Neighbourhood slum transformed by a sprawling mural set across 50 buildings paying homage to Cairo’s garbage collectors, all without the government noticing.

Amid Cairo’s brick buildings and heaping piles of trash is a sprawling mural, which, at first, looks messy and incoherent. But when you stand on the nearby hillside and read the spray-painted Arabic “calligraffiti”, as its creator Tunisian-French artist eL Seed calls it, the message reads loud and clear, “If one wants to see the light of the sun, he must wipe his eyes.”

The quote represents the importance of withholding judgment of people just because of their circumstances, says eL Seed, who first visited the community a few years ago. He’s called the piece “Perception” for just that reason, hoping to get people to see past the area’s physical appearance.

Risky Business

The entire piece took three weeks to complete, but what’s most surprising is that eL Seed and several friends who worked with him had been able to complete the project at all, without being harassed or arrested.

Egypt’s high-handed government has shown little tolerance for artists, sending agents to raid cultural centres and recently prosecuting a novelist on charges that he had harmed public morality. Street artists who made the city their canvas in the heady days after Egypt’s uprising in 2011 have lately been forced to work hastily or in secret, carrying out projects “as you would a heist,” said Soraya Morayef, who has documented street art over the past five years on her blog.

People in The Community

eL Seed says he first hatched the idea for the mural on April 2 of last year. “I sent a WhatsApp message to my friend saying we should do this crazy thing,” before he and 20 others set to work on the project just outside downtown Cairo, in the Manshiyat Naser neighbourhood, the area was mostly a nondescript slum.

Armed with small scaffolding rigs and many, many cans of spray paint, the team set to work on turning the intricate illustration into a mammoth work of art. He admits he did miss-paint one small portion compared to the original drawing, but the point was never to create a flawless design.

Humility Brings us Together

Artist Transforms Neighbourhood Slum With Mammoth Perception Mural
Artist el Seed, in the glasses and blue shirt stands with members of his team the local Cairo community.

Now fully finished, the piece will stay for as long as the community allows. “If a new building obscures the final piece, so be it,” eL Seed says. Even though the final view seems to stretch out to the horizon, “for me, it’s just a piece of art that captures a moment. It’s the story behind it that I think is more interesting.”

eL Seed is planning to return in a couple months for the release of a book on the project and an accompanying documentary his team is filming. “They changed my perception,” he says of the people in the community. “We should still have humility, and this is what brings us together.”