Sprawling Mural Pays Homage to Cairo's Garbage Collectors
CAIRO — The intricate mural took shape over the past few weeks, little noticed at first, spreading across a harried quarter of Cairo where Egypt's garbage collectors live, amid overflowing bundles of this overcrowded city's trash.
By the time the painting was finished two weeks ago, it stretched across more than 50 buildings, making it the largest public work of art here anyone can recall. The mural, a circle of orange, white and blue in Arabic calligraphy, quotes a third-century Coptic Christian bishop who said, "If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes."
When the first photographs of the mural circulated, reactions ranged from astonished delight to disbelief. Some people, struck by its seemingly impossible scale, seemed convinced that the images had been digitally altered, according to the man behind the project, a Tunisian-French artist known as eL Seed.
But what seemed most surprising was that eL Seed and several friends who worked with him had been able to complete the project at all, without being harassed or arrested.
Egypt's highhanded government has shown little tolerance for artists, sending agents to raid cultural centers and recently prosecuting a novelist on charges that he had harmed public morality. Street artists who made the city their canvas in the heady days after Egypt's uprising in 2011 have lately been forced to work hastily or in secret, carrying out projects "as you would a heist," said Soraya Morayef, who has documented street art over the past five years on her blog.
But eL Seed chose a forsaken corner of the city, called Manshiyat Naser, away from the gaze of officials, the kind of place where artists have had more space to work, Ms. Morayef said.
The artist said he intended to change popular perceptions of the district, too narrowly associated with squalor, and to celebrate decades of unsung work by its residents who sort and recycle tons of the city's waste. He has painted large works of distinctive calligraphy in other countries over the past few years, including in Brazil, France and Tunisia, but he said the experience in Egypt, and the reaction, were "overwhelming."
He chalked up the success of the project, which was entirely self-funded, to his decision to work quietly, with the cooperation of residents, but also to a visitor's naïveté.
That meant ignoring the arguments that seem to attend many public expressions in a testy Egypt these days. "Sometimes when you come from outside, you don't see all the problems that might happen," he said in an interview. "I was trying not to look at the political situation, the economic struggles, and just focus on the art project."
The praise came from the neighborhood, young anti-government activists and other artists. A well-known Egyptian graffiti artist, Ammar Abo Bakr, writing on Facebook, called the mural "the first of its kind" in Egypt.
"Just imagine that our artists who sell their art for thousands of pounds decide to contribute and suggested some solutions to beautify or enrich Egypt's facades," he wrote.
More than 5,000 people shared a post of eL Seed's mission statement on Facebook, and there were hundreds of mostly positive comments that suggested that he had accomplished his goals. "Beautiful and honest words," one woman in Egypt wrote. The garbage collectors, she added, "deserve our gratitude."
Officials seemed taken by surprise. The Egyptian Embassy in Washington promoted the project on its Twitter feed, and said it was "totally amazed."
As eL Seed planned the mural over the past year, he was aided by a local priest, the Rev. Samaan Ibrahim, who is considered a leader of the mainly Coptic garbage collectors in the neighborhood. The priest's approval and participation in the project in turn brought residents on board, eL Seed said.
The neighborhood was established more than four decades ago, with its striking location in the shadow of cliffs and fetid streets making it the most recognizable of several settlements where the city's garbage collectors live.
The neighborhood has also received frequent attention over the years from international aid organizations and journalists, making it one of the most prosperous settlements, said Gaétan du Roy, a Belgian researcher who studies the religious lives of the collectors.
But many of its residents are impoverished and continue to be regarded as second-class citizens because of their association with the trash, he said.
Their relations with the government have also been strained. Officials have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to replace the garbage collectors and their extensive family networks with more modernized private companies. In one of the most enduring shocks to the area, President Hosni Mubarak's government, reacting to fears of a swine influenza epidemic in 2009, decided to kill all of Egypt's pigs, including thousands kept by the garbage collectors, who used them to consume organic waste and who would also sell their meat.
From the streets of the neighborhood, the painting appears in fragments: above a courtyard where members of one family carefully search for recycling in bags of trash, or looming over a rooftop occupied by a handful of sheep. The bracing scale of the mural is fully visible only from the Mokattam Hill on the edge of the district, near a famous cathedral carved inside a cave.
Viewed from there, the colors interrupt the monotonous red brick facades below, distinguishing these buildings from the thousands that have sprung up across the city over decades, with little oversight, to contain Cairo's bursting population.
In the days after the mural was completed, the residents of Manshiyat Naser seemed not to focus too closely on its message: Many people had yet to trek up the hill for a viewing, and few had any idea what the calligraphy said.
Instead, people seemed moved that eL Seed and his friends had bothered to travel to Cairo and immersed themselves in the neighborhood defying the various calamities that have driven away many visitors to Egypt in the past few years. The only complaint was that the artists had not painted more of the houses.
"They used to play with the kids here, and talk to the people," said Boutros Ghali, a 24-year-old shopkeeper who placed a photograph of himself with one of the visitors, a young Algerian, on the wall of his store. "People loved them, and got used to them. And when they left, people were upset."