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Secret Life of Egyptian Pigs

  • Elizabeth Arrott

Pigs once played an important economic role for Cairo's Coptic Christians, and helped keep the capital clean. Now, after a controversial culling, they are making a return.

A city of 18 million people produces a lot of trash. Much of Cairo's ends up in a Coptic Christian enclave called Garbage City, where people recycle just about everything. Lately, they are getting help from a secret source.

Tucked behind mountains of trash and a wall of flies is a pen full of pigs - the ultimate in organic waste management - and they are making a small, clandestine comeback.

The government ordered all pigs killed in 2009 saying they posed a health hazard, even though world health officials disagreed. Yet some farmers managed to help their stock escape culling.

Few Egyptians acknowledge they are here. But those in charge of recycling argue their importance.

Adel Ragi, who is on the board of the garbage collectors union. explained that non-human organic waste makes up half of Egypt's garbage. "The pig gets rid of it."

Since the culling, Cairo has become far dirtier. Foreign companies have been hired to handle some of the trash, but Ragi said their methods of dumping waste in landfills is much worse for the environment.

Economically, the culling left thousands of pig farmers without jobs. And only a few butchers remain, relying on expensive imports that have cut down on their customer base.

Christians are free to eat pork, and farmers have built a new slaughterhouse in hope the trade will be revived. But the government has yet to approve it.

Butcher Saiid Hakim said officials tell them to be patient, which makes him wonder if the government is against approving the new facility. "We can't understand not having the slaughterhouse," he said, "because pigs are here."

Father Samaan Ibrahim, of the St. Samaan church carved into the hills above Garbage City, thinks he knows why a Christian custom is suppressed in a Muslim-majority land.

They consider pigs unclean, he said, calling it "a form of blind intolerance."

He denied there are pigs in Garbage City, but sees no reason there should not be.

He asked what is wrong with pigs - they are God's creations. He asked that those who work with pigs and eat them be left in peace.

In some ways, the pigs are being left in peace. Even though the current government has a strong Islamist bent, it has not been able to exert much control over basic regulations. So the pigs will likely carry on - as long as they stay out of sight.
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