Even after witnessing uprisings and protests, some of the privileged still refuse to understand what it means to be poor
By Dominika Maslikowski
The streamers that twinkle in the sun and liven up Downtown’s drab alleys, the sugary smell of freshly fried zalabia on Talaat Harb Street after iftar, and the man who wakes the neighborhood up for sohour by calling out residents’ names through a megaphone. If you grew up in Egypt or have lived here long enough, you look forward to all the small things that come with Ramadan and give the holiday a festive spirit. If you’re a Muslim, the Holy Month is also a time of reflection and prayer meant to deepen faith. Refraining from food and water all day is meant to teach discipline and empathy for the poor, who deal with hunger pangs all year long. It’s a time when many Muslims make big donations to charities or offer a stranger on the street a few dates from their meager iftar.
It’s good to help the poor, or at least offer your empathy and understanding. Poverty is something that should be acknowledged, fought and eradicated: This is a simple lesson found in all the major religions, and understood by all moral people. Unfortunately, lessons that are often the easiest to understand in holy books prove the most difficult to implement in daily life, when we step outside our mosques, churches or homes and go out into the street.
If you were out in the streets on Saturday, you no doubt found lines of taxis at a standstill blocking traffic in several neighborhoods during a protest against a price hike on petrol. If you were a microbus driver at a small protest in Suez or Ismailia, you might have tasted tear gas before you tasted any food that day.
When the government announced it would raise the prices on state-subsidized natural gas, gasoline and diesel in an effort to lower the country’s budget deficit, reactions on the street ranged from outrage to disappointment and frustration. Some who had voted for President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi said they now regretted that decision, noting that the price hikes would hit the poorest Egyptians the hardest. Others argued with drivers before paying higher fares in microbuses and taxis, in some cases wondering whether they’d have enough cash left over to buy meat. Still others saw the price hikes as a necessary evil, or as a move the government had to make after many delays to strengthen the economy.
All those opinions, voiced in the press, online or in the streets, were understandable. But there was another more peculiar voice that rose up on that day, in the middle of the Holy Month that teaches empathy. What was the big deal?, some people asked. Get over it, some advised the protesters, and stop relying on the government for help. If you’re poor and paying a few pounds more for transport is a hardship, then you should work harder. Don’t just sit and complain at cafes or disrupt the city with yet another protest, other comments said.
I can understand people’s frustration over the price hikes, and I can also see why others argue that the hikes are needed to boost the economy. But those who ask what’s the big deal and fail to grasp that for many Egyptians three or four pounds is not just small change, remind me of some twisted, modern-day version of Marie Antoinette. The 18th-century French princess, oblivious to the conditions of her country’s peasants, had reportedly said, “Let them eat cake” when she heard there was no bread. Today some remain just as clueless about the lives of the Egyptian poor: If they can’t ride the microbus, let them ride limousines!
In ancient India, a 29-year-old Prince Siddhartha ventured outside his palace walls for the first time and saw the disease and poverty outside that his father tried to shelter him from for decades. Siddhartha never returned to his palace and spent the rest of his life as a spiritual teacher and founder of Buddhism. In Egypt, the January 25 Revolution took many by surprise. “You were living in your Zamalek bubble,” one of my Egyptian friends recently told her friend, as they reminisced about 2011 in a Giza restaurant. A harp player had appeared on a TV talk show in those days and claimed she hadn’t known there was poverty in Egypt until she saw footage of the protesters in Tahrir Square, another friend told me.
It seems a few people still don’t see the poverty or would just prefer to ignore it. This belief that ignorance is bliss is at least as old as ancient India, when Buddha’s father preferred to keep his son away from misery, and it’s not only particular to Egypt. But the comments of incredulity made by some people about the recent taxi protests, expressing surprise about how a price hike of a few pounds could be such a big deal, struck me as ironic.
The statements came during Ramadan when the Egyptians who fast feel the same thirst and hunger, regardless of their bank accounts or social class. The majority of Egyptians can understand poverty and sympathized with the protesters. Others, however, still seem determined to never look past their palace walls.