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A new mural in Cairo covers more than 40 buildings. The result is stunning.

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The streets of the Cairo suburb Manshiyat Naser, nicknamed "Garbage City," are lined with trash, and the people who live there — Coptic Christians who make their living sorting through it and recycling anything they can — are called zabaleen, or "garbage people."

But the sides of more than 40 buildings in Manshiyat Naser are now covered in something else: a gorgeous mural of Arabic calligraphy by the French-Tunisian street artist eL Seed, a jumble of bright colors that becomes a coherent whole only when seen from a distance:

The words in the calligraphy are a quote from a Coptic Christian bishop: "Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first." The purpose of the project, according to the artist, was to get people to see the neighborhood in a different light:

In my new project ‘Perception’ I am questioning the level of judgment and misconception society can unconsciously have upon a community based on their differences. In the neighborhood of Manshiyat Nasr in Cairo, the Coptic community of Zaraeeb collects the trash of the city for decades and developed the most efficient and highly profitable recycling system on a global level. Still, the place is perceived as dirty, marginalized and segregated. To bring light on this community, with my team and the help of the local community, I created an anamorphic piece that covers almost 50 buildings only visible from a certain point of the Moqattam Mountain. The piece of art uses the words of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, a Coptic Bishop from the 3rd century, that said: ‘Anyone who wants to see the sunlight clearly needs to wipe his eye first.' 'إن أراد أحد أن يبصر نور الشمس، فإن عليه أن يمسح عينيه' The Zaraeeb community welcomed my team and I as we were family. It was one of the most amazing human experience I have ever had. They are generous, honest and strong people. They have been given the name of Zabaleen (the garbage people), but this is not how they call themselves. They don’t live in the garbage but from the garbage; and not their garbage, but the garbage of the whole city. They are the one who clean the city of Cairo. #perception #athanasius #zaraeeb #cairo

A photo posted by eL Seed (@elseed) on

Painting the mural was a massive project involving dozens of buildings:

What you see is not what you think #perception #athanasius #zabaleen #cairo

A photo posted by eL Seed (@elseed) on

eL Seed calls his work "calligraffiti," mingling the traditional art of Arabic calligraphy with vibrant street art. He's painted before in Tunisia, France, Los Angeles, and Dubai, promoting messages of cross-cultural understanding.

Go deeper:

  • The New Yorker's Peter Hessler wrote about the zabaleen and Cairo's trash ecosystem in 2014, diving both into how the system works and the life of his own garbage collector: "As a whole, Cairo’s waste-collection system is surprisingly functional, considering that it’s largely informal. In a sprawling, chaotic city of more than seventeen million, zabaleen like Sayyid have managed to develop one of the most efficient municipal recycling networks in the world."
  • The blog suzeeinthecity tracks street art around Cairo, including political reinterpretations of ancient Egyptian murals and the graffiti that appeared in the wake of Egypt's 2011 revolution.
  • eL Seed — whose name comes from the Arabic word for "the lord" or "the master," and from a 17th-century French play — gave a five-minute TED talk about his art and identity in 2015: "I don't write the translation of the message anymore on the wall," he said. "I don't want the poetry of the calligraphy to be broken. … Some people see that as a rejection or a closed door, but for me, it's more an invitation — to my language, to my culture, and to my art."