," the brother had told me, when we met at the sebou. "It's like changing a tire on a car."
Sayyid and most of his siblings were born in Cairo, but like many residents of the capital they maintain strong links to their ancestral village, which is the source of most ideas about family. In Sayyid's extended family, most women wear the niqab, but the reason seems to be more cultural than strictly religious. It's a point of pride and possession for the men—Sayyid says that his wife wears it because she's beautiful, and if she shows her face in the street she'll be coveted by strangers and harassed. And other traditions serve to control women in more explicit ways. One evening, Sayyid and I were watching my twin daughters play in the garden, and he asked casually if I planned to have them circumcised. I looked at the girls—they were all of three years old—and said no, this wasn't something we intended to do. The majority of Egyptian women have undergone the surgery, which opponents describe as genital mutilation. Since 2008, it's been illegal, but many people continue to have it performed on daughters, usually when they're between the ages of nine and twelve. In Egypt, Islamists are the biggest supporters of the procedure, which, among other effects, makes intercourse less pleasurable for a woman. But in fact this tradition is not mentioned in the Koran, and Muslims in most parts of the world don't practice it. Originally, it was a tribal custom native to many parts of Africa.
I asked Sayyid if he planned to have the surgery performed on his daughter, and he nodded. "Otherwise, women are crazy for dakar," he said, using a word that means "male." "They'll be running around outside the house, chasing men."
For traditionally minded Egyptians, this is a common view: desire should be limited to males, who do what they can to heighten it. All those sex drugs in the garbage of Zamalek aren't an anomaly—in Egypt, I've had a number of casual conversations in which the topic turns to sex, and a man reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pill, to show that he's prepared. Usually, it's some version of Viagra, but for Sayyid's class the drug of choice is often tramadol, a prescription painkiller. Cheap versions are manufactured in China and India, and in 2012 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that there were five billion tramadol pills in Egypt, a staggering number in a country of eighty-four million.
Many of the zabaleen I know use the stuff. The pills are available on the street for thirty or forty cents, and they take the edge off the fatigue and pain of a hard day's work. They are also addictive; in America, where the abuse of tramadol is growing, its status has recently been upgraded to that of a controlled substance. Last year, a zabal I know asked me for advice about how to quit. He looked awful: he was sweating heavily and his eyes were darting here and there. I knew that he was a devout Christian, so I did my best and came up with two recommendations: pray very hard, and drink a lot of caffeine. I suppose I wasn't a total hypocrite—I do one of these things religiously—but I felt helpless. I was relieved when, a month later, the zabal told me he'd been able to kick the habit.
In January, I accompanied Sayyid on a visit to his mother's village, outside Beni Suef, in Upper Egypt, and he carefully prepared a foil pack of five tramadol pills as a gift for his uncle. He was a farmer who hadn't yet tried the drug; Sayyid wanted to give him a taste of city life. But Sayyid has never seemed at risk of addiction, because he uses tramadol primarily for sex. In truth, the drug doesn't function like Viagra, but many Egyptian men seem to believe that it does. And a number of users say that tramadol, which delays orgasm, also intensifies sensation. On Thursdays, Sayyid often grins and shows me his pills for the weekend. Even after he began fighting with his wife, he sometimes took a tramadol before returning home late on Thursday night, which didn't seem like the best strategy for dealing with marital discord. And I found myself wondering about the social dynamics in some Egyptian homes—the combination of men who take sex drugs and women who are circumcised and housebound.
After Sayyid and Wahiba started fighting, she secretly registered their apartment in her own name, at a government bureau. When Sayyid learned about this, their conflicts became angrier, and then one of his sisters, who also lives in Ard al-Liwa, got involved. At one point, Wahiba and some of her relatives confronted Sayyid's sister in the street, and the fight turned physical; the sister's eye was injured so badly that she needed surgery. Then Wahiba kicked Sayyid out of the apartment and changed the locks. For good measure, she filed three court cases against him, including one of non-support.
She also sent a steady stream of text messages to Sayyid's phone. At night, he slept on the floor of a garage on my street, where a doorman had allowed him to arrange a pallet. Whenever Sayyid received a text, he had to troop over to H Freedom, where he would stand mortified while the owner read these things aloud:
Yesterday you didn't fight for me. I'll do it myself and you will regret what I'll do.
Oh, you want divorce? I'll take all of my rights, you bitch, and all of the people will see you.
It's not your house, you thief, and you came back to me like a dog, as I wanted you to, and I will send you away as I wish.
As the fight worsened, each relied on one key weapon. For Sayyid, it was money: he stopped giving cash to his wife, who was forced to ask relatives for help. For Wahiba, the weapon was words. She targeted her husband's illiteracy, sending messages that she knew would become public and damage his reputation in Zamalek. And by filing repeated legal claims, she forced Sayyid into the hostile world of documents and government offices. One morning, I went with him to the Real Estate Tax Authority, where he was trying to get the paperwork necessary to fight his wife's claim on the apartment. For more than two hours, he went from floor to floor, office to office, encountering clerks who spoke in phrases that were code for Pay me a bribe. "I want to drink tea," one clerk said, and Sayyid gave him twenty pounds. "I have an itch," the next one said, and Sayyid handed him five. "I need something to speed it up," the third said, and Sayyid produced another bill.
None of this seemed to surprise or even annoy Sayyid. But the notion of the government as provider of positive service was completely foreign to his experience: he hadn't attended school as a child, he lived in an ashwa'iyat, and he had no health insurance or job security. His only significant contact with the state had been when he was drafted into the Army, in the nineties. Like all uneducated draftees, he had served for three years instead of the one year that is required of educated males. But this extended service is effectively a punishment, not an opportunity to address Egypt's epidemic of illiteracy. During Sayyid's time as a soldier, the Army didn't provide a single class in basic reading. Instead, he spent three long years standing at a guard post in Port Said with a rifle in his arms.
For the leaders of the revolution, who are mostly middle and upper class, the experience of a citizen like Sayyid is a perfect example of why radical change is necessary. But there's a point at which somebody is so far removed from the formal system that he has no interest in changing it. Sayyid never cared much about the protests in Tahrir Square, and, like most Egyptians, he tends to support whoever seems to be popular at any given moment. In 2012, he voted for Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for President, and then, two years later, he voted for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the general who had forcibly removed Morsi from office.
With every change in leadership, there have been new promises to reform public services. After Morsi won, he made garbage reform a centerpiece of his "Hundred Days" program, but nothing happened. Since the coup, other proposed changes have failed to accomplish much. The government has been weak and incompetent for so long that people are accustomed to alternatives—the informal services don't always function well, but they function well enough to keep things moving. And, when the government does act, its weakness means that it often follows the lead of these informal institutions without adding much value. In the ashwa'iyat, officials typically arrive after locals have already tapped illegally into water, sewage, and electricity lines, and then the state installs meters and begins to charge for service.
Waste collection follows a similar pattern. The main flaw with the informal service has always been that it's erratic in poor areas, where zabaleen aren't motivated to work, because tips are small and the garbage contains less material of value. In 2003, the Mubarak regime offered fifteen-year contracts to foreign waste-management companies, which supposedly would cover most neighborhoods, hiring the existing wahiya and zabaleen and paying them fair salaries. But the plan was underfunded, and the culture of the informal system was too complex and entrenched for foreign companies to navigate. The disastrous culling of the pigs and the instability of the post-revolution period have made things even worse. Hassan Abu Ahmed, a spokesman for the Cairo Cleaning and Beautification Authority, the government department in charge of waste management, told me that the foreign companies are covering only fifty or sixty per cent of the services that were promised in the contracts. But he also said that the government owes the companies tens of millions of dollars, because the economy has collapsed in the wake of the revolution.
My part of Cairo is ostensibly cleaned by an Italian-owned firm called AMA Arab Environment Company. At the beginning of the summer, when I met with Ahmed Hassan Ahmed, the project manager at AMA Arab, he seemed exhausted. He said that the government owed his firm almost thirty million dollars, and he had just spent a week dealing with a strike by garbage collectors in northern Cairo. One of his employees had recently been stabbed in the lungs after infringing on a zabal's turf. "If you go to a zabal's neighborhood and ask him for his trash, he's going to slap you in the face," Ahmed told me. His company has instituted regular pickups by truck in some parts of Cairo, but in terms of actual door-to-door collection the main change has been the addition of a new layer of middlemen. On my street, the government subcontracts garbage collection to the Italian company, which in turn subcontracts to a wahi called Osama Apricot, who subcontracts to Aiman the Cat, who subcontracts to Sayyid. Bizarrely, payment moves in opposite directions along this chain: from the top, the government pays the Italians in cash, while from the bottom Sayyid pays Aiman the Cat in recyclables. It seems miraculous that so much trash is actually picked up, and that the people on the lowest level participate so energetically in this flawed system. But low expectations, like garbage, are a resource that Egypt has in great abundance. "The beauty is that trash doesn't cost anything," Sayyid once told me, happily. "You just pick up the trash and you get paid for it!"
Sayyid spent the winter sleeping on the floor of the garage. A couple of times, he used my shower, and periodically a doorman let him warm up in a heated room, but most of the time he looked tired, dirty, and miserable. Finally, a neighbor in Ard al-Liwa organized a traditional reconciliation session involving members of Sayyid's and Wahiba's families. At the session, the neighbor gave Sayyid a piece of advice. "If your wife asks for a penny," he said, "give her two."
"Why should I give her two pennies?" Sayyid asked.
"Because the man with three pennies is standing outside your house."
Afterward, Sayyid was optimistic. When I asked how his sister and Wahiba had got along at the meeting, Sayyid seemed surprised by the question. "They weren't there," he said. "Women aren't allowed at a reconciliation." He explained that it's impossible to control them in such a situation. "They have long tongues, and they insult people," he said. "There would be a fight."
Soon, he was receiving more text messages—You're going to divorce me with your legs crossed over your head—and it was clear that the all-male reconciliation had failed to appease this woman's anger. On the last day of January, Sayyid went to see a lawyer he had retained in Ard al-Liwa, and I accompanied him, along with a translator.
The lawyer's office was in one of the dirtiest parts of Ard al-Liwa. As we picked our way through piles of rotting organic material, Sayyid explained that zabaleen had been dumping it here since the great pig massacre of '09. But the office itself was neatly appointed. A row of hardbound legal books sat on a shelf behind the lawyer's desk, and he had arranged religious signs throughout the place: "Pray to the Prophet"; "There Is No God but God." The lawyer was a short, neckless man who leaned forward as he talked, shoulders level with his ears, as if prepared to ram his head into whatever stood in his way. His eyes widened when Sayyid showed him a text on his phone.
"She's calling you a bitch!" the lawyer said. "If she were my wife, I swear to God I would have shot her. Boom, I swear!" He shook his head and pointed to some court documents that Wahiba had filed. "The law has no heart," he said. "It has a brain—and the brain is papers. And this paper says that she can't live with you, she can't stand you."
Sayyid said, "Up until now, I still don't want to humiliate her."
"Sayyid, this is love!" The lawyer told him sternly that he was being soft-hearted, and he held up one of the papers. "Look at this!"
"I can't read," Sayyid said.
"She insults you with nasty words! She writes these things—look at it!"
"I can't read," Sayyid said.
"She insults you!" the lawyer said. "She's filed three cases. Each one is a speed bump. Her goal is to make it so that either you don't go or, if you go, you can't work."
He said that if Sayyid failed to fight the case his wife would get everything. Sayyid appeared overwhelmed—there were bags under his eyes, and he had come straight from work, in his filthy zabal clothes. But the lawyer was skillful; he calmly asked questions, drawing details out of his client. Periodically, he flourished a document and pushed it in front of Sayyid, who would say the same thing: I can't read. I can't read. After a while, Sayyid mentioned that his wife had recently taken a job at a weaving factory. The lawyer's face lit up.
"What's the factory address?" he said. "Tell me and I can have her arrested!" He waved one of the papers: "It says here that she's not working. You see, the law is beautiful!" He continued, "We can send a message to the factory manager: either he can fire her or he can give us proof that she's working."
"She was always asking me to work," Sayyid said. "I told her that when I die she can work."
"So she was asking you to work?"
"Yes, but what am I, a child?" Sayyid said. "I can work. My wife doesn't need to work."
"You won't believe the cases I see," the lawyer said, and he described a client whose mother had been flirting with her own son-in-law. "They get these ideas from watching television," he said. "Your wife, she's from Upper Egypt, and she's used to being behind a cow." He continued, "She came to Cairo, she got a television, she saw dancing—she wants all of this."
"I have two televisions," Sayyid said proudly.
"It's our duty to teach her," the lawyer said. "When we have a cow that's aggressive, what do we do? We put a ring through her nose." He noted that Wahiba had hired a female lawyer, which he believed was a shrewd strategy for intimidating the judge, who he expected to be a graduate of Al Azhar University, the most prestigious Islamic institution in the Arab world.
"When this female lawyer talks to the Azhar judge, he'll stare at the ground," the lawyer said. "He'll be shy; he won't know what to do. Your wife will say, 'He abused me sexually, he did this, he did that!' And the judge will say, 'Enough, enough!' Because he's so shy. But if I go I'll straighten it out."
He explained that by law Wahiba needed her husband's permission to work, because the papers described her as a housewife. "In Islamic Sharia, the woman is like an egg," he said. "Let's say you have ten eggs. Where would you put them? Would you just leave them lying around? No, you'd put them in the proper place, in the refrigerator. Women belong at home. They can go out of the house with their husband's permission, but that's it."
When Sayyid first entered the office, he seemed near tears. But the lawyer's confidence was contagious, and by the end of the meeting Sayyid was smiling. The lawyer told him it was important not to request the divorce—if Wahiba was forced to initiate it, then her share of their assets would be much less. He warned Sayyid not to tell anybody about their strategy. "Keep the secret between your teeth," he said. "That's why God made your mouth like this!"
Throughout the conflict, I saw Wahiba only once. I went with Sayyid to Family Court, where both parties made statements to an official. Sayyid wore particularly filthy clothes, because the lawyer had told him that appearing poor would improve his odds by exactly fifteen per cent. Wahiba arrived with her lawyer, her mother, her sister-in-law, and her three small children in tow; she wore a black niqab and her hands were gloved. Sayyid and I were asked to go into the next room while she made her statement. The night before, she had sent a text: I'm going to go under oath and destroy you.
I had always liked talking with Sayyid, because of his eye for detail in Zamalek, but I noticed that he rarely said anything specific about his wife. She was crazy, he often told me, and her mind was a lock—a phrase that describes ignorance and stubbornness. But sometimes I wondered if she was almost as mysterious to him as she was to me. In his description, the woman was completely blank, as faceless as a figure in a shroud. And all the skill that Sayyid showed in Zamalek—his insight and flexibility, his ability to interact and negotiate with so many different people—seemed to evaporate when he was dealing with his wife. She was, quite simply, terrifying. And from the male perspective this seemed true of Egyptian women in general, whether they were starting fights, or chasing dakar, or intimidating Azhar judges.
I never knew why Wahiba became so angry. Sayyid blamed money, which seemed unlikely. A couple of his neighbors told me the real problem was that Sayyid spent too much time in Zamalek, cultivating his relationships, while Wahiba was stuck with three small kids in the ashwa'iyat. But it was impossible to know for certain, just as it was impossible to know why she suddenly dropped her cases. After all the lawyers and statements, and all the threatening messages, at the last moment Wahiba backed out. She decided not to file for divorce, and she quit her factory job, and Sayyid went home to Ard al-Liwa as if nothing had happened.
Last year, after Morsi was forcibly removed from office, and the military returned to power, a friend of mine remarked that it felt like a revolution "in the circular sense of the word." She explained, "You go back to where you started." The longer I lived in Egypt, the more I sensed the presence of some undefined and undirected frustration that motivated everything from politics to home life. It wasn't limited to a certain class: I was struck by how middle- and upper-class friends also had family fights that were just as intense as Sayyid's. And, like him, they almost inevitably returned to whatever was familiar. It felt like a statement, not a demand—people couldn't say what they wanted, but they could say that something felt wrong.
Still, they survived. The circle kept turning. The garbage vanished from the fire escape every morning. At night, Sayyid periodically stopped by my apartment to drink beer and chat. After he was gone, Leslie sometimes asked, "Is it really possible that they're together again?" But he looked so much healthier and happier than he had during the winter. And he was back to taking tramadol on Thursday nights, which had to mean something. ♦