Lonely Planet Writer

Cairo’s 'Garbage City' is transformed by a 50-building wide mural

On the outskirts of the Mokattam Mountain in southeast Cairo lies the neighbourhood of Manshiyat Naser, but many people call it by a different name; Garbage City. Here lives The Zaraeeb, a settlement of people who collect and sort through the city’s discarded items. While they have developed an efficient system that allows them to survive and profit from this work, the community has been historically disenfranchised and often misjudged. But for French-Tunisian artist eL Seed, Manshiyat Naser proved to be the perfect location for a 50-building wide mural. The aim was not only to create a visually appealing piece, but to shed light on the unique way of life of The Zaraeeb people.

“Perception” spans 50 buildings across the centre of Cairo. Image by eL Seed

Called Perception, the project saw the artist painting a gigantic mural on the façades of different buildings across the centre of Cairo, designed with one special secret. “Manshiyat Naser is perceived as dirty, marginalised and segregated because of the association with the trash. So I decided to create an anamorphic design, a piece that you can only see from one vantage point,” eL Seed told Lonely Planet Travel News. While people in other areas of the city can glimpse parts of the mural, it is only from Manshiyat Naser that the true meaning becomes clear. From there, in Arabic calligraphy the piece displays the phrase, “Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eyes first,” the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic bishop from the third century.

The piece can only be seen in its entirety from nearby the Mokattam Mountain. Image by eL Seed

The project also saw eL Seed getting to know the people of Manshiyat Naser intimately, something that proved to be very significant for the artist. “When I decided to create this piece, I never thought this project would be the most amazing human experience that I would ever live. It restored my faith in humanity, and I learned to stop judging people according to stereotypes and to make an effort to discover who they really are,” he said.

Throughout the project, the artist met with members of the Zaraeeb community to learn their stories. Image by eL Seed

A 300-page book of the same title has also been created that documents eL Seed’s personal and artistic journey learning about and collaborating with the community, and the book sheds light on the Manshyat Naser district as a whole. It features photographs taken by the artist and his team during the installation, interviews with locals, and the artists own recount of letting go of his preconceptions.

The limited edition features pages of recycled paper sourced from the community itself, and each slipcase is hand painted, designed to make one part of a larger image of the final artwork. Similar to a jigsaw puzzle, when all 500 copies come together, they make a full, hand painted image of the mural.

The project has been turned into a limited edition book that tells the story of the artwork as well as The Zaraeeb people. Image by eL Seed

With a foreword by Glenn D. Lowry, the director at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the book will be launched at the institution on 4 October, followed by a reception and book signing in the MoMa Bookstore.

More information on the book is available at the official website.