October 13, 2009

I had forgotten, but was reminded brutally yesterday, that we have entered the season when the farmers in the Nile delta burn the rice husks. The prevailing wind direction draws a pall of choking, eye-watering smog over Cairo. Your throat burns, your eyes burn, your nasal passages burn. Even drawing breath is laborious. Every year the government says they will ban the practice, and every year they fail to do so.

Which brings me onto the subject of pigs. The streets of Cairo are now awash with garbage; we read reports of cholera, typhus and even the plague. How could a government act in such precipitate haste, with such scant regard for such foreseeable consequences?

The zabaleen, or garbage collectors, are among the very poorest levels of society, and they also happen to be copts. They were the turning gear of a unique ecosystem. The zabaleen could not live on what they were paid to collect; however, they owned pigs. And the pigs performed a most efficient separation of organic and inorganic waste. What was edible was organic and disappeared into their tummies. What was inedible was inorganic, and was sold by the zabaleen for recycling. The process was completed by selling pork meat.

And trust me: Egyptian pork is (sorry, was) delicious.

But there are no more pigs. The entire population was culled.

But the real ecological hero of Cairo:


There may be as many weasels in Cairo as humans. Noone really knows. But if you stand, alert, for a few minutes in any Cairo street, your eye will pick up on incredibly fast movement by some tiny light brown creature, scampering at the speed of light from one sheltered spot to another. This is the weasel, fearless and bold, and a great killer of rats and other pests that might spread disease throughout the city. God help us all if ever science decides there is another variation of flu called “weasel flu” …..

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