Saturday, October 29, 2011

Memoires of an Egyptian Pharmacist

What does it mean when having access to a pharmacy and a bakery is a dream come true…a privilege to be proud of and thank God for?

What does it mean when an earthquake destroys three quarters of a village, killing and injuring tens of its inhabitants…but neither officials nor the media seem to take any notice??

What does it mean when the death of infant children is a normal everyday fact of life?

It means you are probably living in one of Egypt's 3747 villages, invisible, voiceless and marginalized.  This is what we end up realizing when we read "Memoires of an Egyptian Pharmacist" (2008) written by Karima El Hefnawi, a pharmacist and longtime political activist.  The memories document in simple but compelling language stories from her sojourn in several of Egypt's villages during the late 1970s up to the early 1990s where she worked in different pharmacies. Active during the student movement of the 1970s, she graduated from university in 1976, and chose to work in distant and impoverished villages to serve the poor and needy rather than open a pharmacy in Cairo and make money serving the well off and rich as many of her peers chose to do.

The book includes 19 different stories from rural Egypt that touch on the cultural, the social and the political starting with the story of the villager's joyous disbelief that they finally have a pharmacy in their village and don't have to travel long distances to get medicines.  Another story tells of women during the Gulf war of 1990 desperately waiting for hours in front of the pharmacy to receive calls on its telephone from their men folk working in the Gulf region to reassure them that they are well and safe.

"اصل البيت وقع...بس ربنا ستر..." "You see…our house fell down…but God was merciful"     

One of the stories recounts the events in a village in Upper Egypt located near the epicenter of the earthquake that hit Egypt in 1992. Although 17 people died and tens of others were injured and the majority of the houses in the village were destroyed, the media and officials focused their attention and efforts solely on the high rise building that collapsed in the upper class district of Heliopolis in Cairo. Foreign rescue teams joined salvage operations at the building while villagers were left to die below the rubble of their homes.

We learn of the midwife who helps girls in distress, saving their reputation and possibly their lives in these deeply traditional and conservative communities. Death is also a constant visitor in these villages, reaping the lives of small infants during their first weeks of life or of young men victims of complications of bilharzias, the longtime scourge of rural Egypt, or that of men victims of wars in distant lands where they have gone in search of a livelihood to provide for their families.

Despite the often bleak realities of rural Egypt depicted in these stories, they are at times not without humor or a touch of tragic-comedy. Thus we hear of the wife who wanted the exact type and colour of the medicine that her neighbor took because when she did, she gave birth to a baby boy; of the “Sheikh” who conned villagers into buying for him a certain type of cologne to break spells (3amal) while in fact he resold the colognes in a shop he owned; and of the elderly man who refused to enter the pharmacy as long as there was only “a young girl” (the author) inside rather than a male doctor, but who finally succumbed when he needed urgently to take an injection.

The book offers short, simple but endearing glimpses into the “other” Egypt that many Cairenes may not be aware of, the “other” Egypt that has not changed much since the 30 or 20 years when the events of this book took place, and has continued to suffer neglect and poverty till this day. But it is the deep thankfulness expressed by the villagers in simple yet moving words for a lot of what we take as granted in life that endears them to the reader.

"Then the villagers began to gather in joy and thankfulness to God for all these blessings.  God was surely very pleased with them…he had blessed them with a pharmacy. This village had entered history from its widest doors"

"ثم بدأ أهالي القرية في التجمع ابتهالا لله شاكرين لكل هذه النعم، لقد رضي الله عنهم رضى كبير وأنعمهم اخيرا بأجزخانة، إن هذه القرية قد دخلت التاريخ من أوسع أبوابه"

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Shoes and Boots

I like watching shoes.
I like to watch as they come and go.  What a variety of shoes there are! You can see big and small, high heeled and flat, fancy and plain, worn-out and new, expensive and cheap…a whole world of colors, models, and fashions….you can never get bored.

That’s why I like watching shoes.
Some come in bright colored groups that shuffle and mingle and are full of excitement. Others are loners, pacing and lingering. And then there are those who come lovingly in pairs, side by side, polished and smart, dandy and playful, walking slowly, softly, tenderly…

Oh I love watching shoes.
If they could only talk, what stories they would tell! The roads they’ve trodden, the homes they’ve entered, the places they’ve gone too, the journeys they’ve made from one pair of feet to another…..just imagine the life of a shoe!

Hey I just love watching shoes!
One day the boots came. They were only a few, just one or two. They were dark bulky boots.  I watched them at first, but they were boring and dull and all looked the same.

I preferred watching shoes
Then more of them came. They marched, they stomped, standing row after row. Now the shoes hardly came…where had they gone?

I kept on watching.
Then one day I glimpsed the sole of a boot. It had a man’s face stuck to  its heel.

I like watching shoes…..but I don’t anymore.