“Rizk Youssef sits outside of a convenience store in Mokattam, the Garbage City of Cairo, while the community’s children jockey for space on his lap. He is dressed smartly. His low-pitched voice is calm; his English spiced with Arabic and French. A clinging stench, from generations of garbage collecting and swine herding, emanates from small hills of refuse, spills out from the alleys, oozes around all stationary structures. As Rizk begins to speak, darkness falls. The people of Mokattam venture out to socialize and a cool breeze lifts the scent of garbage away.”– “Future’s So Bright,” Guernica, Aug. 3, 2007
This may be the oldest story I have in this archive, but I can still smell the streets of Mokattam as if I were walking them right now. I happened upon the Coptic Christian neighborhood through some work my friend Kaydee Dahlin was doing with the girls of that neighborhood. Through Kaydee, I was able to see Cairo through the lens of humans, as opposed to bouncing off the pyramids and the old city walls like a tourist.
I remember my last afternoon in Mokattam, after dozens of interviews, walking through the dirt alleys piled with trash. Kids and goats and pigs rummaged about, groups men drank tea and played backgammon, spilling out from holes in the brick facade. It was hot and I was dizzy and the smell of garbage was sweet and sticky in my nose. I noticed a hard, thug looking Coptic kid eyeing me from one of the tea houses. As I walked on, he disappeared briefly behind another man, then reappeared in the dirt path, holding out a fat spliff. I took it wordlessly, puffed, and said “Helouah Habibi,” he replied, “Meshe,” and I walked on.
I will never forget that moment, as long as I live.
Click here to read the full story, “Future’s So Bright.”