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April 3, 2011


Garbage Dreams is another film about the Coptic garbage collectors and recyclers of Mukattam, in the outskirts of Cairo, which is produced by an American Copt. In 2008 Inge Wassef produced Marina of Zabbaleen, which you can read about in:

Garbage Dreams was produced by Mai Iskander one year after in 2009. The film is 79 minutes long, and is in Egyptian with English subtitles. It was the 2010 Director’s Guild of America nominee for best documentary, and is winner of 24 awards, including the 2009 IDA (Int’l Doc. Association) HUMANITAS Award and the 2009 Al Gore Reel Current Award.

Although Inge was born in Egypt, and then her family moved to America while she was yet a child, Mai’s family moved to the US before she was born, and she was born and raised there. Both, however, have not forgotten about their Coptic roots, and returned to Egypt several times, and were involved in trying to relieve the suffering of their brethren and sisters there. Perhaps their best contribution towards that was their two films which highlight the lives of the Coptic Zabbaleen who collect Cairo’s garbage and recycle it in a highly efficient way – they recycle 80% of it. But their livelihood is meager, and they are suffering from disease, poor education and lack of social or public services. However, their hard works earns them enough money on which they can barely survive.

This livelihood has been under threat since 2005 when the Egyptian government, corrupt to the core, made lucrative deals with multinational companies, mainly Italian and Spanish, to recycle Cairo’s garbage mechanically. This sort of recycling does not only threaten the work and livelihood of these Coptic Zabbaleen; it is also less efficient (recycling only 20% of the garbage), and is not environmentally friendly (since it buries the non-cycled garbage in landfills).

The two films show us the human dimension to living and working in garbage collection; the basic human needs, joys, fears and hopes of these Zabbaleen that we all share; and the new challenges that their community faces.

Towards the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010 a new threat from some of the corrupt Egyptian ministers, working with an eye to appease the multinational companies and the Islamists in Egypt [ii]: with the WHO announcement of the swine flu (H1N1) epidemic, it seemed the golden opportunity to get rid of these Zabbaleen and undermine their profession by culling the pigs raised by these Copts, and considered to be important tools in the recycling of organic garbage. Against the advice of the WHO and prominent epidemiologists, the Egyptian government started a crusade of culling, in which thousands of pigs were destroyed in an inhumane way. This new development happened after the two films were produced, and therefore there is no documentation of it the films.

See some of the videos on the brutal culling of the Zaballen’s pigs by the Egyptian government in 2010, against the advice of the UN, WHO and prominent epidemiologists, in the following (warning: some are gruesome):





Official Sites

Trailers & Clips


Film Clip #1 (In Cairo):

Film Clip #2 (In Mukattam):

Film Clip #3 (In Wales, through foreign exchange programme):

Short Synopsis

GARBAGE DREAMS follows three teenage boys born into the trash trade and growing up in the world’s largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo. It is home to 60,000 Zaballeen (or Zabbaleen), Arabic for “garbage people.” Far ahead of any modern “Green” initiatives, the Zaballeen survive by recycling 80% of the garbage they collect.  Face to face with the globalization of their trade, each of the teenage boys is forced to make choices that will impact his future and the survival of his community.

Longer Synopsis

Filmed over four years, GARBAGE DREAMS follows three teenage boys – Adham, a bright precocious 17-year-old; Osama, a charming impish 16-year-old; Nabil, a shy artistic 18-year-old – born into the trash trade and growing up in the world’s largest garbage village, a ghetto located on the outskirts of Cairo. It is a world folded onto itself, an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash; it is home to 60,000 Zaballeen (or Zabbaleen), Egypt’s “garbage people.”

For generations, the residents of Cairo have depended on the Zaballeen to collect their trash, paying them only a minimal amount for their garbage collection services. The Zaballeen survive by recycling the city’s waste. These entrepreneurial garbage workers recycle 80% of all the garbage they collect, creating what is arguably the world’s most efficient waste disposal system.

When the city they keep clean suddenly decides to replace the Zaballeen with multinational garbage disposal companies, the Zaballeen community finds itself at a crossroads. Face to face with the globalization of their trade, each of the teenage boys is forced to make choices that will impact his future and the survival of his community.


With a population of 18 million, Cairo, the largest city in the Middle East and Africa, has no sanitation service. For generations, the city’s residents have relied on 60,000 Zaballeen, or “garbage people,” to pick up their trash. The Zaballeen collect over 3,000 tons a day of garbage and bring it back to their “garbage village,” the world’s most effective and successful recycling program.

Paid only a minimal amount by residents for their garbage collection services, the Zaballeen survive by recycling. They have transformed Mokattam, their garbage neighborhood, into a busy recycling and trading enclave. Plastic granulators, cloth-grinders and paper and cardboard compacters hum constantly. While Western cities would boast of a 30% recycling rate, the Zaballeen recycle 80% of all the waste they collect.

The Zaballeen, who mostly belong to Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian community, were originally poor and illiterate farm laborers. Driven out of the rural south due to a lack of work, these disadvantaged farmers saw Cairo’s trash as an economic opportunity. They have created a recycling model that costs the state nothing, recycles so much waste and employs tens of thousands of Cairo’s poorest.

The Zaballeen earn little, but in a country where almost half of the population survives on less than $2 a day, it is a livelihood. Or has been.

In 2005, following the international trend to privatize services, the city of Cairo sold $50 million in annual contracts to three private companies (two from Italy and one from Spain) to pick up Cairo’s garbage. Their giant waste trucks line the streets, but they are contractually obligated to recycle only 20% of what they collect, leaving the rest to rot in giant landfills. As foreign workers came in with waste trucks and began carting garbage to nearby landfills, 60,000 Zaballeen saw their way of life disappearing.

Laila, the teacher at The Recycling School, the garbage village’s local school, sighs with despair, “They don’t see that we are poor people living off of trash. What are we suppose to do now?”


The American Coptic producer, Mai Iskander

Biography: Mai Iskander is a producer, director and cinematographer based in New York. “Garbage Dreams” is Mai’s directorial debut. As a cinematographer, Mai has worked on TV shows for A&E, PBS, LOGO and has filmed numerous dramatics (“Roof Sex”) and commercials. She has had the privilege of working with the legendary Albert Maysles on the documentary “Profiles of a Peacemaker.” Mai recently returned from Chad, where she worked with Academy Award nominee Edet Belzberg on her documentary “Watchers of the Sky.” Mai started her career working as a camera assistant for the Academy Award nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (“Amadeus,” “Ragtime”). As a camera assistant, Mai worked on over a dozen features, such as “Preacher’s Wife,” “Men in Black” and “As Good as It Gets,” and on over a hundred commercials. She graduated from New York University Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Film Production and a BA in Economics.

Mai Iskander’s Statement:

In my childhood memories, my family’s hometown of Cairo is a city of chaotic closeness. One minute, you are jostled by crowds of people, pushing through the marketplace, accosted by the honking of cars and the barters of merchants. A moment later, you step into a familiar doorway to be grabbed, hugged tightly, and kissed six times on the cheek by a wise and warm grandmother.

When I returned years later as an adult, friends of the family brought me to Mokattam, the garbage city on the outskirts of Cairo. Amid the crowded rooftops, goats, geese and chickens all grazed on remnants of waste. Garbage was piled three stories high. Children played on a mountain of multi-colored rags. And in the midst of it all, the dirt, the pungent smell of the garbage and the poverty, a joyous wedding celebration was taking place.

Born and raised in the United States, I came from another world — a wealthy, upscale life, a plastic consumerist existence, yet I was made welcome by these newfound friends and family. I was invited into the night’s festivities and into their extraordinarily resilient and joyful community.

In 2005, I returned to Mokattam and volunteered to help paint a mural at The Recycling School. I filmed a few of the students applying vibrant colors and making whimsical pictures on a drab concrete wall, thinking that I could cut together a little film about their mural as a present for them.

In front of the camera, these amazing children blossomed. They were uninhibited and genuinely pleased that an “outsider” took such interest in them. Most of all, they were proud of their way of life and their history. And like typical teenagers, they wanted to show off their fashion sense, their workout routine, and their music. Always wanting to outdo each other.  We all became fast friends.

One of the boys who became a major subject in my film, Osama, started bragging to his friends that an “international film crew” (in actuality it was just myself and my camera) was following him to document his incredibly charismatic self. Neighbors and friends immediately started calling him “Tommy Cruise.”

I returned to Mokattam many times over the next four years, and was always made welcome in the tiny homes or up on their rooftops. This was their only escape from the stench and crowds and chaos below.

I filmed these fantastic teens daily scavenging for tiny bits of cardboard and plastic. I was amazed by the hard, dangerous, dreary work of carrying and sorting garbage with their bare hands, spending hours breathing in the dust of the plastic granulators and fabric grinders, while making a tiny living from bits of trash. Day after day, they would work diligently and proudly without complaint and without self-pity. With poverty all around them, they were always rich in spirit, filled with ambition and pride, and would never allow a visitor to even buy her own soda.

They would work long into the night to clean up after us, the modern, industrialized world. Beyond that, by creating the world’s most effective resource recovery system (they recycle 80% of what they collect) they are actually saving our earth. From out of the trash, they lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world’s most pressing crisis.

Meanwhile, my three young friends were also growing up very quickly. Osama, the one-time happy slacker, was hoping to find and keep a good job. Nabil dreamed of marrying and making a home of his own.  Adham wanted to modernize the recycling trade.

I hope that my friends follow their dreams.

I hope the bigger world will recognize that it is these dreamers who become leaders.


One dreams of respect

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

-Osama, 16

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. Although his friends taunt him, calling him “a traitor,” he secretly confesses that he loves wearing his new uniform and riding the giant corporate garbage trucks through the chaotic streets of Cairo.

One dreams of prosperity

“If I woke up one day and found that there is no more trash, I would feel as if I’ve died.”

– Nabil, 18

Nabil, a shy, sensitive 18- year old boy, longs to bring comfort and normalcy to his loved ones. He hopes that there will be enough work for him so that he may take a wife and start a family. Even when away at the foreign exchange program in Wales, he daydreams of returning home and looking for an apartment so he can get married.   Going abroad only strengthened his pride in his community and his devotion to the traditional Zaballeen ways and the Zaballeen trade. Nabil finally gets engaged, but his family cannot afford to buy him the apartment he needs to own in order to get married.

One dreams of changing the world

“We recycle 80% of what we collect.  Egypt must become famous for its recycling”

-Adham,  17

As the only man of 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 has been working to develop and modernize his trade.  When Adham finds out that he is selected by the school to take part in a long week 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.  In his community, he inspires a campaign to “modernize” the Zaballeen’s practices and teach Cairo’s citizens how to sort their trash for recycling.

One works for her Coptia[iv]

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

– Laila (Coptic community activist and teacher)

Laila is the neighbourhood 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 neighbourhood.

In an update from Laila (April 2010), she writes:[v]

“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.”


Laila is the sort of Copt who is conscious of her Christian and national duties of serving her people. She is a community activist and a teacher at the Recycling School. When she is not teaching at the school she goes round the village to vaccinate the children against infectious diseases.

She is also active politically – and she is forming a Zababbaleen union to defend the rights of her people against the corrupt authorities and the exploiting multinational companies. She is, however, aware that the Zabbaleen need to modernise their ways; and through her work at the school and in talking to her brothers and sisters she is trying to do just that.

All Copts should be proud of her.

[i] By Coptic Nationalism.

[ii] Pigs are hated by Islam, and references to Quran, Sunna, and traditions of the Caliphs can be cited. In one of the Prophet’s sayings, the Messiah will return at the end of the world specifically to break the Crucifix and to kill the pigs.

[iii] From the official sites.

[iv] Coptia is a newly-coined word that stands for the Coptic physical space (akin to country or patrie), the Coptic community/communities and the Coptic nation. Read more about it in:

[v] For the update, see:

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