Egypt in the dentist’s chair

Alaa Al Aswany writes: Novelists work hard to acquire human experience. They search for characters who might inspire them. They go to unusual places to collect the necessary material for their novels.

I am lucky not to have had to undertake these adventures because I am both a novelist and a dentist.

The dentist’s profession enables him to see so many varied examples of humanity that his clinic sometimes resembles the backstage of a theater, where the performers, out of costume and minus makeup, are no longer acting.

I have treated the teeth of thousands of people, from the poorest peasant farmers to society ladies and government ministers, and I am always learning something new about human behavior.

A government minister in Egypt does not go to the dentist on his own. Instead, an entourage of sycophantic staffers sniffs all around the clinic like bloodhounds to make sure that everything is as it should be.

This tawdry drama epitomizes the philosophy of rule in dictatorial regimes, in which loyalty always comes ahead of efficiency as a condition for promotion.

I used to work as a dentist in a government institution. One day, as I was about to do a filling for a staffer, having placed a rubber dam over his mouth, the door opened and the director’s secretary came in to tell me that the big boss was on his way to the clinic to have his teeth looked at.

“The director doesn’t have an appointment,” I stated calmly.

“The director doesn’t need to have an appointment,” he said with incredulity. “Please get rid of this patient so that you can see the director.”

“I haven’t finished with this patient yet,” I told him angrily. “I don’t think you understand that the director is just a patient here.”

The secretary looked at me wide-eyed, then left, slamming the door behind him. I realized I was in for trouble, but I was not afraid. Nor was I sorry for having stood up for the principle.

During my exchange with the secretary, however, I had forgotten about the patient with the rubber dam over his mouth. He was gurgling and gesticulating as he tried to tell me something. The moment I removed the rubber dam, he leapt from the chair.

“Doctor, you’re wrong,” he shouted. “The director is entitled to be seen by you whenever he feels like it, and I am handing over my appointment with you to him.”

The patient did not wait for my response, but rushed out of the surgery, his cavity unfilled. He apologized to the director and led him into the surgery.

This was a lesson for me in just how difficult and usually abortive it was to defend the rights of people who have lived an eternity under oppression. [Continue reading…]

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