Protest is no easy task. The risks one takes rise above the necessities of personal safety and reputation. It is not merely the raising of fists or voices in an attempt to be heard by governments long deemed legendary for their being deaf—and dumb.
Protest necessitates fire in the heart, that scorching sensation in the gut that compels us to either shout out loud, or worse, cross the line of sanity.
Recently an act so gruesome—and brave—has set another course for a nation whirling with problems.
A fifty-year-old man, in the port city of Qantara, Egypt, set himself on fire in what is believed to be protest action against debilitating poverty in the area, and government’s lack of response to the situation.
In that busy Cairo street, people flocked to see what had happened. Government officials were quick to respond, and quicker still was their explanation that the man was mentally challenged. The man’s friend denied it.
Days prior to this incident, in Tunisia, a man set himself ablaze as an outcry to souring prices, housing problems, unemployment and, as one report said, politics.
Across the Arab world in classic copycat fashion, also in Algeria and Mauritania, people are setting themselves on fire as a means to protest government’s clear inability to help them.
What is it about fire, or a human being engulfed in flames, that sends chills up one’s spine? The Spanish and Roman Catholic Inquisitions were quick to employ it as a means to “purify” unworthy heathens and heretics, among others. Early Christians were burned at the stake as a means of punishment for worshiping another deity, while their children were fed to dogs and lions.
The ovens at Auschwitz were a horrid reminder of that the human mind can invoke if only to satisfy its lust for power. Fire was also used to rid the rising Nazi and Communist parties of books that could disprove their claim to power.
Fire brings to the fore man’s primal fear of excruciating and final judgment, of a death most dire (second probably to crucifixion), and condemnation so exacting the idea of purification was thrown along with the rest of it.
The metaphorical fire is deemed a test to one’s spirituality or bravery. The American Indians used fire to manage big game, control and improve the raising of crops and some trees, manage the spread of pests and declare war.
Today, we light up a cig with it, cook our food, grill our favourite fish and meat, bake our cakes and pastries, and if insurance grants prove more lucrative, burn our businesses.
Seriously, myths and tales of “saints” being burned to death were a dime a dozen during the Dark Ages, and even now, in order to hide from forensic science the proof of a crime. Fire prickles in the human mind such fears that a person engulfed in flames is an image better left unseen.
But a human being set aflame as a means to protest government’s inutile behaviour? This I gotta see.
JOEL PABLO SALUD is the chief editor of the Philippines Graphic magazine, the country’s top newsweekly publication under the ALC Group of Publications, which include the BusinessMirror. He is a member of the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle.