Mr. 'Izat Na'īm Jindī is the founder and director of the Spirit of Youth, which is a local human rights NGO aimed at helping the garbage collectors community known in Egypt as Zabalīn [coming from the Arabic word zibālah, meaning garbage]. The zabalīn are mostly independent Coptic Christian entrepreneurs who have been making a living by collecting and recycling garbage since 1930s. Most of the zabalīn used to be economically challenged farmers that left Upper Egypt to seek better job opportunities. The population of the zabalīn has expanded dramatically to approximately 60,000 today.
The main objective of my interview with Mr. 'Izat Na'īm was to hear the insights of a true insider who witnessed the growth of Coptic migration throughout his entire life. 'Izat Na'īm, the 48-year-old grandson of a migrant garbage collector from Asyut, not only shared his knowledge about the history of rural-urban migration of Coptic Christians, but also raised his voice about the relegating status of Coptic Christians compared to the past.
My Grandfather moved to Cairo in 1949 from a village called Dayr Tasā in Asyut. In 1940s, rural-urban migration was not a very common phenomenon, but it became huge in the 50s and 60s. My grandfather was one of the pioneers who migrated for better economic opportunities.
My grandfather was a farmer who also raised animals like pigs and oxen. He didn’t own any land, but he was working for a very rich man. My grandfather was paid two piasters a day ('Izat estimates that it is probably something equivalent of 20 pounds today). He did not specifically plan on working as garbage collector when he moved to Cairo; he simply came with a fantasized dream. My grandfather told me that he started to collect garbage as a Muslim garbage collector at a coffee shop suggested my grandfather to work for him. The Muslim garbage collectors of that time were complaining about the government’s decision to ban the burning of garbage as a fuel. So, my grandfather helped his employer collect garbage and fed his pigs garbage.
The lack of economic opportunities in Upper Egypt was the main drive behind the migration. Upper Egypt was neglected and rural areas were neglected. There was no industry other than agriculture. Upper Egypt also lacked adequate infrastructure for the service industry. The government seemed to have neither the willpower nor the ability to initiate development in Upper Egypt. Upper Egypt seemed to be no more than Egypt’s source of food supplies.
My grandfather told me that in the past until the 1960s, Christians and Muslims were living in peace. Nobody really mentioned religion in daily life. I do not think that religious strife between Muslims and Christians played a big role in motivating his migration. It is widely believed that religious conflict in Egypt started with President Anwar As-Sadat who politically exploited religious conflict. The Wahhabis who returned from the Gulf empowered Muslim extremists and started treating Copts as second-class citizens.
I was born in 1964, and I was six years old when my family moved from a Zabalīn village in Imbaba to another Zabalīn village in Manshiet Nasser in 1970. My mother applied for me to go to primary school. I was luckily the oldest of five kids and I was the only kid who could go to school while the rest stayed at home and helped with my father’s work. Despite my mom’s support, my father was unwilling to send me to school in the beginning and was never enthusiastic about education.
Let’s assume that a Zabalīn family of the 1960s with six children, three girls and three boys. Two boys would help the father collect garbage and one, usually the oldest or the youngest, would go to school. 99% of the time, girls would stay at home. Children were used as human resources and girls stayed at home and sorted garbage. Now, the situation is much better as NGOs jumped in. There has been a change in people’s mindset only recently and education was a luxury a few decades ago.
My school was luckily only about two kilometers away from my home and it was outside the Zabalīn area where I lived. Only three kids from the Zabalīn community went to college the year I went to college, so higher education used to be very rare.
I am aware that an increasing number of Coptic Christians are leaving Egypt, but that is not true with the Zabalīn garbage collectors. The first reason is that most of the people here are not well qualified to go outside. They’ve collected garbage for their entire lives and most times they don’t know how to make a living without garbage. A large number of the Zabalīn do not even know how to read and write, and of course most of them don’t speak other languages. The base of their lives is in Cairo. It is difficult for them to abandon their roots when they do not have many options abroad.
New generations may be dreaming about emigration, but they don’t have any idea how they can carry out their dreams of emigration.
I’m Egyptian and I still love my country, but I strongly feel that we Christians are second-class citizens. I find many obstacles with the regime that marginalizes Coptic Christians. Coptic graduates from high schools who apply to the elite army or police academies will be unfairly declined and discriminated. There is like a ceiling that does not allow Christians to hold powerful positions of the country. When we faced marginalization, we couldn’t fight, but we had to find our own refuge in the Church. Christians still succeeded in fields like medicine and engineering where religion is not important.
I believe the percentage of Coptic Christians is much closer to 15% than 6% for many reasons. If the Coptic population was as small as 6%, I don’t think Shafiq could have done so well in the elections. All statistics in Egypt are not very reliable, but I don’t trust in particular the population survey of the Egyptian government that has been systematically marginalizing Coptic Christians for decades. I am in doubt of the Egyptian government’s ability to make an accurate survey. There are so many Coptic emigrants abroad and how could the government keep track of them and actually count them? There are many Copts who are registered as Muslims. All Coptic Christians are registered in a church, so the statistics declared by the pope seems more accountable to me.