Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What’s left over

Only for a very short time was he on duty: produced to hold any kind of purchases: chips, sandwiches, milk, and an ice cream. He’s not very strong, but firm enough to carry a few gewgaws so that they would not tumble on the street. Now, the small white plastic bag is scrunched up and carelessly thrown onto the street. There, he is curling to and fro, trying to steady himself on a stone or a fence.


There’s a big heavy waste container some distance away. It’s open, there’s no lid, doesn’t need it, since there’s no rain. It’s placed in a stupid location: at the end of a steep street that trails away in the rock. Sand glides down from the hillside, scattered garbage and broken pieces of glass make it difficult to approach the waste container. At nights, roaming dogs watch barking loudly over their playground and food source. In our quarters, there are several of theese kinds of waste containers.

There are also big grey plastic bins: ideally located, never far away from front doors, yet far away enough so that the unpleasant smell would not disturb. Nevertheless, some bins are lying on the ground; garbage is piled up in, on and around the bins. It’s a cats’ paradise.

And there are also those haggard men with fathomless faces of wrinkled landscapes. Their bony figures are covered with dark blue overalls, and their turbans are wound of only a few square centimetres of tissue. They push a bin on wheels and a besom. Or, they leave the bin alone, not too far away. They sweep the streets and collect all debris. You can hardly see them at work, most of the time they sit somewhere in the shade, smoking a cigarette.  


The scavenger picks up the scrunched plastic bag and throws it into his bin. There, he’s lying on plastic bottles, cigarette butts and cans. More plastic bags are gathering around him, glass bottles and pizza cartons are crushing him. After a few days, the bin gets emptied into a huge metal container. Almost could the plastic bag escape – yet, other debris is holding him tight.


Normally, the Zabaleen – the scavengers -  show up once a day. They load some of the garbage on a much too small lorry. The driver remains seated in the cabin while two other men sort out the garbage: one chooses bare handed from the waste container what may go on the lorry. He tears open waste bags, takes out card boards, plastics, remains of clothes, metal and other recyclables and hands them over to the other guy on the cargo area.

Up there, card boards are being folded and carefully stowed away at the edge of the loading ramp – that’s clever since by doing so, the content can enormously be extended. All the rest is distributed into several light blue bags on the lorry. Organic waste, such as cropped branches, withered flowers or palm leaves remain where they are. Also food remains. Since in Egypt there are no more pigs, the Zabaleen don’t see an opportunity to make use of leftovers. After having escaped from the waste bags, the plastic bags, packets and paper shreds are whirling in the wind over the street, entangle themselves in bushes and garden fences and find a way to everywhere where they do not belong to.

Waste containers and bins are usually empty after the Zabaleen’s work; yet round and round there is a big mess. Cats and dogs rummage around in the remains, drag them across the street, and fight for leftovers.


The container gets tilted over with a boisterous jolt; suddenly, the small white plastic bag is free: a wind gust gets hold of him, lifts him up, lets him dance in the air! This unexpected liberty feels irritating… where should he go? Aimlessly, he is dancing up and down, is drifting just above the street, avoiding a tree and is gaining height again. He’s beside himself with joy: it’s marvellous to drift in the wind.

Sometimes men can be discerned in the semi-darkness leaning over the waste container and digging through the garbage… What are they looking for? Comestibles? Once they realise that they are being observed, they lower their look, turn around and leave.

Well-dressed men leave their waste bags in the early morning or late at night on the backside of the buildings or in the middle of the sidewalk! – and walk away as cool as a cucumber…
Yet abruptly, his joy is stalled. The small white plastic bag is caught in a tall tree‘s branches; the wind is pushing his hangers in two different directions. He is on the verge of bursting, defends himself with all his might, shudders, trembles for a while, but the wind is stronger.


Every couple of weeks, a huge excavator temporarily finds a remedy: the greedy shovel loads all what has been left over for weeks on a big lorry: glass fragments, bones, cans, rotten leaves, fabric scraps, stones and sand. After that, the area looks tidy for some hours – only alongside the garden fences and bushes some plastic bags remain stuck.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Just to raise a smile

When I go shopping, I dearly try to express my wishes in Arabic. However, depending on the kind of shop and the sales assistant, most of the time, the answer follows in English. This is how it goes to and fro – the Egyptian speaks English which is even worse than my Arabic, and I answer in a miserable Arabic.

Somehow, all conversations follow a similar pattern:

Me (in Arabic): Good morning, I’d like to buy this or that. Or: is XY there?

He (in English): Good morning, yes, we have. Or: no. Or: I don’t know.

Me (in A): When do you get it or when does XY come?

He (in E): Tomorrow, Insha’Allah.

Me (in A): Could you please speak Arabic with me?

He (in A): Do you live here? (With lots of good luck finally in Arabic)

Me: Yes.He: Since when?

Me: Since then and then.

He: Are you married?

Me: Yes.

He: With an Egyptian?

Me: Yes.

He (again in English): Oh, he is a lucky man!

Me (continuing in Arabic): thanks.

And in future I’ll add: I’ll tell him (my fictional Arabic husband).

I leave the shop with a big smile. Although I have neither got the product nor the information requested, the shop assistant made the most of the situation: he simply raised a smile to my face!