In 2008, I visited Cairo for the first time. During my stay there, I lived on the third floor of a very aged building, in a straggling, high-ceilinged residence with three doors to the outside. One door leads to a small beautiful garden, the second one opens on to the parking area, and the third is only for the use of the Zabal, an Arabic word for a garbage collector, who is named Abbas.
It's in a small corner next to the pantry, and on the first day when I got there I was told to deposit my trash in front of the door. There was no fixed pickup schedule and no preferred container; I could use cartons, bags, or just throw lose the waste outside. "A random poor guy will take it," the house owner said. Throughout the next few days, I just placed my trash outside the door with plastic bags. In the beginning, I never saw or even care about Abbas as he unloaded the trashes before sunrise. It was only on the fifth day of my visit that I actually saw and talked to him. On that day, I woke up a little bit early and after finishing my morning prayer I went down to deposit the trash. "Woke up early, yes?" he asked. I nodded and smiled. He asked about my name and where I am from. As I had not much to do on that day, I decided to sit on the door and continued talking to him as he cleared up the trash.
"I know Indonesia, a large country with the largest Muslim populations," he said. "Correct," I replied. In the next 20 minutes, we continued talking about Indonesia, Islam, and Egypt. He was not only interested to talk about these subjects, but he knew a lot of things. As the sun rose, I began to be able to clearly see Abbas physically. He's not more than five feet and very scrawny. His shirt was too large, and his shoes flutter as he hoarded them from the garbage. What I most remember until now is his wide smile and deep eyes. He's a very good listener I would say and he speaks Fusha (pure) Arabic.
After that day, I saw him quite often and I also began to develop a sense of comfort in talking to him. I frequently tried to wake up early just so I could converse with Abbas. But in the beginning I always avoided asking personal questions even though I really wanted to know who he was. (In some cultures, it is not appropriate to ask personal questions in early encounters).
As time passed, we became relatively close. I lived in Giza, and Abbas was my most reliable guide to the locality. I also frequently accompanying him on his morning routines. In the early second week of my stay, Abbas had become my close friend so and so he asked me to visit his home several times. "I am afraid I have no time," I often said. He seemed discontent, but he always replied with his unforgettable wide smile. He began narrating me different stories ranging from his life, his family, as well as his city, Alexandria - Egypt's second largest city. Out of all stories, the most intriguing one was the story of how he became a garbage collector and his message about garbage collectors.
He had been working as a garbage collector for 27 years. "People are careless about us," he complained. He told me that too often people forget that garbage collectors are heroes. I was struck when he uttered those words. I realised how little do we care towards these individuals. In fact, when we discuss environment-related subjects, seldom do we mention about them. Just imagine if nobody picks up our trashes every morning. Those trashes will accumulate and will become a source of different problems.
Garbage buildup causes the development of many diseases and infections including malaria, cholera, diarrhea, skin diseases, and others. These diseases if not treated immediately can even lead to death. Besides causing pollution, these mounting garbage can lead to severe flooding, which, of course, has its own severe consequences including deaths, damaged infrastructures, as well as the destruction of plants and animals. Of course, there are many more consequences of accumulated garbage we can talk about. But due to limited space I have, I would like to just reiterate the moral of the story; let's not forget about garbage collectors. Even though their work may seem menial to us, we owe them a great deal of gratitude. Without them, it is difficult to comprehend what the world would look like. With little recompense, they save the world from things that we often take for granted. Indeed, Abbas was correct. Garbage collectors are indeed heroes. To be precise, the forgotten heroes.
Two days before I left Egypt, I finally had the chance to visit his house in one of Cairo's overcrowded slums. He had two daughters, Farah and Marwa. Both go to a school in Zamalek and had memorised the entire Quran. His wife cooked up a traditional Egyptian food known as Ful Midammis, which was very delicious. And in the morning of my last day, as usual he came to pick up my trash. But that day he gave something that I will always remember; a goodbye-loving hug.