Last night, I happened to be sitting at the qahwa in Nabrawy street, behind the Champollion palace, when, like an apparation from another age, a fire-eater appeared from no-where and began his show. The gentlemen at the cafe seemed less than interested, never mind impressed, at this unusual entrant.
The man intoned a bismillah, drank the paraffin, and began breathing plumes of fire and smoke along the length of the street, perilously close to the ancient trees that rest against the wall of the palace. He extinguished a number of burning torches in his mouth with little ceremony, and began a short spiel about how, really, fire was not for eating, and paraffin was not for drinking and that we should be mindful of our Gods, whatever they might be. He collected a few piastres donated by the customers, and promptly left. I didn't have my camera, much to my shame, so there are no photographs. But, to be honest, I'm not altogether convinced he was real, so short and ethereal was his visit.
My companion watched the brief performance with narrowed eyes, and afterwards pointed out that the appearance of such a character was, in itself, socially significant. The presence of roaming performers, marabouts, shamens, street magicians, and indeed fire-eaters indicates a wider malaise in the land, it seems. And hardly anything, if one looks at it reasonably, would suggest hardship more obviously than a man swallowing paraffin for a living.
The fire-eater, whatever his name was, was some kind of living anecdotal evidence about what is happening in this country that is almost impossible to grasp. It's not impossible to grasp because it is conceptually difficult – poverty is never that. It is difficult to grasp because the dominant discourse in this nation does not allow 'it' to exist. And by 'it' I mean deepening, widening poverty, the kind which makes those who live on five pounds a day (50p) feel fortunate because they are not one of those living on two. It doesn't exist because those who live like that are becoming, statistically, unwelcome. Every major aid NGO paints a picture of growth and progress, sometimes only moderate, sometimes mitigated, but progress nonetheless. Linear, empirical growth towards that happy place known as development. And as for the state, forget about it. So for anyone trying to tell a story which they so often, anecodotally, hear – that the poor are becoming, quite literally, immeasurably poorer –it's no use looking for reports and facts and figures to back up the hunch. There aren't any.
Every week someone tells me that Egypt is reaching boiling point, that the poor can't take any more, that it is ripe for revolution. And every week at least five people tell me that Egypt is going places, that it is a confident, able, 'emerging market' (That phrase has always made my flesh crawl. 'Emerging' from what, 'Emerging' for whom?) that will be a regional and world player this century. Well, they're probably right. The statistics are there to back them up. I have a pile of them on my desk. They make dizzying reading: Real GDP Growth Rate, 2005, 5.1%. Investments as % of GDP, 2005, 17.2%. Net International Reserves, 2005 US$ 19.3 bn. Net Foreign Direct Investments, 2005 US$3.9 bn. Looking good. There's no shortage of this stuff.
Start asking different questions, the stats dry up. How many people living on under $2 a day? We don't really know. Maybe 40%. How many people living in informal housing in Cairo? We don't know. How many people in Cairo not eating a minimally nutritious diet? We don't know. True, these kind of things are a lot harder to measure than the value of exports per quarter. And they are also harder to fix than to turn around a trade deficit. The question is whether or not, with the trumpeted quarterly growth figures, and the lauded economic reform, and the crowed-about FDI numbers, the condition of those way, way below the 'poverty line' are seeing any improvement whatsover. The anecdotal evidence is that they are not. The anecdotal evidence says that they are resorting to strategies that damage the body and demean the spirit. They are drinking petrol and breathing fire in alleyways to stay alive.