The Mural in the Garbage: An Artist’s "Perception" of Cairo’s Coptic Slum
By Jayson Casper, Guest Contributor
In 2013 the French-Tunisian eL Seed became the first Arab artist to collaborate with fashion mogul Louis Vuitton. His unique "caligraffiti" style emblazoned their classic Foulards d’Artiste monogram scarf, and embellished their iconic Alzer luggage case.
Blending traditional Arabic calligraphy with street-style urban graffiti, his reputation grew as his murals transformed walls around the world with messages of peace. Condé Nast Traveler feted eL Seed (pictured above) as one of the year’s leading visionaries, even as he mingled with artists, diplomats, celebrities, and billionaires.
Three years later he was picking through trash in a city dump. But eL Seed’s story is no tale of woe. He was there by choice to shine light upon the Egyptian "Garbage City" community in the Manshiat Nasser slum.
His latest project "Perception" cast the ancient words of a fourth-century bishop onto fifty dreary, filth-strewn apartments in a largely Coptic neighborhood in eastern Cairo. His largest-scale project so far, the circular mural is visible only from the St. Simon Monastery, where the cave churches in the towering Muqattam Mountains offer sanctuary for Christians from the squalor below.
“If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes,” reads the mural. But to help others do so, eL Seed got his hands dirty first.
Born to Tunisian immigrants in Paris and raised in the Arab and African ghettos, perhaps eL Seed could identify with the Coptic garbage collectors. People perceive them as dirty, marginalized, and segregated, he wrote in his website’s description of Perception, though he praised them as generous, honest, and strong. Known as Zabbaleen, a term related to the Arabic word for trash, they recycle over 90 percent of what they collect.
“They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage,” he wrote, “and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the ones who clean the city of Cairo.”
In 1969 the governor of Cairo created Manshiat Nasser and relocated the Zabbaleen and their trash-eating pigs to the base of the Muqattam cliffs. Pork is forbidden to Muslims, but no religion is needed to see the animals had become an urban nuisance. As the community grew via economic emigration from Upper Egypt, the slum preserved its Coptic character. Today pictures of the Virgin Mary and Pope Shenouda, the beloved late patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, hang from buildings on every street.