The People

Osama, a young man with curly black hair wearing an orange sweater, smiles at the camera.


"Reaching the pinnacle is hard. You have to climb one step at a time."

Osama is an impish 16-year-old boy who can’t seem to keep a job. He plays soccer, plays pranks on his friends, and endures the wrath of his poor mother, who calls him lazy and a failure. In their garbage village, it is expected that boys Osama's age work and help out with family expenses. In his family, where everyone is suffering from illness related to the trash trade, the situation is much more dire. But Osama, soulful and sensitive, prays that when he becomes an altar boy, God will help him find his way. Although Osama professes that the multinational waste companies have ruined his neighborhood by putting the Zaballeen out of work, he cannot pass up the economic security of working for the conglomerates.

Update from Osama (April, 2010):

“I was employed with a foreign company for two years, but then I got into trouble. They kept deducting money from my pay because I was late. I complained and I asked management to change supervisors, but they ignored my request so I quit.

“It made me cry to see my mom struggle and suffer because I bounced between jobs. Now, it’s better. My whole family now respects me because I have a steady job. I just got a new job as a janitor in a club in the fancy part of town. I sweep. I clean the bathroom. I wear a uniform. I also have another job in my neighborhood where I remove the stickers off the tops of yogurt containers so that the plastic can be granulated.

“I hope to get married soon. I have been saving money. I am interested in a girl, but nothing is set yet. I haven't approached her yet. When it happens, you will be the first to know!”

Adham, a handsome young man with sideburns and a shy face, looks into the camera.


"We recycle 80 percent of what we collect. Egypt must become famous for its recycling."

As the only man in the house, Adham, a precocious 17-year-old boy, is the family breadwinner, supporting his mother and four sisters. Adham’s job consists of painstakingly shearing off the top of discarded soda cans separating the more lucrative aluminum tops from their tin canisters. In light of the arrival of the foreign multinational waste companies, he works to develop and modernize his trade. When Adham finds out that he is selected by the school to take part in a week-long foreign exchange program in Wales, United Kingdom, he is ecstatic. He returns home energized. He now fancies himself a trash mogul, and hopes he can make the Zaballeen famous and teach the world the latest recycling techniques.

Update from Adham (April, 2010):

“I graduated from The Recycling School and I got to fulfill my dream of traveling abroad!! I went to Austin, Texas to attend the SXSW film festival where GARBAGE DREAMS played for the first time. Life is totally different over there. The United States is filled with great people! We exchanged lots of ideas about recycling. They listened to me.

“I hope to continue my education abroad, study business administration, and return to open a can recycling factory. Of course, I will want to get married one day. But I want to accomplish things first. I want my children to play with new toys that I buy, not toys I collect from garbage as I used to do when I was a child.”

Laila, a young woman in a white shirt with pink stripes, demonstrates at the local recycling school.
Photo: Gigie Cruz/GAIA


“I live here. I am from here. I am like a fish that can’t leave the sea.”

Laila is the neighborhood community activist and teacher at the Recycling School. She was born and raised in the Mokattam settlement, and its wellbeing is of tantamount importance to her. With the arrival of the multinationals, her commitment to help the Zaballeen find their place in the new global waste management industry grows dramatically. When she’s not teaching, Laila makes rounds in Mokattam administering vaccination shots. Though at times Laila wonders if her efforts are futile, she cannot imagine leaving her neighborhood.

Update from Laila (April, 2010):

“Koko, my son is now four years old and going to kindergarten. My husband and I had a daughter. She is one year old. She is a bit naughty, but cute. I am juggling being a mother and my work.

“We dream of forming a Zaballeen union to defend our rights with the authorities and the foreign companies. Cairo's authorities have bypassed us and tried the system of the foreign companies and it is failing. No one knows the garbage profession as well as the Zaballeen. And we are modernizing our ways.”

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