Allison's Book Bag

Fiction Pulled Straight from News Events

Posted on: March 13, 2013

Today in Cairo, there is a city within a city; a city filled with garbage. As one of the Zabbaleen people, Aaron makes his living sorting through the waste. When his family kicks him out, his only alternatives are to steal, beg, or take the most nightmarish work of all.

The above description comes from the inside flap of The Glass Collector, a young adult book by Anna Perera, which is based on research and real events happening in Egypt. Perera is also the author of Guantanamo Boy. The plot of that book, a fifteen-year-old Briton of Pakistani descent has been abducted from his aunt’s home in Pakistan, and held without charges in the world’s most notorious prison, was also inspired by news events.


According to Perera’s bio on her website, she was born in London to a Sri Lankan, Buddhist father and Irish, Catholic mother and grew up twenty miles away. After teaching English in two secondary schools in London, she ran a unit for teenage boys who were excluded from school and later completed a Master of Arts in Writing For Children.

In 2006, while attending an event for the charity Reprieve, she learned children had been abducted and rendered to Guantanamo Bay. This event inspired her first book which was translated into several languages and nominated for many awards, including shortlisting for The Costa Children’s Book Award.

An interview with Bookwitch reveals that the inspiration for her second novel, The Glass Collector, came from an article sent to Perera by her agent. She read the article, didn’t know where next to go, and so loaded up YouTube. After checking out a few more articles, she decided to visit Egypt. The Glass Collector, which tells the story of 15-year-old Aaron and his life in the slums of present day Egypt, was the result. While writing it, Perera made a conscious choice to include a lot of dramatic life-changing events, as with Slumdog Millionaire, because in reality very few people do escape that life. “And I wanted to give some kind of honest account of that, and some dignity.”


The Glass Collector is set entirely in Egypt and based on a real group, the Zabbeleen who collect garbage, sort it, and then sell the sorted garbage to a middleman. Researching the cultural accuracy of The Glass Collector let me to articles about the Zabaleen, Coptic Christians, glass collectors, and even the role of pigs in garbage collection.

Let me start with the Zabaleen. According to Wikipedia, The Zabbaleen have been Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for approximately the past seventy to eighty years. The word Zabbaleen even means “Garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic. For those who would like information beyond Wikipedia, you might turn to Ahram Online, an English-language news web site published by Al-Ahram Establishment or Egypt’s largest news organisation, which described the Zabaleen as “farmers from Assiut in Upper Egypt who migrated to Cairo in the 1940s to escape poor harvests. The Wahiya, people of Egypt’s Western Desert, had asked the Zabaleen to join forces with them in Cairo’s garbage-collection trade, in which they have successfully carved a niche out for themselves since the early twentieth century.”

According to Wikipedia, Coptic Christians constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region, accounting for an estimated 10% of the Egyptian population. Apparently, as a religious minority in modern Egypt, Coptic Christians are often subject to discrimination and are the target of attacks by militant Islamist extremist groups. Although this latter isn’t the subject of The Glass Collector, I did find of interest the numerous news reports which refer to religious persecution of the Coptic Christians. In The Glass Collector, religion is important only to the extent that the families are Catholic, report to a priest, and believe in visions of Mary. For those who would like information beyond Wikipedia, The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt reports that The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century.

When it comes to glass collectors, I found mostly references to the fact that the Zabaleen collect shards of glass, along with the rest of the garbage which National Geographic details as: “a daily assortment of kitchen slops, broken plastic, discarded card and paper, scrap metal, odd socks, and other junk”. Glass seems however to be important in Egypt, considering that the Egyptian Museum featured a collection of it in 2012.

Then there is the role of pigs in garbage collection in Egypt. According to <a href=”Wikipedia” target=”_blank”>Wikipedia, the Zabbaleen use donkey-pulled carts and pick-up trucks to transport the garbage that they collect from the residents of Cairo, transport the garbage to their homes, sort the garbage there, and then sell the sorted garbage to middlemen. Where do the pigs come in? Well, Zabbaleen live among the trash that they sort in their village and with the pigs to which they feed their organic waste. Washington Post reports, “Pigs used to play a central role in this city’s rudimentary waste management system. But since a 2009 health code outlawed the practice of owning pigs that feed on garbage … the trash has been stacking up.”


For online resources, I am referring you to only two articles. First, if you’d like a better picture of the real-life crisis happening right now in Egypt, type in “garbage collection in Egypt” in your search engine. Here is one article that might turn up: Egypt’s Garbage Problem

Second, to return my discussion back to books, let’s talk about authors and Egypt. Although she traveled to Cairo for her research, Anna Perera is from London. What literature is available from Egyptian writers? Although I couldn’t find anything specific to young people, I did find a New York Times article which reported that because of recent revolution, “artists, intellectuals, and youth at large are beginning to fashion a new cultural republic of sorts even as they also struggle to find their bearings.” Consequently, the face of literature is changing and so are the literary outputs for and by youth.


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I am focusing this year on other commitments. Once a month, I’ll post reviews of Advanced Reader Copies. Titles will include: Freddy Frogcaster and the Flash Flood by Janice Dean, One Two by Igor Eliseev, Incredible Magic of Being by Kathyrn Erskine, Dragon Grammar Book by Diane Robinson, and Wide as the Wind by Edward Stanton.



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