The Coptic community of Zaraeeb have been given the name zabaleen (or garbage people) because of their profession — collecting and sorting by hand the daily rubbish of Cairo. But the recycling work they carry out is not only highly profitable — it is a vital service in a city that produces around 14,000 tons of solid waste daily. For this reason the people of Zaraeeb don’t see themselves as the dirty ones — the real mess is Greater Cairo. It’s a matter of perception.
“We aren’t the zabaleen, they are — the rest of Cairo is.” This reported sentiment stands out in eL Seed’s discussion of his new self-funded project Perception in the Zaraeeb neighborhood in Cairo’s Manshiyet Nasser district.
Perception is monumental — an anamorphic artwork that covers more than 50 buildings, involved a team of 22 people, and took three weeks to paint. The large circular design, painted in the “calligraffiti” style eL Seed is renowned for, can only be viewed in its entirety from one specific point at the top of the neighboring Mokattam mountain.
As with many of his works, Perception uses a quote as the basis for an elaborate, interlinking Arabic design, this time from Saint Athanasius of Alexandria: “Anyone who wants to see the light clearly needs to wipe his eyes first.” Adding to the visual spectacle of the work, but also demonstrating the importance of the community in the creation of the project, the image was painted with fluorescent white paint that was illuminated for one night only when it was completed — a gift to the neighborhood that has given so much to Cairo.
As part of Shubbak Festival 2015, I interviewed calligraffiti artist eL Seed during his first street art commission in London. For the piece, which he created just after the terrorist attack in Sousse in eL Seed’s home country of Tunisia, he chose a quote by John Locke reads that reads “It is one thing to show a man that he is in an error and another to put him in possession of truth”. Accompanying music: ‘Sand Song’ by Syrian musician Hello Psychaleppo (check out his music here).
In 2011, a small piece of graffiti demanding the fall of the Syrian regime instigated a vicious crackdown by the government upon its young perpetrators. This graffiti was arguably one of the catalysts that led to the Syrian Revolution, which has since deteriorated into the now four-year-long civil war. It is somewhat fitting then that today, the cultural and artistic responses in the war-torn country have been described as the only positive development of the conflict. Despite the widespread devastation – which has seen over 230,000 people killed, more than 4 million fleeing as refugees, and almost 8 million internally displaced – Syrians have been responding to and documenting their crisis creatively, taking advantage of greater freedom of expression of an essentially collapsed state (compared to the fierce censorship that reigned during Assad’s unchallenged rule). That is not to say that artists are free from the repercussions of their work – many artists have been forced out of work, threatened, beaten, imprisoned, forced to leave the country or, in some cases, killed. In spite of the danger, and beyond the sounds of shelling and bombardments that try to drown them out, many artists both inside and outside the country continue to battle against tyranny to make their voices, and those of the Syrian people, heard.