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Sarah Lawrence College Interdisciplinary Aesthetics Symposium, April 2017
In his book Prehistory of the Cloud, Tung-Hui Hu approaches the notion of the
distributed network, what we call ‘the Cloud’ by way of the graft. He writes: “Seen
properly the structure of the internet resembles a graft: a newer network grafted on top of
an older, more established network. In this metaphor, preexisting infrastructures, such as
the rail network, are like rootstock, while the newer fiber-optic cables resemble the
uppermost portion, known in horticulture as the scion.”
The graft provides us with a model for understanding how networks become enfolded.
In addressing the notion of the graft I chose to look towards that which the Cloud enfolds
most deeply; waste, labor, bodies. A vaporous metaphor concealing endless heaps of
trash. It is from these most elemental networked systems that I approach an articulation
of a Graft.
Cairo is a city with a history of interdependency between its ‘formal’ and ‘informal’
sectors. The formal government is erratic, temperamental and corrupt, whereas the
‘informal’ systems that have surfaced to fill the municipal void are almost universally
depended upon, providing stability for the city of Cairo.
One such example can be found in the Zabaleen. The word, Zabaleen translates literally
to, garbage people. The Zabaleen occupy the district of Madinat Nasr, located on the
outskirts of Cairo, where they have established an ashwiyat (an autonomous, informal
settlement), forged through extended familial networks and a collective attachment to the
processing of waste. 1
The Zabaleen system began in the early 1900’s when migrants arrived from Dakhla, an
oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert. They were called ‘wahiya’, in those days much of the
garbage was flammable and they used it as fuel for street carts that made ful, the fried
beans that are an Egyptian staple.
Beginning in the 1930’s Coptic Christians began to emigrate to Cairo from Asyut in
upper Egypt. Because they were Christian, they were able to keep pigs. This allowed
them to fall neatly into an expanding system of disposal, the Wahiya became waste
subcontractors and the Copts became the new Zabaleen, sorting garbage and feeding
organic waste to pigs. Much of their income came from selling pork, typically to tourist
1 The Zabaleen represent a network that functions inversely to paranoid network. Grafted onto the
deeply paranoid, plutocracy of Egypt the Zabaleen arise as an eco-social response network,
proliferating along the avenues of consumption carved by an expanding, self-harming system of ecophobia. The @igure of the Zabaleen- @ingers combing swiftly for organic matter- is the gateway of
transference between these two systems, they are the invokers of the instance between bureaucracy
and ecology. The hand that @lings apple-core to pig-mouth initiates a moment of intense, beati@ic
inversion in which an underneath is exposed.
With more than 7 million people living in greater Cairo, the city produces 14,000 tons of
trash every day. The Zabaleen manage to recycle 85% of that trash. Being a Zabaleen is
not simply an occupation; it is a distinct culture that involves a sensitivity towards
cyclicality and a pride in autonomy. The Zabaleen have a song that goes, “we are the
garbage collectors, always blessed.”
In 2009 there was an outbreak of Swine Flu, otherwise known as H1N1, in the United
States. Despite not a single case of the H1N1 virus being reported in Egypt, the Mubarak
administration released an executive order to slaughter every pig in the possession of the
Zabaleen, in the name of public health and safety. The pig cull left a total of 300,000 pigs
dead. The organic processors of an industrial ecology of waste were ‘wasted.’
The bodies of pigs lay everywhere; reporters for Al Masry Al Youm, followed trucks that
carried the pigs to a dump, as they filmed, workers used a front-end loader to drop piles
of live animals into dump trucks. They documented, “piglets being stabbed and tossed
into piles, large pigs beaten with metal rods, their carcasses dumped in the sand.”
It soon became apparent that the pig cull was an opportunistic targeting of the Zabaleen
on the part of the Mubarak administration, in an underhanded attempt to assert its
alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Zabaleen are an autonomous network, they are Christian and they understand the
‘garbage state’. Because of this they are, ‘a threat and a nuisance’, their tired and dirty
bodies are a disruptive site, their willingness to re-insert value into the trash-product is
transgressive. Despite all of this, the government cannot undermine the fact that they are
an entrenched and depended upon municipal network, one limber enough to fill in the
gaps of the negligent state.
In the aftermath of the pig cull, Egypt found itself inundated in trash. Piles of rotting
garbage filled the streets. In the very center of town, Caireans were forced to wade
through a stinking landscape of trash. Metropolitan Cairo was faced with a crisis of its
It no longer had intestines through which to pass, no body, no second form.
“Everything used to go to the pigs, now there are no pigs, so it
goes to the administration.”
The Egyptian revolution begins on January 25th, 2011