Now, here is a very beautiful and unusual story set in Egypt, one describing an astonishingly ambitious work of public art in a highly unusual place.
When I saw the headline -- "Sprawling Mural Pays Homage to Cairo’s Garbage Collectors" -- I immediately wondered if foreign desk at The New York Times was going to nail down the obvious religion hook in this story. Yes, this story contains a powerful religion ghost.
The headline raises two questions right off, one very obvious and one not so obvious: Who are the garbage collectors of Cairo? The second question: The implication of this tribute is that there is some organized or even natural mass of people who collect garbage in one of the most important cities in the Muslim world. Why is this?
Sure enough, there is a strong hint at the religion content at the very top:
CAIRO -- The intricate mural took shape over the past few weeks, little noticed at first, spreading across a harried quarter of Cairo where Egypt’s garbage collectors live, amid overflowing bundles of this overcrowded city’s trash.
By the time the painting was finished two weeks ago, it stretched across more than 50 buildings, making it the largest public work of art here anyone can recall. The mural, a circle of orange, white and blue in Arabic calligraphy, quotes a third-century Coptic Christian bishop who said, “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.”
When the first photographs of the mural circulated, reactions ranged from astonished delight to disbelief. Some people, struck by its seemingly impossible scale, seemed convinced that the images had been digitally altered, according to the man behind the project, a Tunisian-French artist known as eL Seed.
But what seemed most surprising was that eL Seed and several friends who worked with him had been able to complete the project at all, without being harassed or arrested.
To make a long story short, artists in Egypt have faced growing government pressures as the nation has moved several years past the heady days of the Arab Spring. Art is controversial.
In this case, eL Seed has managed to gather massive amounts of support in social media, starting with 5,000 Facebook shares of his mission statement.
But back to the questions I raised earlier.
So the work includes a quote from a early Coptic bishop. That's a clue. Now back to the story itself:
Officials seemed taken by surprise. The Egyptian Embassy in Washington promoted the project on its Twitter feed, and said it was “totally amazed.”
As eL Seed planned the mural over the past year, he was aided by a local priest, the Rev. Samaan Ibrahim, who is considered a leader of the mainly Coptic garbage collectors in the neighborhood. The priest’s approval and participation in the project in turn brought residents on board, eL Seed said.
The neighborhood was established more than four decades ago, with its striking location in the shadow of cliffs and fetid streets making it the most recognizable of several settlements where the city’s garbage collectors live.
OK, so the famous garbage collectors of Cairo -- a kind of unique caste of semi-impoverished workers -- are mainly Copts, which means they are primarily Eastern Christians, mostly Coptic Orthodox.
Why would this be the case? Is this merely the result of persecution? Are Christians in this line of work because they face unique challenges?
Wait, there's another hint later (although I wonder if the Times team realized it) in a description of the neighborhood and its residents:
... Many of its residents are impoverished and continue to be regarded as second-class citizens because of their association with the trash, he said.
Their relations with the government have also been strained. Officials have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to replace the garbage collectors and their extensive family networks with more modernized private companies. In one of the most enduring shocks to the area, President Hosni Mubarak’s government, reacting to fears of a swine influenza epidemic in 2009, decided to kill all of Egypt’s pigs, including thousands kept by the garbage collectors, who used them to consume organic waste and who would also sell their meat.
So we are dealing with people who are willing to work with garbage and who also are willing to raise and, one would assume, kill and eat pigs.
As opposed to, well, millions and millions of people in Egypt who are NOT willing to work with garbage and pigs?
Who might that be?
Get the hint? Does this ring any bells for you, gentle readers?
Might there be relevant teachings and traditions in Islam that are relevant to this story? Might the social role of this impoverished flock of Coptic believers exist, in large part, because of the religious views of the ruling majority in Egypt? Might there even be something in the Quran or Islamic law?
Alas, the religious content of this story is all but ignored, or, perhaps, reduced to a series of hints. That's sad, since this is a remarkable story and the Times team left out one of its most poignant themes.
FIRST IMAGE: From Twitter.