The Dirty Details: A Response to “Tales of the Trash”

"Tales of Trash" by Peter Hessler published in the October 13 2014 issue of the New Yorker

In “Tales of the Trash,” published in the October 13 issue of the New Yorker, Peter Hessler seeks to explain modern Egypt through his conversations with Sayyid, an older trash collector working in an upscale Cairo neighborhood. In doing so, Hessler is joining a group of writers, authors, artists, and academics—in a field that goes by many names, including discard studies, geographies of waste and garbology, to name a few—who have found that in economies of planned obsolescence, garbage becomes a useful tool to examine culture, politics, and economics.

Garbage has the potential to explain important shifts in contemporary Egypt ranging from revolutionary politics to environmental issues. Hessler misses the opportunity to unearth insights into these shifts. Instead he focuses his attention on the private lives of his neighbors as pieced together by Sayyid, a non-literate garbage collector who takes the writer on his rounds and gives him a glimpse of the stuff people throw away.

Falling into orientalist tropes that exoticize Arab sexuality, Hessler describes, at length, conversations that expose Sayyid to ridicule:

“A couple times, [Sayyid] brought by other forms of Chinese sex medicine, and he shows up with drugs that have names like Virecta. Anything blue catches his eye—recently, he appeared with a half finished foil pack of Aerius, which excited him until I went online and learned that it’s an allergy medication that happens to be the same color as Viagra.”

Hessler writes of his neighbors in a similar fashion:

“If something seems particularly interesting, he’ll open the bag for my benefit. Once, Sayyid stopped at a landing and whispered that the resident was a sex-crazed Lebanese man. Then he ripped open the trash, found a discarded bottle, and asked me to read the label: ‘Durex Play Feel Intimate Lube.'”

Such details impart few insights beyond the fact that people in Egypt have sex. Apart from Sayyid and Hessler’s neighbors, Hessler’s description of Sayyid’s wife is also troubling. Describing his first encounter with Wahiba, Hessler writes how he was shocked by her beauty, going on to describe her in detail before lamenting that it would be the last time he saw her without a niqab.

These sorts of tropes have been critiqued time and again by Joseph Massad in Desiring Arabs and anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon in the essay “Algeria Unveiled.” By falling into orientalist tropes, Hessler’s piece ends up missing the spectacular stories that Cairo’s trash has to tell. My research and that of other scholars such as Dr. Jamie Furniss and documentary filmmaker Mai Iskander have shown that garbage is a central part of Egyptian political life.

Drawn by political cartoonist Amar Saleem for Al-Masri Al Youm, the above cartoon is titled "Elections". On the left is a presidential candidate for the 2012 Egyptian elections, labelled "felool" or remnants, a word used to criticize those who had ties to the former corrupt regime. On the left is a street cleaner sweeping up words like national party, revolution, January 25, freedom, etc. spewing from the candidate's mouth.

Drawn by political cartoonist Amar Saleem for Al-Masri Al-Youm, the above cartoon is titled “Elections.” On the left is a presidential candidate in the 2012 Egyptian elections, labelled “felool” or remnants, a word used to criticize those who had ties to the former regime. On the left is a street cleaner sweeping up words like national party, revolution, January 25, freedom, etc., spewing from the candidate’s mouth.

Garbage has figured centrally in the battle for Egypt’s future. In the past three years, for example, protestors in Tahrir Square formed voluntary cleaning brigades to symbolically rid the nation of the dirt the Mubarak regime left behind. Garbage has also been of interest to the successive governments after Mubarak’s regime. Deposed president Mohamed Morsi launched a cleaning campaign to remove trash from Cairo’s streets and restore civic responsibility. Adly Mansour, former acting president, equated graffiti with trash, curbing a powerful tool of political expression. A prominent NGO director, Laila Iskander who works closely with garbage collectors, was made head of the Ministry of the Environment only to be booted out by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government over a quibble about coal imports. Most recently, a voluntary campaign to clean up Cairo’s historical sites launched last month in the hope of increasing tourism. Additionally, the minority Coptic Christian garbage collectors have been subjected to waves of violence.

Prior to the January 25, 2011 revolution, Middle East scholars Diane Singerman and Paul Amar described the ways Cairo was often portrayed as either a bomb waiting to explode or a tomb made of up of antiquities with passive inhabitants. The events of January 25, 2011 and those that followed destabilized these kinds of portrayals. Hessler, however, repeats the narrative of passivity by describing Cairo’s waste management as largely unchanged by the revolution and governed by laws of tradition that remain outside of politics. With this limited understanding of politics in Egypt, he goes on to frame Egyptian political subjectivity as fundamentally docile, writing, “like most Egyptians, he [Sayyid the garbage collector] tends to support whoever seems to be popular at any given moment.”

Hessler’s failure to properly situate Sayyid’s story in what I call “the garbage politics of Cairo” deprives readers of unique vistas onto modern Egypt, leaving them instead to sift through prurient descriptions of people’s personal lives. This is unfortunate given that the political and cultural upheavals in Egypt have attracted the eyes of a world hungry to understand what these momentous changes mean.

Drawn by political cartoonist Abdullah for Al-Masri Al-Youm, this cartoon depicts two flies. The fly on the right is asking the other fly, “Why are you happy with el-Sisi , stupid?… If he cleans the country and the garbage is removed from the streets, we will not have anything to eat!!”

Hessler’s inadequate portrayal of Cairo’s trash tales also comes with some disconcerting ethical issues. In writing about Sayyid, Hessler draws attention to people and things that are often ignored. But besides producing an interesting story, what risks are associated with making the invisible visible? For readers who enjoyed the piece it may be unnerving to know that, as Seth Thomas points out in an important blog post, the article has made it back to the neighborhoods in which Sayyid works. Some residents of the neighborhood are now calling for Sayyid’s removal.

In exposing things that are often overlooked, those working on garbage are revealing important ways to understand life in cities. But in doing so, we must be careful not to risk the livelihoods of those who make their livings in these forgotten and ignored trades. Perhaps, then, some tales need to stay in the trash heap. Not because they are “garbage,” but because they must be treated respectfully and carefully. Stories of trash and the people who deal with it must be made visible in a way that ensures those who work with our most intimate discarded things are safe from ridicule or retribution.

Mohammed Rafi Arefin is a PhD Student in Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include urban geography, waste, psychoanalytic geography, and development. He explores these interests in projects on the relationship between garbage, culture, power, and politics. His work has taken him to Cairo to examine the politics of garbage in the January 25 Revolution. Other projects include work on representations of hoarding and hazardous waste. Contact.

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