According to all recent reports, the ancient city of Cairo now presents to the world the image of a growing pile of festering trash. Nothing new, you say. The streets have never been exactly uncluttered, and the levels of noise and traffic and pollution are an object of wonderment. When I first visited the place, I was amazed to find people living with great dignity and aplomb in what were called "the cities of the dead"—among the graves and stones of Cairo's massive cemeteries. I was also struck by the number and variety of animals living cheek by jowl, as it were, amid the buses and taxis, with the human population. Looking down from the high window of Shepheard's Hotel, I saw that some enterprising person in a neighboring low-rise had managed to get a small flock of goats onto his roof. Other flocks and herds could be met with on the thoroughfares. And a great deal of excellent work was being unobtrusively done by that most useful of animals, the pig. As mass consumers of organic waste, pigs are hard to beat. They would chomp their way through great heaps of it, very often under the unspoken supervision of Cairo's quite large Christian minority.
I have to use the past tense about these noble beasts because, in the spring of this very year, they were all slaughtered on the orders of the Egyptian government. And it is this crazy action that has shifted the Cairo trash scene from the awful to the near-calamitous. It was alleged by the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, on the basis of no evidence whatever, that the swine themselves were the carriers of the so-called "swine flu." (Several friends and relatives of mine have already caught and recovered from this mild infection; everybody knows that actual encounters with pigs have absolutely nothing to do with it.) As a consequence of the pig massacre, the streets of Cairo have become almost unlivable, and the Christian garbage collectors, locally called the zabaleen, have been robbed of their livelihood. "They killed the pigs, let them clean the city," as one former garbage collector and pig man, Moussa Rateb, was quoted as saying of the Egyptian authorities.
I read all the way to the end of Michael Slackman's well-written and vividly illustrated report in the New York Times with that vague need one sometimes feels to hear the sound of another shoe dropping. When was he proposing to mention that there was something sectarian—possibly even something religious—in the decision to simultaneously butcher the pigs and downgrade the Christians?
This wouldn't be the only instance of clerical hysteria generated by the outbreak. Iranian television recently broadcast an item suggesting that the swine-flu virus had been deliberately incubated by the usual shady cosmopolitan "circles" and that the vaccine against it had been monopolized by a company in which Donald Rumsfeld held many shares. Back in May, just as Egypt's anti-porcine hysteria was gathering pace, there was a proposal from Sheik Ahmad Ali Othman, a senior advisory figure at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, that all pigs be killed because they were the descendants of those unbelieving Jews who were turned into swine in the Quran. (In case you don't follow this very toxic debate between contending schools of militant Islam, there are those who maintain that Jews are the spawn of the pigs and monkeys into which Allah turned the heretics, and those who take the more moderate view that the heretics turned into pigs and monkeys were further cursed by being made barren and sterile. The latter view leads to the slightly more lenient and broad-minded conclusion that, bad as today's Jews are, they at least cannot be in a direct line of descent from the original condemned beasts. These fine distinctions are worth knowing.)
At a more demotic level, it is said that pigs are unclean because they even eat their own excrement. They are not the only creatures that will resort to this, but it is certainly their omnivorousness that makes them such an amazing trash patrol. Not to notice this about pigs is to miss the point of them. We might also observe that they have skin and organs that can be transplanted onto and into humans, that they have high intelligence and an impressive body weight to brain weight ratio, some family values, and other interesting traits. (It's no coincidence that, in all societies that do not inculcate prejudice against them, baby pigs are regarded in a cousinly light by the folklore of human children.) A city or society without pigs is barely imaginable: A world without pigs would be a world in which humans had destroyed some close kin and some very serviceable fellow creatures. Yet two of the great monotheisms are committed to irrational hatred and even fear of the pig. (Christianity is rather better on the point, if you omit the ghastly tale of the Gadarene swine infected with demons by Jesus himself. A canon of the Church of England, who had served as a missionary in New Guinea, where sheep were unknown, told me that the metaphor of the woolly flock and the shepherd had been replaced among the indigenous by Anglican preachers who appealed to the Lord to keep and safeguard his precious porkers.)
But no faith is immune to stupidity on this point. Centuries ago in Europe, cats were considered—especially the black ones among them—as the "familiars" of witches and put to death with revolting cruelty by Christians who were petrified of the evil one and his female envoys. The destruction of the feline led to the triumph of the rat, and to the flea that it bore on its back, and to the near collapse of European civilization. Now, the eradication of the porcine leads to the advance of the garbage mountain, in which it would be surprising if the rat and its vermin did not again find a few claw holds. Leave it to people of faith. Leave it to them if you dare …