Pigs are not to blame for the so-called swine flu, which in any case has not found this hilltop slum, but trucks flanked by armed police have come anyway and hauled them away. Raised by Coptic Christian garbage collectors who fattened them with trash and sold them to non-Muslim butchers, the animals are among the 300,000 pigs the government has ordered to be corralled and killed. Their silence means that what scant prosperity there was amid these cliffs has vanished.
“How will I feed my children now? I’ve lost 70% of my income,” says Ramzi Shawki, whose 120 pigs lived in a pen next to his house until they were driven away, sprinkled with lime and buried in trenches. “Our pigs are not sick. I can hold them in my arms. I’m 41 years old. I was born into collecting garbage and raising pigs. I’ve never been infected. But whoever doesn’t give up their pigs gets arrested.”
Up this hill, where garbage from the city below is delivered in endless strands and clumps, poor men get poorer in the neighborhoods of the zabaleen. They are Cairo’s trash collectors, tens of thousands of them, whose homes abut tiny dumps that have turned refuse into a way of life. But the swine flu scare, global economic collapses, tumbling recycling prices, all the indiscernible errors of biology and stock markets, reach deep into a man’s wallet here.
“The government gave me 2,500 pounds for my animals” – about $450 – says Shawki, “but they were worth 18,000 pounds.”
The men around him shake their heads. The same math has befallen each of them. They sit half in the shade, half in the sun, their trucks parked, their sacks tossed aside. There are crosses etched on the walls, and the men speak of God the way men do when the world and their own hands have failed them. They’ve been out all morning, up at 4, some lucky enough to have contracts with the tourist hotels, but that garbage has gotten lighter, as if even rich people these days are eating everything on their plates and are not so quick to throw away things that could be fixed.