Stories are powerful things

February 25, 2011


Anna Perera is the author of The Glass Collector and Guantanamo Boy. The opinions expressed are her own. Thomson Reuters will host a follow-the-sun live blog on March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.

The more we read stories about other cultures, the more we find places of balance in our own lives. My new young-adult novel, The Glass Collector, is a contemporary tale about a Zabbaleen teenage boy who struggles to survive amongst the trash heaps of Cairo in Egypt.

Like my last novel, Guantanamo Boy, it deals with real events and locations, but as Stephen King said, ‘Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth within the lie.’ Shaping the lies so the truth remains undimmed isn’t always a bundle of laughs but the lure to create vivid and powerful stories about dispossessed teenagers from other cultures continues to captivate me as a writer.

The idea for The Glass Collector was triggered by an article I read about the Zabbaleen who are mainly Coptic Christians who collect and sort more than 80 percent of Cairo’s waste. A mind boggling statistic considering the city’s population is around 17 million. The Coptic Church is of ancient origin and was isolated from other churches after it was declared heretical in 451 AD.

Intrigued, I glanced at an assortment of Youtube videos, articles and blogs and couldn’t stop thinking about and imagining their lives.

Writers often claim that stories find them so I was ready to be found by The Glass Collector (Aaron) when I went to Mokattam, the home of the Zabbaleen who work, live and sleep in mountains of filth which stink of open drains.

Seeing homes crammed with plastic bags filled with glass, rags, metal and paper ready for merchants to buy for recycling, was horrifying. Visions of shadowy families gathered round piles of rotting slop, picking out bottles, shoes, cola tins and newspapers left me reeling. But without the Zabbaleen, Cairo would cease to be a livable city.

Cairo is a magical, mysterious place and I discovered limitless stories and surprises around every corner. At one point I walked into a shop where three women dressed in hijabs were shyly eating in the corner. When I commented on the delicious smell they invited me with warm gestures to share the flat bread and curries, which turned out to be a tasty, delightful lunch.

Apart from the hospitality, what amazed me most was the incredible energy I felt despite the dangerous levels of lead and hydrocarbons in the air. An energy that many people I’ve spoken to have experienced. Little did I realize how topical The Glass Collector would become, highlighting as it does, the hardships the Zabbaleen suffered under a regime that introduced mechanized, city rubbish trucks to squeeze them out of business and slaughtered their pigs to prevent swine flu. It came as no surprise to learn that the Zabbaleen supported the Egyptian revolution.

At the centre of their village, built into the limestone quarry walls, is a stunning, pristine church surrounded by frescoes and carvings that took my breath away. A million ideas flooded my brain but the story didn’t arrive until I was back in the chaotic streets of Cairo and saw a Zabbaleen teenager on a pony and cart piled with trash.

As the cars zoomed past, he sat in absolute stillness with a look of supreme bliss on his round face. That boy became Aaron, and his inner bliss grew into a love for glass. Once Aaron arrived, the rest of the characters popped up as if they’d been hiding in the wings waiting for the curtains to open. The bullying stepfamily.

Flamboyant, Shareen, who drives everyone crazy. Best friend, Jacob, the medical-waster, and gentle pony-carer, Rachel, who captures Aaron’s heart.

The parts of ourselves that stories reach change our views of the world and allow us  to see it more clearly. Tunisians and Egyptians have broken the chains of repressive regimes and the domino effect is continuing throughout the Middle East. Nobody knows what will happen next but, one truth is for certain – the stories will keep coming.

Picture Credit: Children play in “Garbage City” in Cairo April 14, 2009, where most of the residents make their living by collecting the garbage in Cairo, sorting it, and recycling. REUTERS/Tarek Mostafa

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