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The Mural in the Garbage: An Artist’s ‘Perception’ of Cairo’s Coptic Slum

eL Seed Perception
eL Seed’s ‘Perception’ as seen from the St. Simon Monastery in Cairo’s Muqattam Mountains

This article was first published at The Media Project:

In 2013 the French-Tunisian eL Seed became the first Arab artist to collaborate with fashion mogul Louis Vuitton. His unique “caligraffiti” style emblazoned their classic Foulards d’Artiste monogram scarf, and embellished their iconic Alzer luggage case.

Blending traditional Arabic calligraphy with street-style urban graffiti, his reputation grew as his murals transformed walls around the world with messages of peace. Condé Nast Traveler feted eL Seed (pictured above) as one of the year’s leading visionaries, even as he mingled with artists, diplomats, celebrities, and billionaires.

Three years later he was picking through trash in a city dump.

I wrote recently about the community that inhabited this dump, the Zabbaleen of Manshiat Nasser, and the cave church that rose out of its squalor in the Muqattam mountains. eL Seed designed a massive mural that encompasses the walls of 50 apartment buildings, visible only from the monastery above.

The elaborate Biblical rock carvings hewn by a resident Polish artist have made the monastery one of Cairo’s lesser-known gems, but to get there one must still brave the pungent smells below. That is exactly what eL Seed did to obtain the approval of now 75-year-old Fr. Simon.

The article also tells the story of Abanoub, a 23-year-old Manshiat Nasser resident who Fr. Simon relied upon to help eL Seed adapt to the area and win support for his project. But when he was done, neither Abanoub nor the residents could read what was written. Here is how el Seed explains this, and the following concludes the article:

“You don’t need to know the meaning to feel the peace,” he said, “but when you get the meaning, you feel connected to it.”

Though he chooses sayings that have a universal dimension, eL Seed strives also for local relevancy. In Bishop Athanasius he identified a champion of the Egyptian church, who preserved the orthodox teaching of Christ’s divine nature from the heresy of Arianism. This history may be little studied by the Zabbaleen, but the gesture was not lost on Abanoub, a church hymnist.

Though almost exclusively Coptic, Manshiat Nasser has seen its share of Muslim-Christian tensions. In March 2011, not long after Mubarak’s resignation supposedly marked the end of the revolution, clashes with Muslim outsiders resulted in deaths on both sides. But Abanoub remarked that he didn’t sense eL Seed was a Muslim even for one minute, an expression often used by members of either faith to emphasize the humanity of the other.

“Even though he is a Muslim, he wrote the quote of a Christian saint,” Abanoub said. “I don’t know why he chose it or what it means to him. But for me, if we want to see Christ, we must see the world around us.”

And this is the gift of eL Seed to the Zabbaleen of Egypt. Though the focus will always be on the trash, he has added a mark of beauty and dignity.

“The mural makes us feel important,” said Abanoub. “We’re not just a bunch of garbage collectors sorting trash. No, because of him the world’s media is shining light upon our community.”

Please click here to read the full article at The Media Project.

Perception Manshiat Nasser
One of the 50 buildings of ‘Perception’, seen from the streets of Manshiat Nasser