On the outskirts of Cairo lies Manshiyat Nasr, one of the poorest parts of the sprawling Egyptian city. The neighborhood, home to many of Cairo’s Coptic Christians, is often called “Garbage City” after its residents’ informal roles as the city’s trash collectors. Now, a street artist has brightened up the neighborhood’s streets with an enormous mural honoring the people who work to keep Cairo clean.
Titled Perception, the mural, which covers more than 50 buildings, is the work of the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, who is known for his politically charged pieces in Palestine and other countries. While bits and pieces of the painting can be seen from the streets, it’s only from a distance that the “calligraffitti” can be read. It spells out a phrase in Arabic, a quote from a 3rd-century Coptic Bishop that reads in English, “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first,” Libby Nelson reports for Vox.
“I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences,” eL Seed wrote in a statement. “In the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. Still, the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated.”
The residents of Manshiyat Nasr are a critical, albeit informal, part of the city’s infrastructure. The garbage collectors recycle as much as 80 percent of the city’s trash, but they are still derided by many as Zabaleen, or “garbage people,” Sarah Cascone writes for artnet News.
Egyptian authorities are not known for being tolerant of artists: in recent years, the government has cracked down on novelists, painters, and even cultural centers accused of tarnishing “public morality,” Kareem Fahim reports for the New York Times. But over the course of several weeks, eL Seed and his collaborators managed to avoid police by painting the mural in small segments all across the oft-forgotten neighborhood.
“Upon beginning the project, each building was given a number,” eL Seed wrote in a Facebook post. “Soon enough, each of these buildings became known as ‘the house of Uncle Bakheet, Uncle Ibrahim, Uncle Eid.’ Each of these buildings is now associated with unforgettable memories.”
While the neighborhood has drawn international attention from journalists and non-governmental organizations, many of its residents remain poor. Their relationship with the Egyptian government is touchy, particularly in light of recent attempts to replace the garbage collectors with private companies, Fahim reports. Though a single mural can’t solve the problems caused by decades of institutional neglect, eL Seed hopes that the mural will help others recognize that its residents are people, too.