Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Saddest Grave in the World

The mass grave at Glasnevin.

Who is the Greatest Poet in the English Language?

I guess many people, when asked this question, would immediately say Shakespeare. But I'd dispute this verdict: Shakespeare was definitely the world's greatest playwright - in any language - he was arguably the greatest writer of all time, again in any language. And yet, specifically as a "poet", I'm not quite sure he's the numero uno. The sonnets are delightful, but the greatest "poems" ever? Hm. Likewise, there are passages in the plays which are the purest and loveliest poetry ever written, but they're not actually poems - so they don't count.


So who is the greatest poet in the English language? Keats? Nope. His writing is very very pretty, he's a major poet for sure, but he lacks the overwhelming emotional impact for the title of "greatest poet ever".

What about Byron or Milton? They're both personal favourites of mine. And, coincidentally, Byron's Don Juan may be the greatest long poem in the language - right alongside Milton's Paradise Lost.

But again, for me, there is something a little too smooth and uninvolved in both these writers, despite their undoubted greatness, for them to get the gold medal.

Anyone else? Wordsworth is too wordy. Coleridge too mad. Spenser too Spenserian. The High Victorians - Browning, Tennyson, etc - are far too earnest for my liking. Though Tennyson did write gorgeous lines: "now sleeps the crimson petal, now the white".

I guess we should consider the moderns. Auden was brilliant, but not that brilliant. Yeats is a strong contender, indeed I'd put him in the top five; yet his overly-determined Irishness is a distraction. As for Plath, she was searing and powerful - but peculiarly minor at the same time. Hughes wrote too much about badgers. Dylan Thomas only wrote three good poems. Larkin I love, but, I confess he's hardly better than Shakespeare; and we've already denied Shakespeare the top spot.

Who's left? John Donne? He is always magnificent - "batter my heart, three person'd God" - however his verse is too halting and craggy, for my taste. As for T.S. Eliot - I'd put the Four Quartets up there with the greatest poems in the canon; yet there is a self-consciousness in Eliot which means that, though he's better than most, he's not quite the best.

Crossing the Atlantic we find a few more contenders. Robert Frost is a splendid poet in his deceptively simple New England way. He also wrote some of the most memorable lines in the tongue - "the best way out is always through". But there is also a lack of invention and intensity. Emily Dickinson is the opposite: sometimes too inventive and intense (though very fine). Whitman is plain weird. Ginsberg can be tedious. Longfellow is crap.

By now you may have guessed where I'm going. Yes, I already have one candidate in mind. For me the greatest poet in the English language is the sad, gay, London-born Jesuit: Gerard Manley Hopkins.

He's my chart topper. Why? Because he wrote poetry that was brilliantly experimental yet blushingly lovely at the same; because he was brave, bold and bitterly neglected - yet he carried on writing. Because he wrote Pied Beauty and Binsey Poplars. Because, most of all, his poems, at their best, have an emotional power which is simply peerless in the English language.

All of which is a very long preamble to the point of this blogpost: on my recent travels to Dublin I went to see where Hopkins was buried, in the city's Glasnevin cemetery. Because Hopkins was - is - such a great and important poet, I imagined there would be a big memorial, maybe even a statue.

He's buried in a mass grave, alongside hundreds of other Jesuits. His personal resting place isn't even marked. There's no gravestone, no memorial, no statue - not even a humble plaque. Nothing. The only indication that Hopkins is interred in this damp grey patch of Irish soil is a little inscription of his name, amongst thousands of others, on a cross above the pit of Jesuit bodies. And the inscription of his name is in Latin so you have to double-check the dates to make sure it's really him.

The sad anonymity is incredibly poignant. It's also arguably fitting: for such a self-effacing man as the shy and isolated priest-poet from Highgate.

And yet I still think Hopkins deserves a better memorial. In fact I think he deserves his own cathedral. But until the moment comes when he is properly honoured, we will just have to remember his through his immortal verse.

And so. Here is one of Hopkins's finest poems, from the "terrible sonnets" sequence, where - fittingly enough - he laments the loneliness of his final years in cold and dirty Dublin:

NO worst, there is none. Pitched past pitch of grief,
More pangs will, schooled at forepangs, wilder wring.
Comforter, where, where is your comforting?
Mary, mother of us, where is your relief?
My cries heave, herds-long; huddle in a main, a chief
Woe, world-sorrow; on an age-old anvil wince and sing --
Then lull, then leave off. Fury had shrieked 'No ling-
ering! Let me be fell: force I must be brief'.

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there. Nor does long our small
Durance deal with that steep or deep. Here! creep,
Wretch, under a comfort serves in a whirlwind: all
Life death does end and each day dies with sleep.

The inscription of Hopkins's name.

Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Worst Suburb on Earth

Night falls in Moqqatam.

A few months ago I visited Egypt, to do a travel piece. While I was in Cairo I heard about a place called Moqqatam - "the worst suburb on earth". Duly intrigued, I got together with my good chum Peter Dench, world press award winning cameraman! - and we went to see how bad this place could really be.

Trust me, it was pretty bad. The article I wrote has now been published in the Middle East so I am now free to post it here.

Egypt's City of Trash

Sean Thomas

I'm sitting in a taxi, in eastern Cairo. Behind me is the vast northern cemetery of the Egyptian capital, the City of the Dead - famous for its squatters, who live amongst the ancient Islamic tombs.
For most people the City of the Dead is as daunting an urban environment as it is possible to imagine. Yet just in front of me is a scruffy street which leads to another Cairene suburb. It is called Moqqatam: and its reputation is so forbidding even the ruffians from the City of the Dead are scared to go near.
Moqqatam is also known as "Garbage City" which explains its character. It is home to the tinkers, rubbish collectors and rag pickers of Cairo. The Zabaleen.
Only a few people have ever pierced Moqqatam's secrets; the Egyptian authorities discourage investigation of this apparently "shameful place". This month, however, will see the world premiere, in New York, of an Arab-American documentary centred around the subject. The movie is called Marina of the Zabaleen, and it is said to be a lyrical and poetic analysis of the Zabaleen experience.
But still - that film was made by an Arab speaker. Going in as a foreign journalist is, I have been told, a very different matter: it is noticeable that very few photographs exist of the extraordinary Zabaleen lifestyle.
And I'm beginning to see why so few outsiders come here. The atmosphere is starkly hostile. Two dead dogs lie on the nearby pavement; the road ahead cuts through a wasteland of refuse. And Muhammad, my driver, is having second thoughts about our journey.
'Soon it will be dark,' he says. 'This is not a place you want to be at night.'
I ask him if he has ever actually been inside the infamous suburb.
'No,' he admits. 'But trust me. This is very dangerous. We do not have permission, we do not have armed guards. Even if we are not attacked, the police will be angry if they find out. Let me take you somewhere else. Anywhere else. Please.'
Somehow I persuade Muhammad to drive just a little further. We pass under a grey concrete bridge. A chilly twilight is falling. I see beautiful young women in embroidered robes; they are laughing as they walk through the streets. Fires are being lit at the edge of town.
The main street is lined on both sides with enormous sacks of trash. The air is filled with an incredible stench. People stare at us from dark windows and doorways: warily, yet not angrily. But when I take out my camera-phone, the atmosphere changes. The stares turn into scowls. An old man shouts:
'No! No photo!'
Locals are gathering around: leering and glaring. Muhammad has had enough. He does a sudden three point turn, and we race away. When we are several miles from danger, Muhammad breathes an enormous sigh of relief. It looks like my bid to visit Moqqatam is doomed to failure.
The next day, however, I luck out. I meet up with a photographer: and we have a lead. We have been contacted by Ethar Shalaby, a Muslim campaigner and writer. She meets us at the American University, in the centre of Cairo, and says she can take us into the "city of trash". But first she tells us of her own experience - maybe as a warning.
'Like most Cairene people, I had smelt Moqqatam many times, as I drove past on the motorway. And when I smelt it, I shuddered - and drove on a little faster. But then one day I thought - No. I must go and see it for myself.'
We climb in a taxi and head over to the suburb. It's the same scene as yesterday. Lying besides the road into Moqqatam is the discarded carcase of another dog; the dog's head is on fire. Ethar says:
'Maybe I was naive. I just wandered in. The locals got very angry when they saw me. They got in their garbage trucks - and tried to crush my car.'
I ask why the Zabaleen are so hostile.
'I'm a Muslim. I wear a headscarf. The Zabaleen are Coptic Christians. Maybe they don't like Muslims. They often claim they are mistreated by the Muslim authorities. They definitely dislike outsiders.'
It's a striking and unnerving picture. So just who are these enigmatic people? As the car inches into the suburb, I go over my research.
The modern name "Zabaleen" means, plainly enough, "the garbage collectors". But fifty years ago they were called the Zarraba, or the pig people: because they were ordinary peasant swineherds, in the region of Assyut, two hundred miles south of Cairo. They were another tribe from Egypt's ancient Coptic communities - Christians who have been living in the Middle East since the 2nd Century AD, long before the Muslims arrived.
No one is quite sure why the Zabaleen decided to migrate. Their peasant lives were poor, and Assyut is a roiled and sometimes violent region: it is home today to many Islamists. But it is difficult to believe the Zabaleen's present existence is superior to any rural lifestyle.
Whatever the sociology, in the early 1950s some of the Zabaleen upped sticks and moved to lower Egypt, and built shacks on the outskirts of Cairo. While sourcing food for their pigs, they discovered that there was money to be made: recycling the waste of an enormous city like Cairo, with its 18 million inhabitants. Eventually, the Garbage People assumed a semi-official role: as the city's Christian binmen, its Coptic tinkers and ragpickers.
'The trash used to be collected by a sect of Arabs from the western desert,' says Ethar, 'They are called the Wahiya. But when the Christian Zabaleen arrived, the Muslim Wahiya became middlemen.'
We have, at last, reached the main street of Garbage City. Looming beyond the lofty houses of the township are the surrounding limestone cliffs: of Cairo's eastern suburbs. Behind us are cemeteries: the City of the Dead. The whole neighbourhood is cut off and excluded. It also situated in a hollow: which makes it literally and emotionally invisible from the rest of Cairo. The metaphor is stark: you can maybe smell Moqqatam, but you cannot see it. Not unless you go dangerously close.
'Thirty years ago this area was a huge quarry,' says Ethar. 'It was the only place near the centre of Cairo where no one else was living. So the Zabaleen moved in.'
These days there are Zabaleen communities in several parts of Cairo. But Moqqatam remains the biggest Zabaleen township, and it is expanding every day: when the people need space for children they just add more floors to their tottering redbrick tenements: these crowded, high rise buildings add to Moqqatam's teeming, intense and very claustrophobic atmosphere.
A young man comes forward. Ethar tells me this is Walid; he is Ethar's friend in Garbage City. Through Walid we can safely talk to the locals. And then we can get those crucial photographs. As we walk into deeper into the suburb, Walid explains how the Zabaleen work.
'Every day, the men go out into Cairo, and collect rubbish. Their routes are arranged by the Wahiya. The poorer Zabaleen use donkey carts, many rent trucks. They work very hard hours. They get up at 3 or 4 a.m., go out into the city, and work till late afternoon.'
Walid stops, and points. It is difficult to convey the scene that confronts us. The word medieval seems like an insult to the Middle Ages.
Everywhere we look, teams of women are sitting on fetid heaps of rubbish: inside their own homes. The rooms are wholly open to the street, but the women's faces are barely visible, within the dark interiors. Pigs and goats scuttle around. Children are playing amongst bales of raw hospital waste; a baby is sitting on a sack of refuse.
Walid gestures at some women, who are sifting through a vast bag of black cloth. 'The trash is brought into the homes, and dumped in the ground floors.' He says. 'That's where the women do the sorting. The women spend their days here, picking over the rubbish, looking for paper, rags, glass, and metal: things to be recycled. The organic waste is fed to the pigs and poultry.'
We step inside a dingy workshop. A young man is stooped over a whirring machine. He is turning out black coat hangars, made from plastic picked out by the women. He tells us his name is Bahaa.
'I am 18 years old, and I've been doing this since I was 13. I earn maybe six dollars a day,' he tells us. 'It's tough, and it's hot. Sometimes I get burns from the machine. But the money.. it isn't so bad.'
The air is alive with flies; rats skitter along gutters. On the right are workrooms, with noisy contraptions pounding shampoo bottles into chips; on the left, piles of red cow-spines lie in a backyard, waiting to be turned into glue. In one building, women are sitting around a bathtub of murky brown water: they are rinsing cardboard, for a dollar a day. Recycling, recycling, recycling: everywhere they are people recycling.
As Ethar puts it: 'The Zabaleen are incredible recyclers. Probably the best in the world. Every day they pick up 4000 tons of Cairo's waste. American researchers have shown that the Zabaleen recycle 85% of this garbage into something useful: that's a rate higher than anywhere else on the planet. A few years ago the city tried to get rid of the Zabaleen, they brought in big western trucks and wheelie bins. But they discovered that the waste management was less efficient than before. The trucks got stuck in the narrow streets of the old town.'
Just in front of us, a man is carrying an enormous bale of cardboard. He looks like a kind of human leafcutter ant, ferrying ten times his own weight.
Walid concludes his story.
'Now we Zabaleen exist alongside the municipal rubbish collectors. But we may be driven out soon. Nobody knows. For the moment we are still allowed to go around town, picking up rubbish, which we bring home. And some of us make a relatively decent income, by Egyptian standards. That's one reason why many Zabaleen want to keep doing what they do...'
This is an important yet bizarre aspect to life in Moqqatam. To outsiders the existence of the garbage-pickers is surely a fate to be avoided at all costs. Yet many of the locals are stubbornly attached to their trade. They are obdurate. Fatalistic. And scornful of change.
Samah is a smiling young woman of 23. We find her sitting on a pile of rubbish on the ground floor of her home. She sorts through this rubbish all day, every day; she has been doing it every day since she was 12; she will do it every day for the rest of her life.
'My husband gets up at two in the morning, I have three children to feed. But this is my life.' I see that her sandalled feet are covered in dirt; her toenails are prettily painted. She laughs. 'The first thing I saw as a baby was garbage. Now I live in garbage. So I never notice it, not even the smell.'
This defiant attitude is also noted by the only non-Zabaleen we meet, on this daunting trek through town: a doctor at the local hospital.
'The Zabaleen are stubborn,' says Doctor Fady Fawzy, a young Muslim clinician, just coming off a 24 hour shift. 'There's a cultural resistance to change which I don't always understand. For instance, they won't wear gloves, no matter what we say to them. If they did wear gloves they could avoid many of the really nasty infections, especially the ones they get from sorting hospital waste.'
He shows me around his clinic. I expect it to be full. Yet there is only one patient in the wards, recovering from a gall bladder op. And in the waiting room there are just two ladies in black. The outpatients ignore us, but get excited when a bearded Coptic priest wanders in, to chat with his parishioners. The women rush over, to kiss the priest's calmly outstretched hand. The doctor goes on:
'They really only come here when they are dying. They have their religion and that gives them comfort. But they still have a whole range of health issues. Hepatitis A B and C. Tetanus and scabies. And many many wounds. We see wounds from machines, from collecting metal, and from fighting.' He sighs. 'Probably the worst health problems in Moqqatam are psychological. They never stop working; the women never leave the district, with its terrible smell. The intensity of the life here is mentally damaging. Women get stressed and depressed. And the men drink whisky and fight.'
Walid is getting a little edgy. The presence of the photographer is causing some disquiet: so far we have been OK, but now people are beginning to stare, and to mutter. Night is falling. The fires are being lit on the edge of the suburb. The air of deep hostility is returning.
On the way out of town we find a man butchering a pig at the side of the road. The porkmeat is glistening and pink in the setting sun. It looks fiendishly unhygienic, yet anyone who has tried the bacon of the Zabaleen can attest that it is meltingly delicious. As Walid confirms: this is because the pork comes from pigs doing what they are meant to do - eat rubbish. As a result, the best hotels in Cairo buy their bacon here: in one of the poorest places in the Middle East.
We are nearing the concrete bridge, once again. The cold Cairo twilight feels especially clammy, in the clinging reek of Moqqatam. On the road out of Garbage City, we witness one more striking scene: an argument at a teahouse. Two men are swinging punches; a crowd is gathering. 'I curse your religion, I damn your God,' says one of the men. He flips up a tea tray, scattering glasses. Then the crown intervenes, separating the brawlers.
Dusk is nearly upon us. Walid says his goodbyes. He tells me he has a date this evening - outside the neighbourhood. He says that he will shower, and change into fresh clothes, and he will take the girl to the cinema. It sounds very normal.
But then I ask Walid if he will tell the girl where he comes from. He looks at me with a flash of disdain. 'No' he says. 'I won't tell her I come from. Of course not.'
And with that he turns, and walks back, along the dark and dusty pavements, into his city made of trash.