As I scrambled up piles of cardboard and across varied detritus, I eventually peered over a metal barrier into the porcine enclave beyond. The two dozen or so pigs on the other side quickly scattered away to the shadows before slowly returning to where they were, munching on orange peels and the other organic materials left for them.
"Welcome to Garbage City!" yells one man below me, before continuing on in his business of compressing and packaging used cardboard. "You like the pigs?" he asks me.
Manshiyet Nasser, or 'Garbage City' as it's otherwise known, is a sprawling town of mostly Coptic Christians and lies under the Mokattam hills just slightly under five miles (8km) from downtown Cairo. With the majority of the population working in the informal recycling and rubbish collecting business, the area is home to some 60,000 'Zabaleen' (literally 'garbage people') and the destination of some 30 percent of Greater Cairo's daily municipal waste output—all 4,200 tons of it. Walking around the maze of streets, you occasionally pass by openings to the makeshift furnaces used for recycling; the blasts of heat and the whirr of metal reminding you exactly where you are—in essence, a recycling industry. Elsewhere, the smell—as one would imagine—is incredibly pungent. Foodstuffs and other organic matter putrefy under the hot sun, offering up an odor capable of burning the nasal hairs. It only takes about 15 minutes for the body to adjust to it, though, and eventually its power escapes you.
Garbage City is also home to the highest concentration of pigs in Egypt—around 50,000 of them. This is nearly double the number of pigs than there were the year before. It is an immense resurgence from five years ago, when Hosni Mubarak's government culled most of Egypt's pig population because of a swine flu scare. But even though pork farming is still illegal today, a few bold farmers are attempting to reform the industry altogether.
On April 29th, 2009, amid the growing paranoia over the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, Egypt's government, under Hosni Mubarak, ordered the immediate slaughter of every pig in Egypt. At the time, Egypt's agriculture ministry put the number of pigs in the country at close to 250,000.
Despite the fact that no pigs in Egypt were found to have the new strain, and that the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that it could not be caught from eating pork that was properly prepared, the decision went ahead. Shortly after the announcement, the government described the move not so much a precaution against swine flu, but a general public health measure. Nearly every pig in Egypt was taken to a slaughterhouse and killed, or, in several reported cases that don't bear thinking about, either covered in acid or buried alive.
The pig farmers in Garbage City explained to me that it was now legal to own and rear pigs, but against the law to slaughter them to sell for consumption purposes. In other words, pig farming is still illegal. The loophole was an easy one to spot for the business-minded, though, and in the richer and more foreigner-friendly areas of Zamalek and Maadi, a few shops have taken to selling imported items. Slaughtered and processed overseas, the pigs are now sold to a predominantly foreign clientele living in Egypt.
Tucked away along one of Zamalek's main roads, an otherwise unassuming alcohol shop sells an assortment of German pork products. In full view of its entrance, a typical meat counter offers foie gras, mortadella, bacon, pork cutlets, and more.
"Great pork, all from Germany," says Atalah, an employee of the shop. When queried on how much of the stuff they sell in a month, he estimates over 220 pounds. "There are a lot of foreigners here and they love their pork!" Assuring me of the legality of the operation, he stresses that he would never risk jail over something as trivial as pork, before continuing, in a whisper, "If you want I can get you good booze? All European stuff: beers, wine, vodka, whiskey. I have it. But keep it quiet, because it's illegal."
Back in Manshiyet Nasser, farmers explained the immediate problems they faced as a result of the 2009 killings. "I had around 1,500 pigs before Mubarak's decision [to cull them]." Says Rezek, a Garbage City resident. "Then they came around and took them all; I must have lost something like 70,000 EGP ($10,000 USD) worth of pigs."
"But it is more than just the initial money loss," says Bekhit, an older pig farmer. "It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork." Barbecue pork is incredibly popular in Garbage City and it seemed to be a phrase almost everyone I met could say in English. "The pigs are great for all the organic materials we have to get rid of. We can recycle inorganic, you know, the plastics and stuff, but any leftover food would just sit there rotting," adds Rezek.
Sitting at a café that spread precariously into the road, the men chatted about 2009 and the aftermath. "One of the most immediate things that happened was the price of beef went up. Anyone who still had their pigs would hoard them or sell them at way more than most could afford," says Bekhit. "Before Mubarak you could buy pork from a butcher for something like 25 EGP/kg ($3.60 USD/kg). Now it's double that."
"It was our way of life: It was the insurance of a monthly income, a source to pay for a wedding, not to mention good food to feed the family, you know, barbecue pork."
Raafat, a butcher in the area with 20 years of experience, estimates that he is one of six or seven butchers who continue to process and cook pork. "I actually had to start selling chicken immediately after the cull," he explains. "There just weren't any pigs."
Before Mubarak, Raafat was going through about four pigs worth of pork a day. "After, it was maybe one or two a week. It is much better, but right now it's pretty low, maybe two or three a day, but that's because people are fasting for Easter, and the economy is a mess."
One of the major issues he is still battling with is the lack of a certified stamp of approval from a health official. "Some people are afraid because it isn't stamped so they don't know what it's like. Before the cull, there were doctors who would certify the meat—now I have to do it myself. That doesn't worry people here, but outside of Garbage City it puts people off."
Walking around Garbage City, it seemed as though almost every ad hoc building now had a few pigs tucked away behind the exterior, either in a makeshift sty in the back, on a rooftop, or under some stairs. "I remember when they first came [in 2009], says Bashai. "I hid two piglets in a small room in my house and had to let the others be taken and killed. It wasn't until Mubarak was removed that things really got better," he continued, in reference to the coup that overthrew the Islamist President in July of last year. "Under Mubarak, the government was still looking for pigs, but now there are no problems."
Guiding me through to the back of his building, Bashai walked expertly across an ocean of bottles, cardboard, and—I couldn't help but notice—at least two needles. I stumbled my way after him, desperately trying to not fall. His youngest son skipped past me and they both helped me into their pigpen. "I now have 60 pigs or so," he stated with some dissatisfaction while the pigs walked around him, nibbling at his feet. "But I hope to have many more soon. Things are looking better now."
Rafaat agrees, saying that with the more comfortable attitude now being afforded to pork, sales can only increase. "I'm not afraid of anyone coming to arrest me over selling this stuff anymore. I actually think the abattoirs will reopen soon." He smiles. "I still offer chicken if people want it, but almost everyone wants the barbecue pork."