by Suzanne Labry
Quilts from Garbage—the Amazing Story of Cairo’s Zabaleen Community
Quilts and their makers are an endless source of fascination for me, and through the years I have come across some unusual stories. But the one I’m about to relate has got to be one of the most extraordinary.
Come with me to Cairo, Egypt, one of the largest cities in the world, with over 20 million people in its metropolitan area. In the shadow of Cairo’s landmark Citadel, on the outskirts of the city in a slum known as Mokattam Village, lives a group of Coptic Christians who are known as the Zabaleen, which translates from Arabic as “garbage people.”
Tens of thousands of Zabaleen live in Cairo’s Mokattam Village along with
mountains of garbage. Photo courtesy of albawaba.com.
Since the 1950s, the Zabaleen have been responsible for creating one of the world’s most efficient and sustainable resource recovery and waste recycling systems. Using donkey carts and pickup trucks to collect waste from Cairo streets and households, the Zabaleen transport the waste to Mokattam Village, where it is sorted. Manufacturing waste is also handled by the Zabaleen, who transform mounds of refuse into useful products, including—you guessed it—quilts.
How that happens, and how those quilts have found a market in the United States that provides income and support for the women (and men!) who make them is a truly a tale of trash into treasure.
With a population density of over 50,000 per square mile, it is no surprise that garbage is a big issue for Cairo. According to EcoMENA, a volunteer-driven initiative to create environmental awareness in the Middle East, “the city produces more than 15,000 tons of solid waste every day...The Zabbaleen collect around 60% of the total solid waste generated in Cairo and recycle more than 90 percent of the collected waste…Over the last few decades, the Zabbaleen have refined their collection and sorting methods, built their own labor-operated machines, and created a system in which every man, child and woman works. They carefully sift out recyclable materials that can be sold or used to create things. The rest is fed to pigs.”
Many of the collectors are children but girls in particular stay behind in Mokattam Village to sort out the garbage under inconceivably difficult circumstances. The Zabaleen face discrimination and horrific poverty, and in a traditional patriarchal society, women take the brunt of it, with illiteracy, little access to education, early marriage and pregnancy, diseases, and female circumcision being common conditions.
L-R: Suzan and Nimet Habachy, the Cairo-born, New York City-based sisters who founded the Habachy Center in Mokattam Village and who are largely responsible for selling quilts and other textiles made by Zabaleen women to customers in the United States. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Cate, Executive Director of Hands Along the Nile Development Services, Inc. (HANDS)In the late 1980s, a Cairo-based non-government organization known as the Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E.) established a presence in Mokattam Village and set about creating an ambitious set of initiatives to improve the lives of the Zabaleen. One of those projects was a “learning and earning” school for women and girls, which incorporated all the elements of normal school subjects but in the framework of “a recycling project revolving around the transformation of clean rags into marketable products.”
And that’s where quilts come in, with assistance from Egyptian cotton growers and textile manufacturers. Ever since the time of the pharaohs, spinning and weaving have been considered leading industries in Egypt and it is said that in 3,000 BC, natives of Egypt’s Nile valley were making and wearing cotton clothing.
Today, Egyptian farmers produce some of the highest quality-graded long staple cotton in the world, which has fueled a textile manufacturing industry that is one of the major economic engines in the country. A.P.E. approached the textile factory owners and asked them for the remnants of cotton trimmed from bolts of fabric that would ordinarily be discarded in the garbage. The manufacturers were happy to reduce their waste in this way, and the clean remnants were given to A.P.E. for a project in which women and girls were taught how to weave rugs and make patchwork quilts and applique items to sell.
Kedissa Ashama standing in front of her quilt. While
the patterns used by the quiltmakers show the influence of traditional quilt patterns, the repeating geometric designs are also reminiscent of those common in ancient Coptic art. Photo courtesy of Chadia Iskandar, Association for the Protection of
the Environment (A.P.E.)Enter two dynamic, Cairo-born sisters by the names of Suzan and Nimet Habachy. Daughters of a prominent Christian Egyptian family that moved to the United States in the 1950s, both women have gone on to distinguished careers in the U.S., Suzan with the United Nations and Nimet with the New York City Opera and as an announcer for WQXR-FM, the city’s public radio station.
On a trip back to Egypt in the 1980s, they were taken to Mokattam Village and introduced to the work being done by
A.P.E. Impressed with the effort and moved by the incredible need of the women and girls, Suzan and Nimet started bringing Zabaleen quilts and other items back to
the U.S. in their suitcases and selling them
to friends to raise money for the makers.
By the early 1990s, they had founded a school—the Habachy Center—at which children and women are taught reading, math and hygiene along with instruction
on sewing, quilting, weaving and paper recycling. An American quilter living in Cairo at the time, Twing Pittman, was instrumental in teaching the women how to quilt.
Twenty-five years later, about 100 women and girls, ages 7 through 50, enroll at the Habachy Center each year, and about a dozen staff are employed there. The sisters
and their helpers import 20 or more crates of goods each year and sell the items at
various events, including a special Christmas bazaar in New York City that attracts
hundreds of buyers.
Quiltmaker Poussin Sabri standing in front of her quilt. Photo courtesy of Chadia Iskandar, Association for the Protection of the Environment (A.P.E.)The Habachys pay all the textile taxes and landing fees and give all the proceeds back to the Habachy Center. “We try to donate as much as $80,000 each year,” says Suzan. In addition, another group, Hands Across the Nile Development Services (HANDS), an American non-profit organization committed to building bridges between the people of Egypt and the US, also imports Zabaleen quilts and handicrafts to sell in the Washington, D.C. area and return the proceeds to the Zabaleen.
When Suzan and Nimet return to Cairo these days, they visit with women and girls who were among the first students at the Habachy Center and who now are mothers and grandmothers. Being able to earn money and having access to education has empowered them in many ways, even unexpected ones. Some of them now employ their husbands in making quilts
and rugs, a practice that would have been unheard of in this patriarchal culture just a decade or so ago. “When you educate girls and women, you change the entire community,” says Suzan proudly.
That’s true. And how wonderful that quilts are helping to make that happen.