Sunday, October 14, 2012

The role of women in Egyptian patriarchy

Part of an expansive mural––now painted over and re-decorated––near Tahrir Square documenting women's struggles in times of economic crisis. Photo: Nadine Ibrahim

This article originally appeared on Peace X Peace. Read the original here.

A young Egyptian artist participating in a public art workshop put up posters around the city–one in Tahrir Square on the eve of elections–of an Egyptian man and woman holding hands and smiling. In each case, she returned to find that the posters were vandalized or torn down. Why? The friendly couple was mixed. In each image, one person was dressed in conservative religious Egyptian clothing and the other was dressed in liberal, yet still modest, Western clothing.

The poster depicted two individuals from different segments of society mingling in a way that is not only uncommon, but also frowned upon.

Amidst many shades of in-between, these are the two most visible lifestyles in Egyptian society. Moving from one neighborhood to another, colorful pants, skirts, t-shirts and cardigans replace dark colored abayas and white galabayas. The traditional, religious family model emphasizes different gender roles in order to create a harmonious life, one that is balanced between the inherent strengths and weaknesses of men and women. Such a life allegedly brings one closer to God, and will lead men, women, families, and arguably an entire country away from sin. Other family and lifestyle models, more common amongst the wealthy, are increasingly liberal and open to Western influences. In this subset the belief is that traditional religious gendered family roles can often be restrictive.

The poster of two people from very different walks of life is representative of how many parts of society are interacting in a new way during the current period of political transition after the January 25th Revolution ousted President Mubarak in 2011. The result of this transition was the election of Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist candidate. President Morsi now must represent all these walks of life in Egypt, including conservative and moderate Muslims, Islamists, the Coptic Christian population, and liberal Western secularists. A highly emotional reaction to a convergence of spheres often occurs along gender lines. The reactions, like angrily tearing down a poster of a smiling couple, can be less than positive, and can even have violent or destructive undertones.

Tahrir Square, cast as Egypt’s main stage, is the most visible example of this emotional reaction, which has often taken the form of repeated sexual violence against women.

Samira Ibrahim (top). She took the military doctor (all of
the soldier's faces are his) to court for subjecting here to a
forced virginity test. Photo: Nadine Ibrahim
Episodes of sexual violence in Tahrir Square carry political undertones. Groups of baltageyya, or “thugs” hired by the government, have been caught infiltrating the Square, posing as protesters, and then brandishing weapons in a state-sponsored attempt to disperse crowds. According to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), agents of the state, including police, also specifically target women as subjects of violence. This is a well-documented phenomenon throughout Mubarak’s 30-year presidency, and many believe that these same thugs still enter and commit horrific crimes of sexual violence. Unfortunately, these crimes are not limited to thugs: on-duty military doctors, police officers, and organized groups of men intent on dispersing crowds of women are also guilty of sexual violence against women. The end result?  Dismantling the security and unity in the square, a regime-threatening symbol of Egyptian unity, while using women as a tool to destabilize dissenting voices.

This overt violation of a woman’s body is prevalent not just in crowds or in the minds of individuals, but in policy. Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a long contested procedure that–for reasons of chastity and honor–aims to suppress a woman’s sexual appetite. FGM/C, in reality, is an invasive and traumatic experience that does not succeed in its stated purpose; rather, it deprives a woman of sexual pleasure––leaving that as a masculine domain alone. Although it is illegal in Egypt, some politicians–notably some female politicians–support the practice, calling it a matter of “family decision” and “beautification.”

In the transition period, one popular sentiment among secular or non-Islamist leaning voters was a strong fear that Morsi’s election will solidify the rise of Islamists in power. This would, in turn, encourage what are often viewed by this subset of individuals as restrictive traditional religious gender roles. In typical gendered fashion, the fear and tension was most visibly expressed as a concern for the future status of women’s rights in Egypt under a majority Islamist government. After the Revolution, and particularly after Morsi’s election, women’s issues came to the forefront of the discussion. There were marches against sexual harassment, groups and organizations created to combat the prevalence of abuse, and support systems to create safe zones in risk areas like Tahrir Square. It is easy to attribute this increase in women’s rights activism as purely a reaction to the rise of Islamism and its perception as a threat to women, but this belies the complexity and depth of the issue; patriarchal attitudes towards women are anything but a recent development and are far from exclusive to Islamism.

Abuse and mistreatment of women is deeply entrenched in Egypt’s history, as it is in much of the world. To echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the revolution has not created tensions but merely brought to the surface hidden tension that is already alive.

This patriarchy can be traced back to times even before the rising social influence of Islamism, which began to flourish in the 1970s. Since then, it has been propagated by successive Egyptian regimes that categorically cast themselves in stark contrast to the Islamists. No Egyptian government has had adequate representation of women. Historic attitudes towards women have resulted in a society in which the prevalent view of women as occupying less-than-equal footing as men still pervades, largely unperturbed, today.

The ECWR elaborates:
Women's right to lead a life free of violence is not widely internalized within Egyptian society, resulting in lack of reporting by victims of violence, lack of perpetrators' awareness of the criminality of violence, lack of response from police and the legal system supposedly tasked with enforcing laws prohibiting violence, and perpetration of violence by authorities themselves against women in order to pressure their male relatives.

Almost all women in Egypt have felt this imposing patriarchal sentiment in spheres of their daily life. Many women are all-too-aware of the risks involved in being in large crowds. Many live in a society in which the greater burden of honor rests on the women, and where a situation in which a dishonorable woman’s death can restore a family’s tarnished reputation is a reality. Some reports claim that as many as 60% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment on the street, and while others may blame the woman for provoking these attacks, it is well documented that the attackers harass regardless of hijab, niqab, or jeans and a t-shirt. Section 60 of the Egyptian Criminal Code allows judges to waive punishment for men who abuse their wives “in good faith.” The influential state media complex has also been complicit in perpetuating victim-blaming and promoting negative attitudes. There are many proposed explanations for this often highly visible disregard for women’s rights and none of them inherent to Egyptian culture or Islam. On an individual level, perhaps these men take the liberty to violate women–both local and foreign–to overtly remind them that they are not welcome, that their voices are not on equal footing with those of men.

"The Girl in the Blue Bra"
As I understand it–and I can’t claim to fully understand the mentality of those who seek to directly undermine the autonomy of a woman–this maltreatment stems from a patriarchal notion that women do not have an equal place in the public sphere. Where participating in the public sphere can add to a man’s level of respect, for women the implications are flipped. A woman in public, mingling with strangers, yelling, chanting, and protesting can be looked upon with disdain.
In the aftermath of the January 25th Revolution, I felt afraid, in part because of a lack of sympathy, to be a woman in public. However, for me and for millions of other women, my fear did not end there; my fear empowered me to speak out, to be angry. The bubble burst. Decent women should not be outside doing such vulgar things as protesting, but here we were. Almost in response, women were mass gang raped in Tahrir Square, reports were filed of police officers sexually harassing or at best turning a blind eye to horrific sexual abuse, the virginity of female activists was forcibly tested, and one of many nameless victim protesters was stripped of her conservative abaya, dragged down the street–­–iconic blue bra exposed. The moment before a soldier’s foot came stomping down on her ribcage a photographer snapped a historic photo.

With mounting fear comes a refusal to accept the status quo. Reminiscing on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., voices against the mistreatment of women are louder than ever before and public awareness of the issue is reaching a tipping point. The strong presence of women’s issues comes at the time of Morsi’s nascent presidency, but it is important not to conflate the two issues: the rise of political Islam and the fall of women’s rights.

Indeed, the political Islamic agenda pushed by the Muslim Brotherhood has a tangible effect on expectations of women. The Muslim Brotherhood has for decades led by pious example, and Morsi has several times expressed his commitment to women’s issues. While he does not talk about things like free birth control and abortions, he speaks of making life easier for the working mother, or the divorced/widowed ex-wife. Morsi’s conservative stance on the place of women in society is empathetic to the predominant Egyptian family model, but it is unrelated to the mounting mistreatment of women in the public sphere.

Part of a mural near Tahrir Square. Photo: Nadine Ibrahim
The problem is with a system, society, and government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Women’s voices are struggling to be heard, and when they yell from behind a state-sponsored, police-enforced, and popularly supported wall they are faced with adamant, often violent and shaming, opposition.

Like the thought-provoking posters of a happy mixed Egyptian couple in contrasting garb, speaking out against the status quo can often provoke a highly emotional and destructive rebuttal. The current friction of different spheres of Egyptian life is proving a rough transition of its own, but hope for progress is strong.

The restrictions on women are slowly becoming less acceptable to an increasingly informed public: political figures are backpedaling on lenient views on female genital mutilation and the first veiled woman was allowed to broadcast the news on State TV. Women are marching, writing, chanting, and exercising their right to personal freedom without penalty. This is not a time for misunderstanding; this is a time of empowerment.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The ability to make things stop

[Our murderers'] real creed was an ancient cult of destruction that precedes every known religion, every state, every political system. We pin that cult now on the Germanic tribe of Vandals who sacked Rome in the year 455, but we can read its violent traces just as clearly in prehistoric times. Blind rage cannot understand anything as complex or beautiful as Rome, or a library, or even a person, an animal, a book, a tree, a work of art—but blind rage can make these intricate systems stop, and the ability to make things stop has served many of our kind since time immemorial as a fine substitute for learning, experience, scientific method, artistic creation, philosophy. Destruction, too, can count as hard work.” ––Ingrid D. Rowland, “Saving Alexandria”

Last weekend, I went to the voting booth in my neighborhood. Egyptian nationals all over the world went to vote for their next President, in what was allegedly the first free and fair presidential elections in the country. The moment that Hosni Mubarak stepped down from office, the question has remained: who will take his place, and how? Revolutionaries fought against tyranny, against an oppressive military-heavy regime. We demanded the ability to choose who our next President will be.

As the political sphere in Egypt developed––or, as some might say, developed and devolved––the revolutionary spirit dwindled. Lost in arguments and blind hatred for opposing opinions, the unity that once inspired the whole world to wish that they were as badass as Egyptians slowly died. As it died, so did our chances for a President truly removed from the old system.

Support for the revolutionary candidates was divided. Ultimately, the choice was between the two historically established political bodies: Mohammed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, and Ahmed Shafiq, the last Prime Minister under Mubarak. Shafiq was appointed, at the last minute, during the revolution in an attempt to satisfy the protesters, who then forced him to step down. Had the revolution not happened, or not succeeded, Shafiq very well might have been heir to the Presidential throne.

In the last few hours of voting, I was still undecided. Should I vote for Mohammed Morsy––whom I deem as the lesser of the two evils––or boycott the vote altogether? To help me make my decision, I proceeded to figure out exactly how many grapes I can fit in my mouth at once.

Half an hour before voting ended, having successfully not choked on 30 grapes, I made my way to my voting station. I had my reporter's notebook in hand, inside written a quote that––to me––represents what these unfair elections and candidates symbolize. The military personnel at the gate stopped to question me, “Stop. Are you a journalist?” “I'm here to vote,” I said. My notebook confused them. The line was not very long, but I was surrounded by women who were all planning on voting for Shafiq. The lack of men was no coincidence––the voting stations were separated by gender.

The last time I voted for President was in the Obama-McCain 2008 elections. I'm not accustomed to strangers asking me how I will vote, and, if anything, I consider it fairly rude. But Egypt is no place for personal space: who you are voting for and why and what kind of person that makes you is everyone's business. They asked and I just clutched my notebook––nervous, anxious, wondering if I had made the right decision.

“Don't you dare try to tell me that it is the government who made Egypt a wreck! Did they throw this garbage on the ground? Do they litter our streets? No, we do. We are the problem.” One woman lectured outside the line to no one in particular. I couldn't help think to myself that she didn't know that a responsible government would have efficient waste-management systems and laws against littering. But she had a point, we need to demand that Egypt deserves better than what we've got. And only when we respect ourselves and our country enough will our demands be taken seriously, and a respectable government will follow.

My turn. I went inside, handed over my ID card, picked up a ballot, and signed next to my name on the voter registration list. I turned and looked at the booth; there was no privacy. The table was positioned in such a way that everyone could see next to whose picture I drew an X.

I opened my notebook. “Our murderers'...” I began writing on my ballot, starting on Mohammed Morsy's bearded and pixelated face. 

“Our murderers' real creed was an ancient cult of destruction that precedes every known religion, every state, every political system.” 

The ink began to seep through the paper, bleeding through Ahmed Shafiq's clean-cut image.

These elections marked a failure of the revolution, and by voting for someone, I would have accepted that fact. I would have accepted the farce that they presented to us, and I refused. Just days before, the military generals ruling this country dissolved the Parliament––a Parliament that was truly democratically elected, and a majority of which was Islamist, a threat to the military regime. “Fool me once,” I thought to myself, “shame on you. Fool me twice,” and the blame lies with me.

Ya anissa! [Hey, girl!]” the woman who held the voter registration list yelled at me, “what are you doing?”

“I'm voting!” I yelled back, not bothering to turn around and still hunched over my ballot.

“Are you writing something?” she asked. “Stop that. You can't write anything.”

I ignored her.

“Hey! Stop! Stop that! You have to vote for ONE PERSON,” she demanded.

“I am!” I said sweetly. I turned and smiled at her.

She called over to one of the military personnel standing at the door, who, fortunately, is not allowed inside the room. “This girl is not voting properly,” she accused.

“No, sir, I'm not writing anything. I'm voting for one person. Just like I'm supposed to.” I said while scribbling my message, now more frantically than before lest I am arrested.

I know that the military generals heading the Supreme Council of Armed Forces will never accept a civilian handover unless they are guaranteed immunity from their decades of corruption, their human rights abuses, from obstructing justice. I know that whoever is President will only be allowed to take the throne with their blessing. And I say “a7a” to their blessing. I reject it. I reject that very notion, and I will not be a part of it. I continued to write from my notebook:

Blind rage can make these intricate systems stop, and the ability to make things stop has served many of our kind since time immemorial as a fine substitute for learning, experience, scientific method, artistic creation, philosophy.”

The voting officials have given up on telling me to stop ruining my ballot and their curiosity got the best of them. “Well, tell us what you are writing!” the woman asked.

“I told you, I'm just voting, the same as everyone else!” I said.

Neither of the candidates stand for the values of the revolution. Both of them, consistently, claimed that they embodied the revolution, when in fact, they went against it. The last 60 years of Egypt's political history has been a game of tug-of-war between the old, military regime and the Muslim Brotherhood––leaving the people of Egypt to fend for themselves. Leaving them to think that it is up to them to clean up the garbage on the street, to clean up this country. The revolution was a direct threat to this old standard system, to the power-struggle; it challenged the notion that those in power can self-serve, and it demanded that leaders truly speak for us.

Destruction, too, can count as hard work.”

So, I congratulate the old system on successfully fooling this country into thinking that things are changing. I congratulate them on serving their own interests, on stealing a revolution to empower themselves and on destroying the opposition. And I, as a stubborn and idealistic citizen, refused to play into their game.

I folded up my ballot and put it in the box. I dipped my finger in ink, and retrieved my ID.The woman with the voter list called me over. “Tell me, what did you write?” “I wrote what I thought about these elections.” “I remember you,” she said. “The last time you were here voting for Parliament, you wrote a message in English at the top of your ballot. What did you write then? What did you write now? Why didn't you write it in Arabic so we could understand it? We all tried to read it last time!”

I told her, “there are people in this country who want power, and those people are threatened by the revolution, and by Egyptians who demand that they serve the country. These people want to keep things the way they were, and in order to do that, they step on us and they keep us down. In my eyes, both candidates represent this oppression, and I cannot support that.”

She smiled at me. “Your words are beautiful.” I smiled back, relieved. “But you know that you have just invalidated your ballot? You ruined your voice.” “I know, I did that on purpose.” She was grinning. Another woman, older, dressed conservatively and wearing a hijab, was next in line to vote. She had witnessed the scene that I caused and had waited a long time for me to finish. She came up to me and asked me, firmly, “did you just boycott?” I did, I said, preparing myself for a confrontation.

She held out her hand and shook mine. “That is exactly what I am about to do.”

[Update]: Mohammed Morsy, the Freedom and Justice Party/Muslim Brotherhood Candidate won 51.73% of the votes and is now Egypt's first civilian President. Out of 26 million ballots cast, 843,252 votes were invalidated.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

A special kind of silence

Suddenly, the loud din of the air winds down. The lights stop humming, the fan stops whirring. It is dark and quiet, except for Bikhatirha's loud “oof.” The power is out at the clinic. A sign of the seasons, it's the first outage of many more to come, I think to myself. Summer is here.

My instant reaction is to sulk, as if I have been conditioned to associate a power outage with a massive inconvenience and a forced pause on life. We were sitting in silence before the lights cut, and we continued sitting, silently, in darkness for a few seconds. Bikhatirha grunts and gets up from the wooden bench we're all sitting on. “Is the whole street out?” She asks, her voice slicing through the thick quiet and fading away as she enters the other room to look for something.

“How should I know. Probably.” The sole woman in the waiting room asks in response. Because of her niqab, I can't see her in the darkness, her voice––and her young daughter sitting next to her––are the only things that place her. “Allah is great,” she sighs cryptically, Egyptian Arabic for “hopefully this is fixed soon.”

The woman's young daughter, playing with the flame
Bikhatirha, over 75 years old and as nimble as a feather, comes back with two candles and a match. Hands shaking from too much insulin, she lets one candle burn for a few seconds before pouring some of the wax onto the wooden table. She sticks the candle into the waxy mound. A radius of light shines from the sole candle. She dumps out an ashtray filled with the ashy butts of cigarettes––illicitly smoked by men who think I can't smell their secondhand from across the hallway, and who hide them, like children, still lit, behind their backs when I walk past. I sigh in a sense of failure when I see how much ash is on the table. She lights the second candle and sticks it in the ashtray.

"Can the doctor just check up on me by candlelight?" The woman in the waiting room asks despondently.

I laugh and very quickly realize she wasn't joking. I consider turning my laughter into a faked coughing fit, but decide that it's okay if she thinks I'm weird. The lack of electricity is clearly no obstacle. Then again, why should it be? The only thing this clinic needs electricity for is an ultrasound machine, the lights, the fan, and an internet connection installed only for me.

Black outs, something that usually disrupts the very fiber of what productivity means to me and my peers, does not disrupt a moment of work and life at the clinic. In fact, it has given us something to talk about. Pausing the loud din of Cairo for a few minutes is enough to remind us, four very different women in a small room, to talk.

The Doctor is doing his Maghrib prayer––the fourth of five daily prayers in Islam––to be done after sunset. As we wait in the warm glow of candlelight, we laugh and ask each other about the inanities of life. So and so got into a fight when he was caught selling bongo (marijuana), so and so can't find a wife for their son. Did you hear, the workshop owner next door didn't want to pay for his worker's injury? And, the inevitable question: Who will you vote for?

It is refreshing to work in a context in which the only consequence of a power outage is silence: a special kind of silence, one that amplifies the voices of conversation.

The young daughter of the niqabi woman waiting is clearly unenthused. She reaches out and begins playing with the flame. Passing her finger through the top of the bright orange fire quickly once, then again, and again. “Bas!” Stop! Her mom barks. She stops only long enough for her mom to re-enter gossip with Bikhatirha, the woman who knows everyone and everything that ever was in the last century of Al-Sabtia, the working-class steel industry neighborhood this medical clinic serves.

Too soon, the lights loudly hum back on. Almost on cue, the Doctor walks out with a kind smile and gestures for the woman to enter his office. The candles are blown out, conversation stops, and our silent vacuum of technology is sucked away to make room for the infamous Cairene street orchestra.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

"A Day in the Life' of a community doctor in working-class Cairo

This article was originally published on, Egypt's leading English newspaper. You can find the original piece here.

Dr. Mohsen and Bikhatirha at the clinic in Al-Sabtia

Men and steel dominate the streets of Sabtia. Workshops line the street and each shop has an unofficial claim to several meters of road. Steel rods, car parts, nuts and bolts spill over and the busy traffic weaves just inches away from the metallic overflow. Men — young and old — are outside, working with their bare hands in grease-stained clothes. Others sip tea and smoke shisha outside.
Rounding Sabtia Square, a humble building comes into view. The facade is empty with the exception of a workshop on the ground floor, one blue-painted shutter and one heavily dust-coated sign for Dr. Mohsen Khalil’s general surgery clinic. They’re hard to notice, but similar signs for private clinics can be found on almost every street in Cairo. This clinic opened in 1954.
The doctor, who commutes from 6th of October City, arrives at 2 pm after eating lunch, watching the news and relaxing at home with his family. Patients have been calling his mobile phone since the morning and are already waiting when he arrives.
Bikhatirha, who has been cleaning and assisting at the clinic since the mid-1950s, lights up when Mohsen enters.
“Dr. Fadel’s blessings linger here, may he rest in peace,” she says nostalgically about Mohsen’s father-in-law, from whom he inherited this clinic. In many ways, the history of the clinic and Sabtia rests with Bikhatirha. Most nights, she sleeps here.
A young girl is the first to walk up to Mohsen’s open office door. She looks up at him and smiles; she’s come alone. She’s here to change the dressing on a motorcycle burn. She covers her face while Bikhatirha, in her oddly colorful green galabeya, pretends to poke the wound. The doctor sprays some betadine and antibiotics on the exposed skin.
“What is this? What are you spraying on me?” the little girl sasses. “Oh, a little hot sauce, some lemon juice and pepper,” he teases back as he dresses the burn. He pats her on the back and she runs out.
A few patients stream in and out with the flu, food poisoning and kidney stones (from too much shatta, hot sauce, on their koshary, Mohsen says).
A large group of men rush into the clinic. One man is holding a bloodied work rag to his hand. He’s ushered in; the smell of cigarette smoke leaks in from the waiting room where the worried party puffs away anxiously.
Mohsen peels off the rag slowly, and sees exposed tendons under shredded skin: a work accident. “There is one cut tendon,” one of the men says as the patient rests his head and looks like he might faint. The din in the waiting room gets even louder as word of the accident spreads around Sabtia. The men are on their second or third cigarettes while the women utter comforting prayers.
“Al-Hamdulillah [Thank God], it only came to this,” they all repeat.
“Two cut tendons, and a third that needs repair,” says Mohsen. The surgery will cost LE5,000.
The cigarette smoke hangs still in the air. Bikhatirha turns on the fan. One of the men finally steps forward.
“Can’t you give us a better price? It’s too much for us, but we don’t want anyone else to do the surgery but you.”
“Okay, LE4,500,” the doctor gives a slight nod of the head. The man, satisfied with his bargaining, steps outside to collect the money.
A minute later, a different man walks in and hands the doctor a wad of bills. It’s a few hundred less than promised. Mohsen gives the man, now smiling sheepishly, a quick stern look before he pockets the cash with a chuckle and ushers them all away so he can apply the anesthesia.
The surgery takes three hours, and the hand is stitched up cosmetically.
“I always try to leave as small a scar as possible,” he says.
“What a beauty,” the doctor says about the wound as he invites the whole party into the small operating room to admire the work. They leave, but not before many kisses, firm handshakes and confessions of loyalty to a doctor who is always keeping an eye out for them.
Mohsen holds a sort of celebrity status in Sabtia, but word of mouth has carried his reputation far and wide. A man who fought with the Libyan rebels came to him recently, as well as a man who traveled by train from Aswan so that he could re-attach a severed finger. Patients often come in and proudly declare: “I’m this clinic’s child,” meaning they were delivered here.
“You know what they say,” one of the patients tells me as he takes his prescription. “Genies tell Mohsen what to do — that’s why everyone heals when they come here.”
Hands still powdery from the inside of his surgical gloves, the doctor leans against the door frame and checks the football game score. He motions for whoever is next.
“Doctor,” the patient sits down, his tone serious. “No one has been able to cure me.”
“Tell me,” Mohsen says calmly, accustomed to hearing patients’ frustration with other doctors’ ineffective lines of treatment.
Mohsen explains that he often sees impressive credentials written on blatantly incorrect prescriptions. Many poor patients struggle to see expensive doctors, only to walk away with dangerous misinformation, he finds.
The man holds his head.
“I can feel the headache coming, and it consumes the right side of my head. The pain is debilitating,” the man begins to raise his voice in frustration. “It lasts days. Nothing stops it.”
“Severe migraines,” Mohsen nods in understanding. “They can’t be stopped, only medicated, no one knows why.”
The man looks unsatisfied with the quick diagnosis.
“The last doctor told me it was my facial nerve.” Mohsen laughs and shakes his head no as he writes a prescription. “Your facial nerve is completely unrelated. What kind of doctor told you that?”
I take a seat in the waiting room and I count 13 people waiting. Most know each other. One man is sitting in white boxer briefs, calf wrapped in gauze.
“I tripped over a vat of boiling water,” he says in response to the curious stares.
“Al-Hamdulillah, it only got your leg,” I say. The whole room echoes in agreement: “Al-Hamdulillah.”
An old woman in a black abeya (traditional full-body covering) sits motionlessly to my left. Mouth open, face still, and eyes glazed over, she's been brought in by her two sons. The plastic green lawn chair she is sitting on does not belong to the clinic, and I notice that its legs are reinforced with wooden planks — it's how they brought her here, I realize.
The young man with no pants limps into the office and lays on the bed. Mohsen examines the damage — third-degree burns covering his entire leg — and says “cleaning and dressing will cost LE400.” “I live with those LE400,” he sighs. “I’ll go to Qasr al-Aini [Hospital].”
While government hospitals are always an affordable option and private hospitals almost never one, this clinic fits a socioeconomic niche: Patients, often hailing from nearby Boulaq and Imbaba, are willing to pay to be treated here instead of Qasr al-Aini and other government hospitals because of the quality of care. Although Mohsen’s net profits are marginal, some are still out-priced. However, the doctor has been working in Sabtia long enough to know when he should not charge for treatment.
The elderly woman on the plastic chair is carried in. It doesn't matter that she has come with no medical records; Mohsen has memorized his patients' histories. The two men struggle under her weight. “She’s been like this since yesterday,” one of them says, his eyes filled with fear. “Look, mama, it’s Mohsen! Your darling!” She slowly turns her head to the man who has been her doctor for decades but looks too tired to react. She is diabetic, and her blood sugar is at 593 mg/dL (145 mg/dL is the upper limit of normal). “We stopped giving her insulin a few days ago because she looked sick.” The doctor stares at them in disbelief.
“She is entering a diabetic coma,” he says. “She also has a severe kidney infection. She needs to go to the hospital.”
But they don't want to take her. “It's up to you, but the combination of a kidney infection and severe diabetes is very difficult. This is not a home case,” he warns.
Nonetheless, he explains how to give home care. One son carefully tries to tuck the silver strands of hair back under her hijab. She stares at the ceiling.
There is hardly a moment to reflect before the next man walks in, all smiles, wearing a galabeya and speaking with a heavy Upper Egyptian accent. The doctor quickly determines that he has kidney stones.
“Drink a ridiculous amount of water!” he tells the man. “Even when your mouth does not feel like cotton. Drink Birell, Fayrouz, water ––”
“­–– and beer!” the patient interjects. The doctor laughs. “Drink that on your own time,” he says.
Somehow ex-presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail comes up.
“Where does the man live, anyway? America?” the patient asks. “In Dokki!” says the doctor. “May God damn Dokki!” Bikhatirha almost yells. The patient looks puzzled.
“Vote for Dr. Abouel Fotouh,” Mohsen advises. “We graduated from medical school together, you know.”
Finally, there are no more patients. He usually closes at 9 pm, but often stays late, especially if he performs a long surgery or delivers a baby. He goes to make himself some tea. Bikhatirha is storytelling, seemingly to herself, her voice echoing in the bare stairway. Mohsen’s driver brings the car around, and soon he's home. His 2-year-old granddaughter, whom he loves to play with, is already asleep.
“I get to see her on Fridays,” he says, smiling. He spends the rest of his evening sitting with his wife, eating dinner and watching the news.