In my childhood memories, my family’s hometown of Cairo is a city of chaotic closeness. One minute, you are jostled by crowds of people, pushing through the marketplace, accosted by the honking of cars and the barters of merchants. A moment later, you step into a familiar doorway to be grabbed, hugged tightly, and kissed six times on the cheek by a wise and warm grandmother.
When I returned years later as an adult, friends of the family brought me to Mokattam, the garbage city on the outskirts of Cairo. Amid the crowded rooftops, goats, geese, and chickens all grazed on remnants of waste. Garbage was piled three stories high. Children played on a mountain of multi-colored rags. And in the midst of it all — the dirt, the pungent smell of the garbage and the poverty — a joyous wedding celebration was taking place.
Born and raised in the United States, I came from another world, a wealthy, upscale life, a plastic consumerist existence, yet I was made welcome by these newfound friends and family. I was invited into the night’s festivities and into their extraordinarily resilient and joyful community.
In 2005, I returned to Mokattam and volunteered to help paint a mural at The Recycling School. I filmed a few of the students applying vibrant colors and making whimsical pictures on a drab concrete wall, thinking that I could cut together a little film about their mural as a present for them.
In front of the camera, these amazing children blossomed. They were uninhibited and genuinely pleased that an “outsider” took such interest in them. Most of all, they were proud of their way of life and their history. And like typical teenagers, they wanted to show off their fashion sense, their workout routine, and their music. Always wanting to outdo each other.
We all became fast friends.
One of the boys who became a major subject in my film, Osama, started bragging to his friends that an “international film crew” (in actuality it was just myself and my camera) was following him to document his incredibly charismatic self. Neighbors and friends immediately started calling him “Tommy Cruise.”
I returned to Mokattam many times over the next four years, and was always made welcome in the tiny homes or up on their rooftops. This was their only escape from the stench and crowds and chaos below.
I filmed these fantastic teens daily scavenging for tiny bits of cardboard and plastic. I was amazed by the hard, dangerous, dreary work of carrying and sorting garbage with their bare hands, spending hours breathing in the dust of the plastic granulators and fabric grinders, while making a tiny living from tiny bits of trash. Day after day, they would work diligently and proudly without complaint and without self-pity. With poverty all around them, they were always rich in spirit, filled with ambition and pride, and would never allow a visitor to even buy her own soda.
They would work long into the night to clean up after us, the modern, industrialized world. Beyond that, by creating the world’s most effective resource recovery system (they recycle 80% of what they collect) they are actually saving our earth. From out of the trash, they lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world’s most pressing crisis.
Meanwhile, my young friends were also growing up very quickly. Osama, the one-time happy slacker, was hoping to find and keep a good job. Adham wanted to modernize the recycling trade.
I hope that my friends follow their dreams. I hope the bigger world will recognize that it is these dreamers who become leaders.
Mai Iskander, Director
Mai Iskander is a producer, director and cinematographer based in New York. Garbage Dreams is Mai’s directorial debut. As a cinematographer, Mai has worked on TV shows for A&E, PBS, LOGO, and has filmed numerous dramatics (Roof Sex) and commercials. She has had the privilege of working with the legendary Albert Maysles on the documentary Profiles of a Peacemaker. Mai recently returned from Chad, where she worked with Academy Award nominee Edet Belzberg on her documentary Watchers of the Sky.
Mai started her career working as a camera assistant for the Academy Award Nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus, Ragtime). As a camera assistant, Mai has worked on over a dozen features, such as Preacher’s Wife, Men in Black, and As Good as it Gets, and on more than a hundred commercials. She graduated from New York University, Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in film production and a BA in economics.